A younger contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, he wrote a substantial number of compositions, all of which include the piano. His works include fourteen piano sonatas, three violin sonatas, three piano concerti, a piano quintet, two works for two pianos, many shorter piano pieces, a few shorter works for violin and piano, and 108 songs including two substantial works for vocalise. His 38 Skazki (generally known as "Fairy Tales" in English but more correctly translated as "Tales") for piano solo contain some of his most original music and are as central to his output as the piano sonatas.
The youngest of five children, Nikolai Medtner was born in Moscow on Christmas Eve 1879, according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. The Gregorian calendar, in use in the West at the time, and by which all dates are calculated today, gives his date of birth as 5 January 1880.
Medtner first took piano lessons from his mother until the age of ten. He also had lessons from his mother's brother Fyodor Goedicke (the father of his more famous cousin Alexander Goedicke). Then he entered the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1900 at the age of 20, taking the Anton Rubinstein prize, having studied under Pavel Pabst, Wassily Sapellnikoff, Vasily Safonov and Sergei Taneyev among others. Despite his conservative musical tastes, Medtner's compositions and his pianism were highly regarded by his contemporaries. To the consternation of his family, but with the support of his former teacher Taneyev, he soon rejected a career as a performer and turned to composition, partly inspired by the intellectual challenge of Ludwig van Beethoven's late piano sonatas and string quartets. Among his students in this period was Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov.
During the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, Medtner lived at home with his parents. During this time Medtner fell in love with Anna Mikhaylovna Bratenskaya (1877–1965), a respected violinist and the young wife of his older brother Emil. Later, when World War I broke out, Emil was interned in Germany where he had been studying. He generously gave Anna the freedom to marry his brother. Medtner and Anna were married in 1918.
Unlike his friend Rachmaninoff, Medtner did not leave Russia until well after the Revolution. Rachmaninoff secured Medtner a tour of the United States and Canada in 1924; his recitals were often all-Medtner evenings consisting of sonatas interspersed with songs and shorter pieces. Medtner never adapted himself to the commercial aspects of touring and his concerts became infrequent. Esteemed in England, he and Anna settled in London in 1936, modestly teaching, playing and composing to a strict daily routine.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Medtner's income from German publishers disappeared, and during this hardship ill-health became an increasing problem. His devoted pupil Edna Iles gave him shelter in Warwickshire where he completed his Third Piano Concerto, first performed in 1944.
In 1949 a Medtner Society was founded in London by His Highness Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahadur, the Maharajah of Mysore (the princely state in southern India). The Maharajah was an honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music, London, in 1945 and also the first president of the Philharmonia Concert Society, London. He founded the Medtner Society to record all of Medtner's works. Medtner, already in declining health, recorded his three Piano Concertos and some sonatas, chamber music, numerous songs and shorter works before his death in London in 1951. In one of these recordings he partnered Benno Moiseiwitsch in his two-piano work entitled "Russian Round-Dance", Op 58, No. 1; in another he accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in several of his lieder, including The Muse, a Pushkin setting from 1913. In gratitude to his patron, Medtner dedicated his Third Piano Concerto to the Maharajah of Mysore.
Medtner died at his home, 69 Wentworth Road, Golders Green, London in 1951, and is buried alongside his brother Emil in Hendon Cemetery.
His cousin Adolf Shtember (ru: Адольф Карлович Штембер) was married to a famous opera singer Yevgeniya Zbruyeva (composer Pyotr Bulakhov’s daughter).
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