Nikolay Karlovich Medtner was Moscow born-and-bred, although his ancestry was German. As a child he showed musical promise, and studied piano with his mother until his acceptance into the Moscow Conservatory at the age of twelve. Medtner’s teachers during these years included Vasily Safonov for piano, Anton Arensky for harmony and Sergey Taneyev for counterpoint, the latter having a particularly strong influence on his musical development. Taneyev instilled in all his students a respect for the old masters—Palestrina, Bach, Mozart and especially Beethoven—and stressed contrapuntal and structural command as essential to any composer’s craft.
Medtner graduated from the Conservatory in 1900 with a Gold Medal in piano. After achieving success in the Third International Rubenstein Competition in Vienna, a career as a concert pianist seemed inevitable. A European concert tour was planned but abandoned when, against the advice of his parents and teachers, he decided to eschew the life of a travelling virtuoso and dedicate himself to his true calling: composition. Medtner continued performing throughout his life, but with rare exceptions—he was a celebrated interpreter of Beethoven—played only his own works in public.