It is unclear what Medtner understood by the word ‘Dithyramb’, often said to be a hymn to the Greek gods of wine and fertility, although even classical scholars cannot agree on its precise meaning or evolution. Schiller’s poem with the same title (set by Schubert) is a general paean to the gods, so it is possible that Medtner (well versed in German literature from childhood) took his inspiration from there. From his Three Dithyrambs Op 10, and from the last movement of his Violin Sonata No 1, Op 21 (similarly entitled and marked Festivamente), we can deduce that he thought of it as some kind of solemn ceremony or celebration, almost a ritual, never more so than in the four portentous gong strokes which begin the first piece of Op 10 (Maestoso severamente) and are never far away, either in the foreground or buried in the texture. The second and greatest Dithyramb carries a footnote: ‘In the manner of a sermon, that is of a theme freely interpreted and varied.’ The theme itself is grandiloquent and surprisingly diatonic but the undulating quintuplets and chromatic adventures of the development bring a note of anxiety which is swept away by the return of the main theme decked in resplendent virtuoso garb (grandisonante) and capped by a blistering Prestissimo coda. The third Dithyramb (Andantino innocente), in effect a kind of postlude, is comparatively mild, even pastoral in tone, but still proceeds with a stately tread.
from notes by Hamish Milne © 2012