1. Sotnikov’s Death
2. On the Sleigh
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Frank Strobel.
New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians
Alfred Schnittke first studied privately in Vienna (1946–8), where his father was working; this decisive experience was to have a decisive effect on his work as a composer since this exposure to the Austro-German cultural tradition fundamentally influenced his future tastes and approach to form and vocabulary throughout his career. On his return to Russia, Schnittke studied in the Choirmasters’ Department at the October Revolution Music College in Moscow (1949–53) as well as studying theory privately with Iosif Rïzhkin. He later enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory (1953–8, and as a postgraduate 1958–61), where his teachers were Yevgeny Golubev and Nikolay Rakov. Schnittke later observed that his ‘polystylism’ could be traced to the filling of gaps in his musical knowledge during these years. He himself taught instrumentation at the Conservatory for a decade from 1962, and from this time worked as a freelance composer, writing for the theatre and for film as well as concert works. Between 1962 and 1984 he wrote a total of 66 film scores for Mosfilm and other Soviet film companies: this aspect of his life was to have an important technical influence upon his career as a concert composer. During the course of his life he also wrote a large number of articles concerning various issues in contemporary music, and lectured extensively in Russia and Germany.
Though Schnittke’s growing reputation permitted him numerous journeys abroad from the 1980s onwards, before then his trips outside the Soviet Union had been restricted to one in 1967 to hear Dialogue in Warsaw and another in 1977 to Germany and Austria, as a keyboard player with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. His inevitably complicated relationship with the Soviet regime began with the condemnation of his oratorio Nagasaki by the Union of Composers in 1958. He was subsequently well-treated by the Union, and received commissions from the Ministry of Culture and from two opera companies, but when he was asked to conform to a less experimentalist ideal after completing his second opera – ‘African Ballad’ – he no longer enjoyed official approval. Due to the more liberal attitude of the Krushchyov era, Schnittke and other young composers saw formerly sanctioned scores by Western composers; he was thus able to analyze in great detail not only the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but also Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti. These analyses led to his abandonment of serial techniques. At the same time, however, he was constantly attacked in official publications such as Sovetskaya muzïka. After its première in Gor’kiy in 1974, his First Symphony was to all intents and purposes banned from performance in the wake of Khrennikov’s blanket condemnation of it. This situation changed only when Gorbachyov came to power in 1985.
It was precisely from this time onwards, when, paradoxically, he was finally able to travel to attend performances of his works outside the Soviet Union, that Schnittke began to be plagued by health problems, beginning with a serious stroke in June that year. A second occurred in 1991, a year after he had moved to Hamburg, where he was teaching composition as the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, and from that point on Schnittke’s music became more austere and more obviously concerned with mortality. He suffered another stroke in 1994, but did not cease to compose; he died in 1998 in his adopted city of Hamburg.
Later in life Schnittke was the recipient of numerous international prizes and awards, including the Russian State Prize (twice, in 1986 and 1995) and awards from Austria, Germany and Japan. He was made a member of the Academies of Arts of Munich, Stockholm, Hamburg, Berlin and London, and given honorary membership of several others.
Alex Ross, The New Republic, 28 September 1992
In November 1938, when a dark-hued and dissonant work by the late Ernst Krenek was performed in Boston, the audience responded more generously than might have been the norm in a less dark-hued and dissonant time. A Brahmin matriarch turned to her companion and observed: “Conditions in Europe must be dreadful.” That casual remark anticipated a mode of music appreciation that has become increasingly dominant in recent years. Twentieth-century scores have been reduced to bulletins from one crisis or another, soundtracks to history’s docudrama. Symphonies become invasions; string quartets turn into hidden diaries.
