From our archive: Medtner

Philip Pullman

Our Music Season continues with writing from our
by Philip Pullman. In this piece, originally published in
Granta’s Music issue of 2001 and free to read online for a month from today, he talks about the composer Medtner, and the difficulty of telling a friend what makes that tune so special…

Not long ago I tried to explain to a friend the effect that Nicolai Medtner’s music has on me. I spoke with eloquence, passion and wit; analogies of the most ingenious kind sprang to my lips; I found myself stirred to a frenzy of admiration for the profundity of my insights.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said my friend.

Discussing music when you have no technical knowledge of it is to be reduced to finding more or less fancy ways of saying, ‘I like that bit when it goes da-da-da-DUM.’ However, we have to try, or be silent; so I shall try to say why I love Nicolai Medtner, and why his piano music satisfies me so deeply.

He was born in 1880, and educated at the Moscow Conservatoire. He had some success as a concert pianist, but his calling was always towards composition. After the Revolution he left Russia, and for the rest of his life he lived in exile – for the last fifteen years of it in London – struggling against poverty and the indifference of the public and the critics. He wasn’t without his champions (‘Why nobody plays Medtner?’ said Vladimir Horowitz. ‘He is wonderful composer’), but he was never fashionable: he loathed the modernism of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The only contemporary he truly esteemed was Rachmaninov, who returned the compliment, and gave him generous and unstinting help throughout his life.

The first piece of his I heard was the Sonata ‘Reminiscenza’ in A minor, from the Forgotten Melodies, Op. 38. It was on a secondhand LP of a Carnegie Hall recital by Emil Gilels. The first notes held me quiet: a slow steady rocking melody that climbs and returns and climbs again and then just as steadily goes back to its beginning and falls still. Then after a moment’s silence comes a different melody which flowers into a third, and … this is where description fails, of course, so I have to resort to assertion instead, and say that the melodies you can hear in the Sonata ‘Reminiscenza’ are some of the loveliest in any music. There’s one that consists of a series of falling phrases of six notes with a little hesitation after the first note of each (a dotted note?), which has the sort of tentative quality of a blossom coming out just a little early, beautiful, unsure, not quite safe… The mood is tender and lyrical and suffused with a graceful melancholy, without the slightest bitterness.

Anyway, I fell in love with it. And I began to search out Medtner wherever I could: scouring the BBC Radio 3 listings was the best place to start, since there were hardly any records available at that time. Gradually I accumulated tapes of broadcast recitals, and became more and more absorbed in Medtner’s world. I can’t have been the only person this was happening to, because after a while it became easier to find him in the record shops: there are at least two very good boxed sets of the piano music available now, by Geoffrey Tozer (clear, unfussy, strong) and Marc-André Hamelin (pyrotechnic, delicate, brilliant). It’s not hard these days to find out what he sounds like.

So here we are again: I shall have to try and describe the impression he makes on me. I think it boils down to three things.

Firstly, those melodies. Melody, of course, is the one thing even musical dimwits can come away humming. The sonatas are full of melody, brimming with it, and they’re subtle, complex, unexpected melodies, each strongly characterized with a vivid emotional flavour. Furthermore, they’re not like anyone else’s, and I haven’t the faintest idea why. Occasionally you’ll hear a passage or two that might sound (from a distance) a bit Rachmaninovian, or perhaps Scriabinistic, and once or twice a sequence of harmonies that’s faintly Chopinesque, or even Alkan-like; but his tunes are entirely his own, and unique. Listen to the broad, serious, passionate yearning of the tune in the third movement of the Sonata in F minor, Op. 5. Or the lovely fresh poised grace of the second movement of the Sonata ‘Skazka’, Op. 25, No. 1. Or the simple, lyrical, delicate first movement of his last piano sonata, the Sonata ‘Idyll’ in G, Op. 56. Wherever you listen, something entrancing is happening.

Secondly, the notes behind the melodies. These untutored ears couldn’t distinguish a canon from a fugue in an identity parade, but they can hear that something polyphonic is taking place, and Medtner is rich with it. It’s interesting. Phrases are passed from hand to hand; little pieces of tune break off to spin up the keyboard two, three octaves higher, and then return again; out of the thunder of a fast and complex passage in the left hand (for instance, in the ‘Night Wind’ Sonata in E minor, Op. 25 No. 2, over thirty minutes of stupendous surging energy) will emerge the tune you heard a minute ago higher up, but something’s happened to it, it’s transformed – and then it’s gone again. It feels like being a child in a room where adults are having a deep and passionate conversation about important things: you have the impression of profound intellectual engagement without being able to follow it fully, but you trust the adults, and it’s clear that they know what they’re saying even if you don’t. So somebody does, and that’s important.

And finally, the stuff that isn’t music at all. I love Medtner because of his photograph, because of his appearance in old age: almost invariably wearing an old-fashioned wing collar right up to his death in 1951, bald, craggy, noble, his expression serene and resolute. I love him because his friends loved him, as Rachmaninov did. I love him because of the fact that in a semi-detached house in Golders Green, troubled by financial problems, weakened by ill-health, this ‘firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art’ (in the words of Glazunov) went on calmly writing music in an idiom as out-of-date as his clothes, completely untouched not just by fashion but by common sense as well, and listening only to his conscience and to the themes that came, as he believed, from God.

But does that non-musical, biographical stuff really make a difference? Should it, even? Yes, I think it should. We should respond to art as we should respond to life, with every particle of knowledge and feeling we have, leaving nothing out. When I listen to Medtner, I’m glad I have his photograph to look at; I’m glad I know what I do about his life; and over and over again, I marvel at the chance that led me to this lovely, passionate, endlessly refreshing music.


Coming up in our Music Season: an extract of Colin Grant’s group biography of the Wailers, I&I, The Natural Mystics; and writing from our archive by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times.

Granta published its
Music issue
(right) in 2001 – it included writing by Andrew O’Hagan, Blake Morrison, Julian Barnes, Julie Burchill, Amit Chaudhuri, Janice Galloway and Alan Rusbridger. You can buy it
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for our special online discount of £7.70.

I & I: The Natural Mystics
What I'm Listening To