The Muse

August 13, 2022

I'll admit that when I'm exploring any composer's output, their solo piano music is usually the first area I peruse. For piano-centric composers such as Frédéric Chopin or Sergei Rachmaninoff, this is almost always the case. For me, it takes quite a bit of discipline to branch out and explore other genres that a given composer wrote for. Accompanying has certainly helped alleviate this tunnel vision. I will say that it certainly helps when a composer writes great piano parts.

It was only recently that I decided to begin exploring Nikolai Medtner's vocal works. It's hard to ignore his large output of ~106 songs! Medtner and his brother Emil revered Goethe and Pushkin (who both hung on the walls of their wooden home in Khlebnikovo); Medtner would set dozens of texts by them. Among the vocal works he wrote, he was immensely proud of the Op. 29 set: Seven Poems After Pushkin.

The first of the set, The Muse (Medtner's own recording!), is about a musician learning to play his instrument from his muse. Throughout the poem, the speaker works diligently at his instrument in order to "profit by her teachings". Some believe that this is akin to Medtner's life philosophy, a philosophy that would impact the way he worked throughout his entire life.

The simplicity of the piano part along with the melodious folk-like vocal line begins immediately at the beginning, and the vocal line is generally scalar. One of Medtner's special techniques for forming his melodies is reserving the jumps for special moments. He loves the intervals of thirds and fourths, and in his piano writing he'll frequently create a quick "yodeling effect", as my undergrad teacher once called it, with 2 preceding grace notes (ex., grace notes Eb-G, regular note Eb). We don't get that here, but a special moment is at the mention of the hymns of the gods; there's this descending sixth motif that Medtner would use in his Sonata-Ballade as well as his posthumous piano quintet. This would have actually first appeared in his piano quintet as he worked on it for over 40 years throughout his life! In Medtner's music, there tends to be a sense of something heroic, epic, and religious, and I think one can infer that in this song given the musical context Medtner writes, even without reading the text.

In the linked recording, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's tone is pleasant and comforting. I love the sweetness and gentle, speaking tone she brings at times. Medtner's performance is spectacular. There's a simplicity and rigidness in his playing; some may even find it cold. The way both of them set up the climax is especially satisfying. Medtner's playing is technically accomplished. In fact, he was to have a thriving performance career. Instead, he sought to work tirelessly at what his life's calling was: to compose, regardless of the loss of potential financial gains he would face.

I hope you enjoy the performance. I'd believe it if someone told me the piano postlude was written by Rachmaninoff!

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