Nikoli Medtner

Picture of Nikoli Medtner

In order to sell these concerts of contemporary music of ours to a by no means burningly interested public, on occasion we resorted to shock tactics. Here is a circular letter we wrote and distributed to hoped-for subscribers, announcing Sorabji's first appearance at our concerts. Of course this is very vulgar, in worst style Americana, extravagant and altogether in deplorable taste but it did stimulate interest in an entirely unknown musical personality whom we were about to sponsor. Also, the letter itself revealed exuberance, enthusiasm, youthful vigour, mad-cap tactics and disinterested artistic altruism on the part of its authors (Thank you) and did galvanise into ticket-buying action, a hundred or so thrawn Glaswegians. One would, however, hardly expect the more conservative and responsible residents in a town by no means noted for its progressive tendencies, to approve of such a mountebank publicity stunt, particularly in the sacred cause at Art - with a capital A. One such person, a Mr. A.M. Henderson, wrote me, what was clearly intended to be a fatherly sort of letter, gently pointing out the error of my ways - that real gentlemen, that decent people, however honourable and high minded their motives did not really go in for this sort of thing. "Such publicity" wrote Mr. Henderson, "may well do more harm than good to the cause, and it cheapens both the promoters and the artists concerned." Of course, Mr. Henderson was quite right, but the tone of his letter, which was pious and condescending infuriated me. It is a weakness of mine that I do not take kindly to criticism of a personal nature, neither then nor now - so by return of post Mr. Henderson received a nitro-glycerine letter from me which, I was told later, knocked the kindly well - meaning old gentleman out for six. So Mr. Henderson's name was added to the growing list of my enemies.

As the visit of Medtner to Scotland was conditioned by the affair, Henderson-Chisholm, let me tell you a little more about Mr. Henderson. When I was 13, and a pupil of Queens Park Secondary School our music mistress was a Miss Polly White who during a rehearsal by Class 1A of which I was a rebellious pupil of "A hundred pipers and a’ and a’” said to me "Erik do please stop singing you are dragging the whole class out of tune." Frequently to be seen waiting outside Polly White’s classroom, was a soft spoken, kindly, condescending, artistic-looking gent, wearing a crop of professional pianist’s hair, who I found out, was organist at a swanky West End church - his name Mr Henderson. Because Mr. Henderson had studied piano with such renowned masters as Scharwenka, Cortot, Busoni and Rachmaninoff, and had not exactly witheld the fact, one was somewhat surprised to note that his own pianistic performances, which never reached full recital strength, were limited to early English keyboard music, and easier pieces by l9th century Russian composers. Likewise, his organ performances although out of Widor, Vierne and Dupre, never went beyond the St. Anne’s Fugue and selected movements (very selected movements) from the easier Widor, Franck and Boellmann. His main interest lay in pre-soviet Russian music, and he edited five volumes of piano music by Balakireff, Cui, Tchaikowsky, Mussourgsky ("Une Larme") and others. It is undeniable that Mr. Henderson was well out of the run of the average church organist. It is equally true that he was a poseur, precious, condescending, conceited and refined. When organist of Westbourne Church his choir became of sufficient note to interest the Columbia Gramophone Co. Here is part of an unaccompanied anthem by Tchaikovsky, sung by the Westbourne Choir. Mr Henderson and his choir specialised in Russian church music - as you know, organs were not used in the Russian Orthodox Churches, all their singing being sung a capella. The title of this anthem is "O Blest are we" and it is characteristic of Mr. Henderson to announce it on the label as being the work of Henderson assisted by Tchaikovsky.

Editors note: Despite an extensive search I have been unable to trace this music. A book was published by Henderson containing choral works - O blest are they. Anthem ... The words from the Koinonikon (communio) of the Greek Liturgy for the Faithful departed (Russian Church Service). Edited ... words by A. M. Henderson (Choral). From this it may be conjectured that Henderson wrote or translated the words from the Russian. The only recording I can find of the Westbourne Choir, Glasgow is an hymn which I have included for the historical interest. If you have a copy of the actual piece on an 78 RPM or 80 RPM disc please contact the Trust.