Music composed during the brief and spectacular lifetime of the Soviet Union is especially vulnerable to historically minded readings. Shostakovich is the most obvious target; he first advertised his works as affirmations of the regime, then privately advised us of alternative, subversive programs. Either way, he allowed his music to be relentlessly politicized. During the past twenty-five years, composers in what is now Russia and the other assorted republics have also spoken out in a certain “tone”, a voice now impersonating the Evil Empire’s interminable decadence. Anarchic and synthetic, nostalgic and visionary, cynical and serene, music in the Brezhnev era was an overflowing midnight harvest, a classic End-Zeit which might one day draw comparisons to Gustav Mahler’s Vienna or to Berlin and Paris between the wars. The government that once made Shostakovich’s life a living hell may have lost interest in the tendencies of its composers toward the end, but the composers did not lose interest in the tendencies of their society.
Of the numerous major figures to inhabit the Soviet fin-de-siècle, a man named Alfred Schnittke has rapidly become the most notorious. Born in 1934 of Russian and German-Jewish descent, Schnittke has achieved indisputable international stature, and his scores are being performed and recorded many times over. (The Swedish record-label BIS intends to record all of his music, and has already imprinted sixteen hours of it on glistening compact discs.) In this country, of course, Schnittke has become wildly trendy. He happens to sate a current American appetite for artists who brood at one moment and go wacky at the next. Audiences have also listened to him eager for clues to the Russian enigma, and in that respect they have not been disappointed.
All composers somehow reflect their times; some composers do little more. Schnittke is a separate case. Conditions in Russia are, indeed, dreadful, but that is the least surprising news that this composer brings. He represents not only a moment in the history of Russia, but also a moment in the history of music. To put it simply, he will not vanish when his times are up. The multiplicity of styles, of schools, of genres; the overbearing weight of an impressive past; the overshadowing brilliance and energy of present-day “popular” modes seemingly alien to the classical tradition; the possibilities of a future in which parochial barriers will crumble away – all this is acutely observed in Schnittke’s music, and at times epiphanically reconciled. He is nothing less than the composer of our climate.
The wellspring of Alfred Schnittke’s music is, inevitably, that archetypal twilight time, the twenty-five years before the outbreak of the First World War. A great many contemporary composers are beholden to the original and much-lamented fin-de-siècle, but Schnittke has overheard the paradoxes as well as the clichés of that era. As a devotee of Gustav Mahler, for example, Schnittke has not sought to replicate that composer’s luxurious immolation of Romanticism, but rather to expand upon his last-minute discovery (realized fully in the incomplete Symphony No. 10) that the conflict of dissonance and consonance is the forge of the most intense expression. An even more important legacy from Mahler is the recurrent juxtaposition of an elegiac tone and polystylistic satire – although that technique could have been derived as well from Mahler’s non-identical twin, Erik Satie.
Nor could any young Soviet composer escape the shadow of Dmitri Shostakovich. But again, Schnittke does not ape the standard profile enshrined in today’s concert-halls. In place of the monumental Fifth Symphony, it is the wilfully chaotic Fourth – hidden for decades in Shostakovich’s desk-drawer – that has fascinated Schnittke the theorist. Also paramount is the Bolshevik radicalism of Shostakovich’s sardonic ballets and film-scores of the early thirties, rather than the socialist-realist tragedy of the later symphonies. At the dawn of Lenin’s brave new world, Shostakovich began the fusion of Mahlerian expressionism and quasi-dadaist satire that Schnittke was later able to complete in the dusk of Brezhnev’s decrepit monolith.
The Shostakovich Fourth – often peripatetic in layout, at times a mere anthology of banal dances and aimless marches; passing from chillingly spare chamber music to near-anarchic fortissimi for full orchestra; in Schnittke’s vocabulary, a “polyphonic” work – came to light at the end of the nineteen-fifties. The composer had suppressed it after being declared an “enemy of the people” by Stalin in 1936. Other documents of the early Soviet era had been privately circulated: the refined atonal works of Roslavetz and Lourié, both of whom pioneered twelve-tone systems prior to Schoenberg; futuristic tone-poems like Mossolov’s The Iron Foundry; and hybrid experiments like Vladimir Deshevov’s The Red Hurricane, mingling ballet, opera, dramatic recitation, and vaudeville.
