I first learned of the existence of a composer named Nikolai Medtner fourteen years ago, when overworked Amazon robots advised me, having peered deeply into my purchase history, that the missing je ne sais quoi in my Shopping Cart was a $60 box set of his complete piano sonatas. An ambitious suggestion, to be sure. I was nonplussed. But I became willing to plus it when I spotted that the pianist was Marc-André Hamelin, whose existence I had already discovered and come to appreciate. Anything Hamelin wanted to record, I wanted to hear.
Medtner's music did not endear itself to me immediately. But when it did, it began slowly and persistently altering my life choices. I am now a person who eight and a half years ago moved to New York to find my way back to music. I am now a person who agreed to perform in recital for the first time since high school because it meant an opportunity to share my love of Medtner. I am now a person who composed a small piano piece (under the stylistic influence of Medtner) in order to prove to myself that I had what it takes to write worthwhile music. I am now a person who graduated college with a degree in music, who expects my musical training to continue, my musical life to flourish.
After all these years, I found myself last night in a room (Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall) in which I saw for the first time my favorite pianist playing my favorite composer. The time and place of this culminating event were themselves, to me, poetic. And it's fitting that Hamelin's recital led to a new and timely insight about why Medtner's music so resonates with me: his extraordinary musical intelligence never — unlike plenty of self-consciously clever composers — draws attention to itself. It is only, always, ever subservient to the physical and emotional experiences he designed coterminously for the pianist and the audience. I asked my sister afterward whether she'd noticed that an entire movement had been in an unusual time signature (15/8). She had not, because the movement had not been written in order to be noticed for its cleverness. Medtner himself would probably say it was written that way because that's how it needed to sound, that he subjectively and with great care divined the natural shape it needed to have, then worked hard to preserve and develop it to its fullest expression.
With renewed vigor over the past year, I've been doing the same for myself, reevaluating the various ways in which I choose to spend my skill, ability, and effort, seeking to minimize waste and maximize returns. Several slow-building changes are close to fruition, one particularly so as I write these words. I'm excited to tell you more soon.
In classical sonata form, two themes of contrasting character battle for primacy, then reconcile. Medtner's chief contribution to sonata form is his novel route to reconciliation: he brings his themes together in time. By arranging for us to hear them simultaneously, he shows his seemingly incongruous motifs to be thematically related and contrapuntally complementary. Each theme demonstrates its value in isolation and opposition, they take turns developing, and in the end it turns out that not only can they coexist, but also in so doing they deepen each other. These profound syntheses in Medtner's sonatas, with their hard-earned simplicity, are for me some of the most intellectually and emotionally thrilling moments to be had in music and, as such, in all of existence.
Medtner's been leading me by example all along. Fourteen years and it took me until last night to see it. To harmonize two themes, identify their common ancestry, then play them together. The denouement has to be earned; it's hard. Until, at long last, it finally becomes simple.