Nicolai Medtner gave his first piano recital in Scotland at one of our Active Society Concerts, on Thursday, 5th November, 1931 - in fact, so far as I am aware, Medtner gave only two recitals in Scotland; this one on 5th February 1931, and what was intended to be a repeat at St. Andrews a day or two later. He was born in Moscow 1880: at 12 was a pupil at the Conservatoire; at 21 toured Europe as a concert pianist: taught at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1914-1919, and again after the revolution - at a Moscow School. A contemporary (Alfred Jarosy) gives this account of Medtner in 1920:
"Firing was going on in the suburbs of Moscow; no-one dared leave the house after nightfall. Cold and hungry, the People of Yesterday sat at their ruined homes waiting for worse to come. They went foraging in the morning for the provisions that were becoming ever rare; they heated their stoves with broken-up furniture and books. It was the winter of 192O. I was invited (writes Mr. Jarosy) to hear new songs of Medtner. He sat at the piano looking like Schubert, or at times like Beethoven; he played his newest composition: "Country Dances". While death and destruction rioted outside, while an empire collapsed in ruins and a new state was arising from the blood fertilised soil, Medtner wrote "pastorals and fairy tales". A year earlier, the great Rachmaninoff was pleading the cause of Medtner in the USA: "America must learn more about the works of this truly great composer", he wrote "Russia is beginning to realise that he has already taken a place among our immortals." Medtner left Russia in 1921, stayed about three years in Germany, toured the USA as pianist and composer, and was living in France when I first contacted him. Russian friends tried to persuade him to return to his native country, and while staying there in 1927 staged a demonstration in his honour. When at the first recital, the moment arrived for him to come to the platform he was astonished to see, not an empty stage with just a piano, but, to his confusion, for he was never at home when receiving homage, the whole stage crowded with the most distinguished figures in Moscow's musical life. The explanation, as he soon learned, was the ardent desire at Moscow's musical elite, to pay him special honour. The address, which was read, and afterwards presented to him, was signed by a hundred and eleven musicians. This was a very flowery affair, concluding "You have brought us new exquisite gifts from the inexhaustible treasure house of your musical genius… New masterpieces of your art will delight with their matchless beauty your attentively listening audience…Accept then our dear, long expected guest, our warmest welcome, and put off as long as possible, our new parting." Give the Russians their due, they knew how to butter up a chap: and when I was in Moscow September/October 1962, Stravinsky was being handed out the same old oil. But Medtner never returned to the Soviet Union: he settled in London, where he lived the rest of his life.

At the time of our correspondence with Medtner, he was living at 6, rue des Basserons Montmorency (Seine et Oise). The contents of his letter were in English written in a watery blue ink, and signed by Medtner in pea green ink, for at this time he knew no English. I first invited him to become a honorary vice-president of the Active Society (which he accepted) and then asked him to give us a concert of his own works when next he visited England. He replied that he would gladly do this, provided other concerts could be arranged for him - he particularly hoped that he could play his second piano concerto with the Scottish Orchestra. I organised a second concert for him in St. Andrews, Fife and Medtner played his magnificent second piano concerto on Tuesday, 3rd February 1931, in St. Andrews Hall, Glasgow.

I was informed of the time his train would arrive in Glasgow, and our usual reception committee went along to the Central Station to meet him. It was very easy to sort him out in the crowd; he wore a winter coat with fur collar, galoshes and an umbrella. His wife accompanied him, and was carefully wrapping a heavy scarf round his neck to prevent him from catching cold in our bleak wintry Scottish weather. I went forward to meet him, and had just got as far as. "My name is Chisholm welcome to our city, Mr and Mrs... when I became aware that someone had nipped in before me, was already greeting the Medtner's like old friends, and talking away to them in German thirteen to the dozen". A glance was sufficient to identify the intruder – Mr A.M. Henderson!

Now this language difficulty has always been a handicap to me; the nearest I ever got to a respectable language like English, was Scots; and I was never even on nodding terms with German, Spanish or Italian though I have a wee bitty French – "Parlez vous Frencaise? Oui, oui,un peu."

