When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a certain idea about who my favourite composers were. After having discussed more than 500 different pieces of music and after having discovered dozens of composers previously unknown to me, it has become increasingly difficult to come up with a list of composers I prefer over others. A few however have struck me from the first moment on. Once I started to listen to such a piece – wham! Not shock and awe, rather awe and delight. Those few composers never let me down. Nikolai Medtner is one of them. Today’s post is about a work for piano and violin, the Sonata Epica No. 3 in E Minor, op. 57, recorded by Hamish Milne (piano) and Manoug Parikian (violin).
I have sketched Medtner’s life in a post dated November 2017 about the composer’s piano cycle “Forgotten Melodies”, so I will not come back to details of his biography. The composer wrote this piece between 1935 and 1938, and if you wonder about the title and the piece’s length, Medtner remarked to his brother Emil: “Whoever heard of a short epic?” He had begun it in Paris, a year before Emil’s death in 1936 and just before his emigration to England. By the year of its completion, the Sonata Epica had become an act of remembrance. “He was like a father to me”, Medtner wrote, devastated by his brother’s death and burdened by feeling guilty over the disintegration of Emil’s marriage.
In a piece for Oxford Music Online, Barrie Martyn explains that in the early 30s Medtner deplored the contemporary composing practice. “He made a declaration of faith in his treatise on what he saw as the eternal and immutable laws of art, and at the same time attacked both modernism and the vacant pursuit of current musical fashions as pernicious aberrations which, in his view, had destroyed the connection between the artist’s soul and his art.” The work was published in 1935 under the title “The Muse and the Fashion”.
So how about Medtner and the fashion of the day? Well, the Sonata Epica is a direct heir to German Romanticism and the Russian music composed at the end of the 19th century. His contemporaries certainly deemed it “old-fashioned”. Martyn says that “in his harmonic language Medtner advanced but little beyond the boundaries set by 19th-century practice; in terms of rhythm, on the other hand, he was surprisingly progressive.” And the Sonata Epica is good example. Singular daring elements artfully merged into a deeply emotional piece. How could I not fall in love with it?
© Charles Thibo