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Musical Explorations: The Magical Creativity in Nikolai Medtner's Fairy Tales

I have been practicing a bit of Medtner for my upcoming concert in a couple weeks at Miami University and for my recording project of his complete solo piano works. I figured now would be a good opportunity to circle back and discuss a significant work in his compositional output: Fairy Tales. If you have not done so already, check out my previous post on Medtner, where I talk about the inspirations of the recording project as well as some interesting stories about this forgotten composer.

Fairy Tales seems to hold an important fixture in Medtner's oeuvre. He published ten collections that he originally called "skazki," which translates to folktales, and later changed the title to its present name, Fairy Tales, possibly for marketing and promotional purposes.

A bit of clarification: Medtner's Fairy Tales resemble nothing of the English fairy tales that you might know, certainly not the stories by the Grimms'. Rather, these pieces conjure images of Russian folklore including the portrayal of magical and supernatural elements (witches, ogres, elves) and the representation of human subjects in day-to-day activities.

To give you a better idea of this musical story telling: part of my recital program will feature Fairy Tales, Op. 51, No. 3 and 4, pieces that portray a love-affair between two characters from Russian folklore: Zolushka, the Russian Cinderella, and Ivanushka, a gullible person. In No. 3, Cinderella is represented by her charm, grace, beauty, and ethereal-like qualities. By contrast, Ivanushka is more contemplative and struggles with the practicalities of life as portrayed in No. 4. If you are interested, you can check out my recordings here to see if you hear these representations.

Indeed, Medtner was not the only Russian composer that held a close affinity towards his roots. During the late nineteenth century, composers such as Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Stravinsky were major players that incorporated folk elements in their music. I see Medtner's nationalistic contribution as an extension of this popular movement.

For the most part, Fairy Tales are not programmatic, meaning that there are no specific stories attached to them. Occasionally in some works, Medtner will include a brief description/title, or a poetic quotation as an epigraph. I believe that the lack of an explicit story was the composer's intention of wanting audiences to use their own imagination in figuring out what the music evoked. Sergei Rachmaninov, a close friend and admirer of Medtner, said the following about the Fairy Tales: "No one tells such tales as Kolya!"

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