Mr. Henderson made no move to introduce either myself or any of our reception committee to the Medtner's; the best I could do in the circumstances was to repeat my name and shake his hand vaguely. Medtner smiled shyly, and Mrs. Medtner who could speak English, (I suspected rightly that she wrote Medtner’s English letters for him) was warm and friendly, although her primary duty of seeing that her famous husband would not catch a Glasgow cold, absorbed most of her immediate attentions. I asked Mrs. Medtner where they were staying in Glasgow (need I say with the Hendersons!) and when her husband would like to try the piano in the Stevenson Hall. By this time we had walked the length of the platform and were approaching the taxi rank. Mr. Henderson answered for her "Mr Medtner is very tired after the long train journey, and does not want to be bothered with any business arrangements just now. He is a very sensitive person and leaves all such mundane matters to his manager. I am managing Mr Medtner while he is in Scotland, so please, should you have any communication to make to him, contact me. You will find my number in the telephone book Goodnight” Mr Medtner also said "Bon Soir" to us - looking at me - rather slyly, I thought and his wife bundled him into the taxi and put more scarves around his neck. We all felt very much deflated.

We buzzed Mr Henderson’s telephone quite a lot during the next few days, but we could not speak to Mr Medtner, "he was resting. . . he was in his bath...he was at dinner." "Yes, he is indeed rehearsing with the Scottish Orchestra at three this afternoon but he has given the strictest instructions that no one but myself must be allowed into the rehearsal. "No! I am afraid you cannot call here tonight; we are holding a big reception for him" which was a bit thick, for dar'n it all, it we were boys of the Active Society who were the persons responsible for bringing Medtner to Scotland. Never mind - Medtner was a great artist - so we all went along to cheer him at St. Andrews Halls. I had played his second concerto myself in Glasgow in 1929, and naturally was anxious to hear how Medtner played it. His playing was characterised by great vitality and intensity, and a warm romanticism. He had little use for graceful platform manners. I think it was Ernest Newman who called him the least fussy of all great pianists; he saw a piano, went for it, played it, then hurried off. Certainly Medtner was of a very retiring nature, and heartily disliked modern publicity methods. On the concert platform, he was a shy, almost uncomfortable figure, for no one appeared to enjoy public performances less than he. His piano concertos, as products of a typical Russian conservatism, have brilliance and rhythmic vitality, but lack that uplift, that surge of melody which have won for concertos like Rachmaninoff's two and three, Tchaikovsky one, and the Grieg, permanent seats of fame. But judge for yourself - for here is a recording of the C minor Concerto, with Medtner as soloist - made 11 years after the Glasgow performance.

Medtner has often been called the "Russian Brahms" which means that both composers have a certain gravity of musical demeanour, and take themselves and their art with great seriousness. There is more in it than that, though; for example, take the first movement of this piano concerto - Romanza: its opening sentences might easily be taken for a typical Brahms intermezzo.

Owing to the Henderson blockade, I have to rely mainly on others for impressions of Medtner's personality. The Russian singer, Tatiana Makushina sang a group of his songs at a later Active Society concert, (April 12th, 1934) and she had this to say of her own experiences when working with Medtner. "His accompaniments were a revelation to me. How he played: How delicate were his nuances, how rich and varied his tone. Deep tragedy, mysticism, glimpses of another world, and sometimes expression of tender, youthful love were all to be found in his music." Mrs. Medtner, herself an accomplished musician, knew all her husband's songs by heart, and all her life and strength were devoted to his work. Sometimes she would break into song and join me during a rehearsal and Medtner himself would begin to sing too - then he would have a fit of coughing and would run into the next room to smoke his half cigarette. (It was his habit to smoke only half of one.) Then he would return to the piano. Tatiana Makushina sang her first concert of 20 Medtner songs with the composer as pianist, February 1928, and here she is singing his "Spanish Romance" and "Butterfly" accompanied by the composer.

ESPANCKEE (SPANSH ROMANCE) Op.52 No 5 words by Pushkin

Before a Spanish noblewoman two knights stand;
Both bold and free, gaze at her direct,
Striking are they both of mien, both with heart aflame;
Each with manly grip leans lightly on his sword.
Than life to them is she dearer, and akin to glory her esteem,
But one by her favoured. Who (will) have (her) heart's reward?
“Who, decide, is loved by thee?" Both of the lady ask
And with expectancy of youth they gaze awaiting her reply.

