‘Infinitely modest, delicate, shy … a sensitive, lofty soul … in truth a man not of this world, being in no way adapted to practical life.’ Thus was Nikolai Medtner recalled by a friend and colleague.

Medtner shared with his friend and senior contemporary Sergei Rachmaninov a privileged upbringing and the pain of later exile from Revolutionary Russia. But there most similarities end.

Who was Nikolai Medtner?

Medtner’s complex ancestry was part-German on both sides. The passion of his father Karl Medtner for Germanic culture resulted in an artistic education shaped as much by Goethe and Beethoven as by Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. And then there was Nikolai’s older brother, Emil.

The eldest of Karl’s five sons, Emil may have possessed the most powerful intellect of the Medtner brothers, and it was he who most strongly inherited the paternal devotion to Germanic culture. Passionately immersed in Nietzschean philosophy, in Goethe and, later, in Jungian psychology, Emil championed Wagner in Russia and was a leading figure within the poetic ‘Symbolist’ movement.

What was Nikolai's relationship with his brother, Emil Medtner?

The picture takes on a more sinister depth through Magnus Ljunggren’s biography of Emil, The Russian Mephisto: ‘Living through his younger brother [Nikolai], he [Emil] gave free rein to secret dreams of grandeur to compensate for a growing sense of frustration. [Emil] later contended that he sacrificed … his plans to become a conductor so that Nikolai could afford to study at the [Moscow] Conservatory… Henceforth …he regarded it as his mission to “conduct” Nikolai’s musical career, controlling his professional development at the same time as he magnanimously abandoned his own artistic ambitions.’

Emil was an outspoken writer on music and a would-be creator whose ideals were thwarted by lack of the necessary artistic talent. He played out his thwarted ambitions vicariously, exerting a Svengalian influence over Nikolai until his own death in 1936.

Who did Nikolai Medtner marry?

The position was compounded by a strange emotional triangle. In his teens, Nikolai had fallen for Anna Bratenshi, having been enlisted by unsuspecting parents as a useful chaperon when Anna became engaged to Emil. Years passed before Anna discovered Nikolai’s true feelings, and he hers.

When the pair confessed the situation to Emil, in an apparently selfless gesture he acquiesced, but only upon condition that the situation never be revealed to the Medtner parents. Accordingly a bizarre ménage à trois persisted from 1903 until the death of Medtner’s mother Alexandra in 1918. Nikolai and Anna were finally married in 1919. Alexandra had in fact learned of the true position in 1909, but insisted that it remain smothered beneath a cloak of bourgeois respectability.

Where did Nikolai Medtner do his musical training?

Nikolai studied as a pianist at the Moscow Conservatoire, moving from its junior to its senior course in 1894. His professor was Paul Pabst, a Prussian-born pianist and composer who had studied at Weimar under Liszt. After a hiatus following Pabst’s early death in 1897, Nikolai continued his studies under Vasily Safonov, finally graduating in 1900 with the Conservatoire’s gold medal for the outstanding pianist of his year.

Picture of Nikolai Medtner
The young Nikolai Medtner in 1905. Pic: Alamy

He was to remain a pianist worthy of comparison with Rachmaninov. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he opted not to combine the piano with the Conservatoire’s formal composition course. Instead he studied the composer Arensky’s general syllabus before briefly continuing counterpoint studies with Taneyev – which he abandoned halfway through, finding Taneyev’s approach too academically formalised for his needs.

What does Medtner's music sound like?

Motivic counterpoint drives much of Medtner’s compositional approach, on both a moment-by-moment level and a structural one. Superficially, his oeuvre is comparable with Chopin’s in that the piano features in every work and a high percentage is for piano solo; but Medtner also composed over 100 songs, these fairly evenly balanced between Russian and German poets.

The songs include several of Medtner’s finest inspirations. The symbiosis of song and piano solo music is aptly illustrated by Prologue, the first of eight pieces published as his Opus 1. Prologue is a wordless ‘setting’ of a Lermontov poem which Medtner had initially sketched in chordal, hymn-like form, before elaborating it as a piano solo and then, some years later, making an actual song version by transferring the main melody to a voice part and adding in Lermontov’s text.

