How Nikolai Medtner Fell in Love with His Brother's Wife

June 6, 2018

 

In the summer of 1903, Nikolai Medtner visited Emil and Anna, the young composer's older brother and his wife, after a prolonged period away from each other.

 

Except this was not any ordinary reunion. 
 

Shortly before, Medtner had suddenly called off his engagement to his fiancée because there was another woman in the picture: Emil's wife, Anna. Apparently, the two have been in love for some time (possibly before Anna's marriage to Emil) and this particular meeting was an opportunity for them to confess their feelings to Emil. Anna recounted the experience:

 

"[Nicolas] came with his father and stayed with us. In the evening I went into his room and found him in a terrible state of dejection, his head in his hands and almost in tears. It was then that I confessed to him my real relationship with Emil, we spoke together, and the scales fell from our eyes. How to help the situation? We told Emil everything with total frankness, and he was magnanimous and understanding, but he begged us, out of consideration for his parents, particularly his mother, not to take any steps for the moment."

 

What surprises me the most is Emil's generous understanding of the situation. Not only did he gave permission for Medtner to marry his wife later in 1918, but he also maintained a good relationship with his younger brother throughout the years. Emil played the role of the older brother––protecting this frightening reality from his parents as long as possible. It is hard to imagine him separating mind over heart.

 

Nonetheless, all three people remained very close and loved each other dearly. Medtner, however, carried the burden of guilt, even after Emil's death, that what he did to his brother was utterly unforgivable.

 

To me, these wide range of mixed emotions––love, passion, longing, guilt, and unrest––are all apparent in his works written around this time, particularly a piece I have been learning lately, Sonata Triad, Op. 11. One thing that caught my attention right away was the tuneful lyricism in the opening melody of the first movement and how Medtner was able to transform it to convey other moods. Have a listen here––doesn't the opening melody bear some resemblance to the beginning of Beethoven's Sonata in A flat Major, Op. 110?

 

One last thing I will leave to you: Op. 11 was dedicated to the memory of Andrey Bratenshi, Anna's brother who committed suicide in 1906, but the work, however, was originally prefaced (at Emil's suggestion) by an epigraph from Goethe's Trilogy of Passion:

 

"And the heart, thus unburdened, straightaway realizes that it is still alive and beating and wishing to beat and offer itself up in pure gratitude for this overwhelming gift. It was then that one felt –– oh, were it forever so! ––the double joy of music and love."

 

As I mentioned in last week's post, the idea of writing music inspired by other art forms was a particular compositional preference of Medtner's. In Barrie Martyn's biography on Medtner, the author has an additional take from mine: he believes that this work had a closer connection to Goethe and Bratenshi because of the poem's discreet reference to suicide.

 

Even though this work is not programmatic (no specific story attached), I think the poem along with Medtner's personal struggles evoke raw, humanistic emotions that is powerfully conveyed through the music. Regardless of how you conceptualize this piece, I encourage you to get to know this wonderful work!


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