BABOTCHKA (THE BUTTERFLY) Op.. 28, No. 3. Words by Fet

Thou are right: with a single airy wheeling I am so graceful.
All radiance mine, with (its) dazzling flutter is just a pair of wings
Do not enquire, whence I come, whither I hasten;
Here on a flower I lightly tarry and there I breathe.
How long aimlessly, (and) skilfully to live do I wish?
There, at once, you see with a whirl, I spread my wings and fly away!

In the evening of his Glasgow concert, Mr. and Mrs. Medtner were smuggled into the artists’ room by their friends the Henderson's. During the two intervals, Mrs. Medtner smothered her husband in shawls and scarfs the minute he came of the platform and fed him with hot coffee from a flask. Never had any composer a more devoted wife; never was any wife more apprehensive o£ the possible ill effects of the Scottish climate on the lungs and chest of her husband! Medtner lit a cigarette, placed it in a long cigarette holder, puffed away till the first half was consumed and then charged on to the platform to continue with his programme. The chief item was his "Sonata Romantica" written a year earlier and still in manuscript and this was to be its first public performance. Medtner composed fourteen sonatas: it has been said of him that whatever he started to write somehow he turned into a sonata in the end: for he really belonged to the Beethoven-Brahms epoch and its obsession with sonata-form.

For his final group, Medtner played a selection of his famous "Fairy Tales": he is best remembered by pianists today for these attractive, fanciful, epigrammatic and romantic piano pieces (of which he wrote 33). Eric Blom points out that the Russian word is Skazka: though as fantastic as Western fairy tales, they are more rustic and earthy, and animals with human attributes play a larger part in them. Blom Suggests that "Folk Tales" would be better titles for Medtner's pieces of that class. Mrs. Medtner, on the other hand told me that her husband called than just plain "Tales" at the beginning, and that the "Fairy" bit was added on by an enterprising musical publisher. Ivan Illyin puts forward a narrative for the Fairy Tale Op.26 No.3 inscribed "narrante a piacere" which I am going to play to you. "A Sensitive creature tells from the depths of its simple and sorrowful soul, of some strange and fearful life’s encounter which has left a deep wound in his heart". (It looks as if Mr. Ilyin had been reading Cyril Scott's poetry:) The experience was so shattering, so overpowering, that the gentle son breaks off, as though unable to find words. There is no way out of the pain and the sorrow, it is all a tangle of gentle suffering, and the song ends on a note of quiet and humble complaint." Here is how Medtner plays this piece;

The Six Tales of Op. 51 are dedicated to Cinderella and Ivan the fool, (from which it would seem that Medtner has now decided to write real fairy tales). Of the first of these Op.51, Ilyin writes: "The fairy of this tale is a mysterious princess, full of naive charm, grace and beauty, a lovely and gentle vision." Here it is as Medtner played it in Glasgow 1931, 3 years after it was written:

Our Active Society friends in St. Andrews was sponsoring a repeat concert for Medtner and, as things stood, I thought it best to leave Mr. Henderson to deliver the Medtner's safely into their hands. A Steinway Concert grand piano was coming by road from Edinburgh: the van was delayed, and only arrived in the afternoon of the concert. When Medtner heard this he flatly refused to give concert at all, saying that the piano had not time to "settle down properly" after 50 miles jigging in a removal van. After pleadings, persuasions, threats, and more pleading, he reluctantly agreed to play part of his recital, omitting the new Sonata Romantica - the major attraction of the programme. This was a bit of a shock to my friends fearing reaction from canny Scots to get their money’s worth. But worse was to come; The Convocation Hall of St. Andrews University in which Medtner was to play, was lavishly decorated with portraits of members of the royal family, past Lord Rectors, past principals of the University. The highly sensitive Medtner felt embarrassed he said in the midst of such portraital opulence; he couldn't concentrate; they disturbed his nerves: either they took the lot down from the walls for the evening and locked them up somewhere out of his sight, or there would be no concert! One can imagine what the sedate conservative doddery old university authorities at St. Andrews thought of this insult to their personal art gallery. They pleaded, cajoled - but the Maestro was adamant: so with gnashing of teeth and with unmentionable mutterings under their academic breaths, the portraits were grudgingly - oh, so grudgingly - removed from the walls and put in cold storage for the night. When I heard about this later, I realised that the little manikin on my shoulder had been looking after me all the time and had arranged it all so that Mr. Henderson and not I had to take the rap!

