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Nikolai Medtner's Heavenly Music Creations

Eight Mood Pictures, Op. 1

"An angel was flying through the midnight sky, singing softly; and the moon, and the stars, and the clouds in a throng hearkened to that holy song. He sang of the bliss of innocent spirits in the shade of the gardens of paradise; of the great God he sang, and his praise was unfeigned. In his arms he carried a young soul, destined for a world of sorrow and tears; and the sound of his song, without words but alive, stayed in the young soul. And for a long time it languished in the world, filled with a wondrous longing; and the tedious songs of the earth could not replace for it the sounds of the heavens."

This beautiful epigraph, taken from The Angel, a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, was included in the first movement of Medtner's Eight Mood Pictures, Op. 1. More importantly, this quotation served as a "blueprint" of how he wanted to showcase his compositional voice in his first published work and, on a greater scale, his life's work: evoking scenes and emotions from other art forms such as paintings and poetry. It is almost as if he extracted the aesthetics from French Impressionism while writing in the Romantic tradition. What is fascinating to me is how the young composer seemingly showed little signs of inexperience when he completed the work in 1903. Most young musicians take years in finding their "voice," but for Medtner, he seemed to know what he wanted from an early age.

When I read the quote as I was learning the piece, I was struck by how convincing Medtner conveyed the various emotions from the poem. The piece is "heavenly" indeed. It is written in the bright key of E Major with delicate ornamentations supporting the melody, which is presented with polyrhythms in both hands; however, one can feel the sorrow as the piece develops. I can definitely sense Brahms and Scriabin influence here! Listen to one of my favorite recordings of this piece on YouTube.

Medtner, Eight Mood Pictures, Op. 1, Prologue

Forgotten Melodies, Op. 39

Medtner has always been an ardent student in composition. In his early days, he had kept notebooks in which he recorded musical ideas as they came to him. He explained that these ideas would occur to him a second or third time after having been forgotten, and he would notate them again. It was this particular compositional process that inspired him to write three cycles of Forgotten Melodies, sets of pieces where certain musical ideas and its variants recur throughout the work.

To me, these pieces demonstrate Medtner's sense of creativity. He takes seemingly simple melodies and varies them to conform to the particular mood he is trying to convey. At times, he might extract fragments from a motif and develop them even further (see below).

Medtner, Forgotten Melodies, Op. 39, No. 1, Meditation

Medtner, Forgotten Melodies, Op. 39, No. 2, Romance

Op. 39 is a wonderful set that I have played many times in concerts. From my own experiences, the work has generally been received enthusiastically from the audience. The last piece of the set in particular, Tragic Sonata, can captivate an audience as it is the most virtuosic movement in the cycle. While these pieces are one of the more frequently performed works of Medtner, Forgotten Melodies was received poorly by the German press when the composer performed it in 1922: "The Forgotten Melodies will quickly be forgotten...the music pours out unbridled and incessant, without purpose and moderation, without heights and depths, without rising to a culminating point..."

Interesting how public perception of certain pieces changes over time.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Medtner. If you want more information about this forgotten Russian composer, do check out my earlier post to learn about some revealing stories about him and why I think his music has fallen off of our periphery.

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