Nikolai Medtner, second from left, joins the likes of Stravinsky, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, violinist Fritz Kreisler and Rachmaninov at a reception in 1925. Pic: Bridgeman Art Library

With its disarmingly beautiful melody and its intricate superimposition of subtly conflicting rhythmic patterns, Prologue vindicates Rachmaninov’s later comment that, of all the talented composers emerging from Moscow Conservatoire at around their time, Medtner was the only one achieving works which it would be a challenge to surpass in maturity.

No less significantly, Lermontov’s poem serves in posterity as a moving epitaph for Medtner himself. It tells of an angel flying through the night sky, singing of divine bliss. Medtner’s English biographer Barrie Martyn provides the following prose translation: ‘In his arms he [the angel] carried a young soul, destined for a world of sorrow and tears; and the sound of his song, without words but alive, stayed in the young soul. And for a long time it languished in the world, filled with a wondrous longing; and the tedious songs of the earth could not replace for it the sounds of the heavens.’

Was Nikolai and Anna's marriage happy?

Nikolai and Anna remained a childless couple. Exiled permanently from Russia in October 1921, they were to endure hard years in Germany and France before reaching England. They settled finally in North London in 1935, remaining there until the composer’s death in 1951, with the exception of a wartime evacuation to live with friends in the Midlands.

If Nikolai was ‘in no way adapted to practical life’, the redoubtable Anna more than compensated, looking after their material needs; and Rachmaninov more than once acted behind the scenes, doing good deeds by stealth to oil the wheels of his friend’s stuttering career. A canny, worldly-wise personality, in exile Rachmaninov heeded the advice of American concert promoters to present a small mainstream recital repertoire spiced only sparingly by works of his own.

Nikolai Medtner (standing right) with Emil and Anna, 1900s
Nikolai Medtner (standing right) with Emil and Anna, 1900s. Pic: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In contrast, Medtner’s childlike obstinacy showed in his insistence on programmes exclusively of his own music; this even as his musical voice fell gradually out of step with the modernist currents of the times, following iconoclastic events such as the Paris première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913.

What was Nikolai Medtner's musical philosophy?

Medtner perceived music’s autonomy as an eternal truth awaiting discovery. A composer was the vessel through which such truth passed, not the actual source of an idea. Insofar as ‘inspiration’ existed, it amounted to a state of receptivity; of becoming the medium for something greater than the self. Patient craft and honest toil were a form of devotional act, with the artist’s fallible earthly intelligence aspiring to mirror and embody the innate perfection of the primordial ‘heavenly song’.

This Platonic outlook also acknowledged the spiritual consolations of composition as a pursuit and a refuge, rather than exclusively as a finished result. Medtner’s artistic credo was given full voice in his book The Muse and the Fashion, ending with a reference to Lermontov: music was a force ‘without words but living’. In London, Medtner would end each day bidding goodnight to his faithful piano by playing a perfect cadence, the two-chord harmonic formula by which we recognise closure and resolution.

Seven years after Nikolai’s death on 13 November 1951, Anna returned to Moscow to oversee publication of the complete Medtner Edition. Buried in her homeland, she lies far from the husband from whom, in life, she was inseparable; while, in an uncomfortable piece of symbolism, Emil sits forever between them: the urn containing his ashes rests on top of Nikolai’s grave in Hendon Cemetery.

Is Medtner's music accessible?

Detractors have sometimes accused Medtner of ‘thinking with his fingers’, assuming the elegance of his keyboard writing to spring from merely turning physically gratifying improvisation into notation. In reality, manuscripts show how he would produce reams of painstaking, self-denying sketches in two- and three-part counterpoint before allowing himself to invest them with the slightest element of pianistic decoration. In Taneyev’s reported view, Medtner was ‘born with sonata form’, but in no sense does that imply glib acceptance of easy solutions.

Nonetheless, in sensitive performances complexity on the page gives way to many passages of a disarming, haunting simplicity. At the same time, one confronts an arguably unique co-existence of conservative (yet distinctive) harmony with a more radical rhythmic approach: sometimes dramatically, elementally disruptive; sometimes artlessly improvisatory.

What is Nikolai Medtner's most famous work?