I heard no more from the Medtner's until the first week in September 1931, when I received the following letter: At once I suspected sabotage from the hidden Henderson hand. I am not so sure now. In his book "The Muse and the Fashion", Medtner writes "The music of the extreme modernists is like "The Comedy of Errors" - and their theory is like a theory of errors. Errors of theory (and of practice.) have been observed before, but no Theories of error have been known to exist in former times" "Modernism", he says, "The fashion for fashion." His friend, colleague and admirer, Rachmaninoff, held similar views: "The Futurists clamour for "colour" and "atmosphere", and by dint of ignoring every rule of musical construction, they secure efforts as formless as fog, and hardly more enduring". But history has already proved these two great Russian masters of composition and others, like Sibelius and Elgar, wrong in their prophecies, for the futurists of that time were Debussy and Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky, Schonberg and Berg, major names in the history of music in the second half of this century. Mrs Lewtonowa is the person in the U.S.S.R. State Music Publishers who looks after my interests and has herself made Russian translations of the first volume of my Celtic Song Book. When I was in her office in Oct 1962, she said to me "There is someone here in Moscow who is anxious to meet you. Won’t you let me take you round to her flat?" "Is it someone I know?" I asked. "It is a person you met in Glasgow 31 years ago" she replied. "She is a very old lady, and you will be doing her a pleasant little service if you would come with me right now and talk with her for a little." I agreed, if only because I was curious to see inside a private house in Russia and this was the first time I had ever been invited. Mrs Lewtanowa took me in her car to one of those large blocks of flats which are springing up all round Moscow. We went up in an elevator to the third floor, I think it was, walked along a rather dark corridor and rang the bell. The door was opened by a plumpish little woman, who looked at me with lively twinkling eyes before extending her hand, saying "Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Chisholm. We meet again after so long a time". Thirty-one years had made surprising little change in Mrs Medtner. She told me she had come to Moscow to edit a definitive edition of her husband's works "The two previous editors both died before finishing the task and they asked me to complete the editing before I died," she said, with a pout and a smile. I asked her how she remembered me and the Glasgow concert after all this time, when she must have accompanied her husband on hundreds of other concerts and she laughed gaily. "Yes indeed, but there was something rather special about that concert." she looked at me warily . . . . I caught her eye, and we both burst out laughing "Ah, that Mr. Henderson", she said, "he was so jealous of you, so very jealous, he just would not let you come near my poor dear husband. We saw through it all, of course, but well (a Russian shrug of her shoulder) Mr. Henderson had been very kind to Mr. Medtner in London, and he did not wish to offend him." She laughed again, "My: but it was funny the way he kept hedging you off! My husband and I have often laughed over that - what you say - pompous Mr. Henderson. Nevertheless, my husband was touched by his kindness to him, and allowed Mr. Henderson to persuade him to dedicate his Sonata Romantica to him, the one played for the first time at your Active Society Concert." And there we left it.

Medtner’s programme in Glasgow, 1931
Medtner's letter resigning as an Hon. Vice-president of the Active Society
Medtner's recital in Moscow in 1927; the one hundred and eleven musicians who welcomed him have by now left the platform
Medtner in 1932, as I knew him
In a H.M.V. recording studio, 1947
In a H.M.V. recording studio, 1947. Note that he has smoked more than his usual half cigarette - unless of course, he started this one at the other end
Medtner in 1948
Medtner in 1948
This photo was taken in the garden of his Golder’s Green, London, house in 1948. Mrs. Medtner is holding in her arms their pet Persian cat Kotya: this is the garden that Mrs.Medtner 1ongs for - so she told me - in spite of the kindness of everyone to her in Moscow
This photo was taken in the garden of his Golder’s Green, London, house in 1948. Mrs. Medtner is holding in her arms their pet Persian cat Kotya: this is the garden that Mrs. Medtner longs for - so she told me - in spite of the kindness of everyone to her in Moscow
The last photograph taken of Medtner: in his garden and again the pet Persian cat Kotya. This was in 1950
The last photograph taken of Medtner: in his garden and again the pet Persian cat Kotya. This was in 1950