Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music

Article excerpt

Barrie Martyn. Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1995. 274 pp. ISBN 0-85967-959-4 (hardcover).

Barrie Martyn' s exhaustive study, Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor (Scolar Press, 1990) is widely recognized as one of the most important and comprehensive monographs on the composer's life and works available in English. It is certain that Martyn's latest book will occupy an even more important position with respect to Rachmaninoff's lesser-known contemporary, Nicolas Medtner (1880-1951).

The format of the new book is basically the same as that of the first section, "Rachmaninoff the Composer," of the earlier book: a chronological survey of the composer's life alternates with analyses of his works interspersed liberally with musical examples. It is in comparison with the earlier book that certain limitations appear in the Medtner study. Whereas, in Rachmaninoff, the musical examples were typeset anew, the Medtner book reproduces excerpts from published scores; the end result lacks consistency in typeface and size from one extract to the next (compare example 51 with example 52, both on p. 88). There is evidence, too, of cutting and pasting in order that clefs, and key and time signatures, appear at the beginning of each excerpt (e.g., example 25 on p. 51).

These shortcomings, admittedly, are merely cosmetic. More vexing is the practice, evident in both books, of not identifying excepts by measure numbers. There are times when it is uncertain whether an excerpt comes from the beginning of a piece or movement, or if it is culled from the middle or end. Attention to such a seemingly simple detail would have enhanced the book considerably.

Many readers would likely have found useful an overview of the composer's compositional style, such as had appeared in Martyn's earlier book in the chapter on "Rachmaninoff and Russian Musical History." The only overview of Medtner's music is contained in the brief introduction and there are no references to corroborating material in the musical analyses. Certain features of Medtner's style do surface again and again: modality, counterpoint (including many strict canons and fugues, and such pyrotechnics as the combining of a theme with itself at quadruple speed in the first movement of the Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 50), the reviewing, in the final pages, of a work's themes (either successively or in superimposition), the imitation of bells (similar to Rachmaninoff in this regard and cited with reference to over a dozen of Medtner's works, including the well-known "Danza festiva" of op. 38), and so forth. A summation of Medtner's style, making reference to these and other features and footnoting references in the body of the book, or, alternatively, the inclusion of a comprehensive index would have been most welcome. As it is, for example, we have no way of knowing that Medtner's references to the Dies irae'm the Piano Quintet in C major, op. posth. (1948) had a precedent in the Tale, op. 34, no. 3, written over thirty years earlier (1916), or that the summing up of thematic material at the end of both pieces of op. 58 ("Russian Round Dance" and "Knight-Errant" [194O]) had a precedent at the close of the Tale, op. 8, no. 2 (1905) and in the recapitulation of the Sonata-Reminiscenza, op. 38(1920).

Another shortcoming, again common to both books, is the lack of a work-list by genre. In the earlier book, a "Chronological Summary of Rachmaninoff's Principal Compositions" was a step in the right direction (as a supplement to the alphabetical index of works at the end of the book), but a formal work-list would have been more useful than the summary and index combined. In Rachmaninoff's case a work-list can be found in any number of sources and A Catalogue of the Compositions of S. Rachmaninoff by Robert Threlfall and Geoffrey Norris (Scolar Press, 1982) is widely available in libraries and still in print. With respect to Medtner, a work-list is more difficult to come by, so it is regrettable that Martyn has dispensed with the convenience of even a "Chronological Summary. …

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