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Symmetrical Features of Nikolai Medtner's Language: The Grzovaya Sonata, Opus 53 No. 2

Description: Nikolai Medtner's works evidence an intense interest in symmetrical designs. This concern is manifest at all levels, from the large scale proportions of his numerous ingenious sonata forms to the symmetrically constructed themes and motives. Medtner's works include several instances of palindromic themes and periods. Some palindromic contours are achieved through immediate inversion, creating expansive, symmetrical waves. One of Medtner's thumbprints, symmetrical contrary voice-leading, consists of two or more voices which systematically expand or contract in exact mirror fashion. The contrary movement is usually stepwise, and may be either chromatic or diatonic. Occasionally even larger intervals, such as thirds and fourths, are subjected to this favourite mirroring technique. Such symmetrical expansion and contraction often controls the harmonic progression of several consecutive bars. One of the most striking aspects of Medtner's music is his sophisticated harmonic language. He was fascinated with symmetrical harmonic designs, such as the tritone, the French sixth chord, and the octatonic scale, and made endless and increasingly intricate explorations into these stuctures and the ways in which these apparently nontonal, non-hierarchical forms could be coordinated with the fundamental hierarchy of asymmetrical tonal forms, including triads, major and minor scales, and tonic-dominant relations. Medtner's late work, the Grozovaya Sonata, Opus 53 No.2, is the most concentrated and abstract of his works. The themes are built from highly lapidar motives, giving this work an intensely angular, rigorously mathematical character. All the symmetrical hallmarks of Medtner's language are in abundant evidence in this great work. Features include the extensive symmetrical mirroring of the opening section, frequent use of contrary voice leading as a generator of harmonic progression, and constant tritone shifting. Medtner also builds sequential chains based on two more symmetrical forms, the diminished seventh and the augmented triad. Finally, the design of this unique single movement sonata may be ...
Date: December 1999
Creator: Pitts, James L.