Medtner’s best-known work remains the 15-minute, single-movement piano Sonata-Reminiscenza, written in 1919-20 when he knew that departure from his homeland was imminent. In such a context, the memory in the title became memory anticipated, and it is not too fanciful to characterise this piece as ‘music in the future-perfect tense’. It is the expression of an arduous journey through life, and of a present or future richly coloured by a dreamt-of, irrecoverable past.

Medtner’s besetting difficulty has been that his intricate music demands repeated effort of its listener. At the same time, an elusively reticent quality of understatement, even in his most vividly forceful moments, deters some from making the crucial second attempt. Those who have persisted will attest that, once his music gets under the skin, it remains there. As his foremost English exponent, the pianist Hamish Milne, wrote in 1999, far from being dismissed as merely conservative, ‘…as an expression of man’s struggle and indomitable spirit, it can rightfully claim the more highly prized epithet – timeless’.

What is Medtner’s musical style?

Solo piano

Medtner composed nearly 40 piano solos entitled Skazka, denoting pieces with an abstract narrative quality. Most are in some variant of sonata form, while the 14 actual piano sonatas reciprocally share the skazka’s story-telling character. His Sonata-Reminiscenza of 1919-20 typifies this with its hauntingly elusive tone, especially in the memorable refrain heard at the outset, mid-point and end.

Piano concertos

The First and Third of Medtner’s three Piano Concertos adopt monolithic, continuous variation forms; but his Second (1927), in three separate movements, is simpler to navigate. Its dramatic opening epitomises Medtner’s energetic rhythmic displacements. This is an expansive, virtuoso concerto with an elevated slow movement climax and hints of burlesque as well as grandeur in its colourful finale.

Chamber music

Medtner’s Piano Quintet in C major occupied him intermittently for decades and represents his artistic testament. The piano part’s demands are mitigated by string writing that combines rhythmic dynamism with lyrically flowing polyphony. After a spaciously expressive first movement, slow movement references to liturgical chant lead to a finale that escalates ever higher like some chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy


Several song groups could demonstrate Medtner’s varied richness; but simplicity sometimes reveals the inner being best of all. Acht Hinterlassene Lieder, Op. 61 was collected together posthumously by his widow, including both Russian and German settings. Gazing back down the long road taken through life, the first (German; Eichendorff) is liturgically stark and unadorned, while the sixth’s evocation of drowsy midday (Russian; Tyutchev) typifies the weightless delicacy of Medtner’s more intricate accompaniments and lyrical freedom of his vocal lines.


Nikolai Medtner: life and times


Life: Nikolai Medtner is born in Moscow on 24 December, the fifth child of Karl, the manager of a lace factory, and Aleksandra, who teaches him the piano from a young age.

Times: Alexander Soloviev, a revolutionary ex-student, attempts to assassinate Russian emperor Alexander II in Saint Petersburg but misses with all five shots. He is later hanged.


Life: Having studied under teachers including Paul Pabst, Vasily Safonov and Sergei Taneyev, he graduates from the Moscow Conservatoire, taking the Anton Rubinstein Prize.

Times: Led by the German Eduard von Toll, a Russian polar expedition departs Saint Petersburg on the ship Zarya with the aim of exploring the Arctic islands to the north of Siberia.


Life: After a lengthy covert relationship, he marries Anna Bratenshi, a violinist three years his senior and the wife of his older brother Emil. Remarkably, the marriage enjoys Emil’s blessing.

Times: As civil war grips Russia following the overthrow of Nicholas II, the Bolsheviks form the Red Army to fight against the White Army, consisting of various anti-communist forces.


Life: Having left Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution, Nikolai and Anna eventually settle in north London following years of financial hardship in Germant and then France.

Times: Loosely based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel and starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps proves a major hit in British cinemas.


Life: Medtner gives the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic and conductor Adrian Boult at the Royal Albert Hall and records all three of his concertos soon after.

Times: Towards the end of the year, London is regularly attacked by newly developed German V-2 rockets, which cause widespread destruction and well over 2,500 deaths.


Life: Nikolai Medtner dies, aged 71, at his home in North London, and is buried at Hendon Cemetery. He is later commemorated with a blue plaque at his and Anna’s house on Wentworth Road.

Times: Six years after losing to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party in the General Election, a 76-year-old Winston Churchill is elected as Prime Minister at the head of a Conservative government.

Main pic: Matt Herring