|Medtner (right) and Anna (Left) London 1948|
Nikolai Medtner's works for piano are justly famous, his songs, less well known. Medtner's work for piano is brilliant, his songs less so, but then I'm a voice person and a song sleuth. So a little adventure into the secret world behind some of Medtner's songs. Medtner's first group of Goethe songs, Nine Goethe Lieder, op 6 from 1904, were dedicated as a wedding gift for his older brother Emil who was marrying Anna Bratenskaya, a violinist whom Nikolai was in love with. Most of these songs are fairly straightforward settings of famous texts like Wanderers Nachtlied II, Elfenliedchen and Mailied with a particularly lovely interlude before the final, significant verse. But consider that last line : "Sei ewig glücklich Wie du mich liebst!" The poem isn't nearly as innocent as it looks. Please read my analysis HERE.
Medtner takes texts from several different Goethe collections. Was there a reason for his choices ? Who knows, but it's interesting to speculate. Two of the texts Medtner chose, Inneres Wühlen and Sieh mich, Heil'ger, come from Goethe's Schauspiel Erwin und Elmire, (1775) which tells the story of lovers who are kept apart by social convention. The first song speaks of suppressed emotional turmoil, the second of Elmire's anguish at having rejected Erwin's youthful passion. These texts have rarely been set by anyone other than Medtner and the Duchess Anna Amalia, Goethe's patron and object of his veneration. Until, of course, he went to Italy and discovered sex and sunshine. Anna Amalie, the chaste Moon, was not amused.
In 1907-8, Medtner wrote his Twelve Goethe Songs op 15. An atmosphere of feverish intrigue haunts this collection. In Selbstbetrug, a curtain twitches. Is someone watching something they shouldn't witness ? Yet another text from Erwin und Elmira, Sie liebt mich. which rises quickly to emphatic crescendo, repeated over and over, in delighted disbelief. So tanzet und springst comes from Goethe's Lila, a play about a married woman who goes insane when her husband's away. And most scandalous of all, Vor Gericht, where a woman is pregnant but will not denounce the father, whom she loves. Pastor and magistrate, be damned ! "Es ist mein Kind, es bleibt mein Kind,Ihr gebt mir ja nichts dazu !" Yet again, Medtner is the only male composer to dare set this defiant text. Do these songs form a cryptic cycle, from the night-time hush of Wandrers Nachtlied II and Meerestille to the last two songs, Der untreue Knabe and Geistergruss? The last two songs form a matched pair, just like the first two, but now the mood is triumphant. In Der untreue Knabe the errant lover is reunited with the girl he dumped when they're dead, and in Geistergruss the Knight's ghost sings, like the King of Thule, pledging eternal love, despite separation . "Mein halbes Leben türmt' ich fort,Verdehnt' die Hälft' in Ruh,Und du, du Menschen-Schifflein dort,Fahr' immer, immer zu!".
Is this cycle wish fulfilment or secret code ? there's a touch of wry humour in op 15 which there isn't in op 6, so beware of too-literal interpretation. Whatever may be behind the songs, we will never know and probably don't need to know, but if we did we might better appreciate Medtner as a man. What we do know is that, in 1918, Medtner and Anna were married, Emil having agreed to a divorce. They stayed together through over 30 years of exile, ending up in Barnet, North London.
In 1922, Medtner dedicated his Sonata-Vocalize op 41 1 and 2 to Anna. This is fairly innovative music, closer to Scriabin, than, say, 19th century models. There is no text, but the inspiration was Goethe’s Geweihter Platz. A poet spies on the secret rites of Nymphs silently dancing in the moonlight and all the glories of Heaven and Earth are revealed to him. "Alles erzählt er den Musen und daß die Götter nicht zürnen,lehren die Musen ihn gleich bescheiden Geheimnisse sprechen" . This is the Medtner who can now express his love openly, without the guise of text. In the first part, the piano sings, alone. In the second, he's joined by his muse, singing exotic vocalize. The voice stretches round the piano part, like partners in embrace. Chamber music, intimate and personal.