The fevered and fantastical progressivism that had been cut short in the 1930s seemed to resume abruptly after the departure of Khrushchev in 1964. Brezhnev’s cultural authorities would never fully reassert their hold over what should and should not be composed; with the ascendancy of pop, they may not have cared. Still, there must have been some consternation over, say, the early works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – music that lapsed centuries in time at a moment’s notice, plunging into Tchaikovsky or Handel or medieval chant. A group of Ukrainian composers wrote in minimalist and eclectic modes through the late sixties and seventies, well in advance of American trends. The current fad for Schnittke may soon give way to long-overdue enthusiasm for the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, who has pursued her own highly individual path through various movements and styles.
Schnittke kept a low profile through the disarray of the 1960s. His ventures into twelve-tone or “serial” composition resemble many works written in that manner, at least on the surface. The final movement of his Violin Sonata No. 1 (1963) is unobjectionable from the academic point of view, but at the same time it is rhythmically wry and engaging in a way that is alien to the whole Schoenberg/Boulez sensibility. It’s positively danceable, in fact. Other works from this period show similar peculiarities, but for the most part the composer was biding his time. In his own words:
My musical development took a course similar to that of some friends and colleagues, across piano concerto romanticism, neoclassic academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis … and took cognizance also of the unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial. Having arrived at the final station, I decided to get off the already overcrowded train. Since then I have tried to proceed on foot.
This walking journey is remarkable not for any new ground that it happens to cross, but instead for the startling vistas it creates among familiar landmarks. In this respect his resemblance to both Mahler and Shostakovich is conspicuous. No less remarkable, however, is the distinct and individual accent audible in every bar, even amid the prevalent carnival of styles. We always know who is speaking, even as he does the composers in different voices.
As it first became known in the West, the music of Alfred Schnittke admittedly did not make so strong an impression. A retiring man who does not enjoy speaking to the press, Schnittke has permitted others to speak for him. And his friends in the West have sometimes chosen lesser works to get his name before the public. Silent Night, for violin and piano, was composed as a holiday greeting for Gidon Kremer; the violinist took to performing it in public, and caused consternation on a national level in Austria where Gruber’s Yuletide anthem is considered sacred ground. With a breathtaking economy of means, Schnittke managed to turn the song into a miniature nightmare, Christmas at Anselm Kiefer’s. In a similar vein, his cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto rambles away from its core material and quotes strains of other famous concertos, while turning Beethoven’s introductory timpani motif into an obsessive rant. One short work is self-evidently titled Moz-Art (“Mozart/sort of”).
These acidic bonbons, while misrepresenting Schnittke as a facile ironist, give an approximate sense of his method. Nearly all of the major works are built around a moment where scraps of historical material are put under pressure from the present. According to violinist Oleh Krysa, Schnittke has described this moment as a sometimes involuntary epiphany: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper – and suddenly it rusts.” He has a particular fondness for metamorphosing the sediments of Vienna’s golden age, the Haydn-to-Schubert era. Veins of dissonance are marbled into a wistful turn of phrase, to the point where historical classifications become useless. The corrupting of source-material proceeds sometimes at a sinister and gradual pace, sometimes more abruptly – the pastiche-passage might break off with cluster chords and fisted dissonances, in the manner of a teenage pianist getting fed up with his assigned piece of sight-reading. These gestures of musical delinquency are at the core of Schnittke’s constructive self-doubt as a composer.
The “stylistic modulations” never give a sense of arbitrariness, of random rummaging; he is always telling a story through the juxtaposition of styles. One of his most startling interventions in past music comes in the second movement of a recent work, peculiarly titled Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Gustav Mahler’s teenage sketches for a Piano Quartet are amplified beyond recognition by a confused and angry orchestra; after a final gong-splattered climax of tension, the Mahler fragment is heard in its original form, beginning confidently but soon drifting off into isolated figures and hints of figures. The movement as a whole is structured so that Mahler’s boyish thoughts sound like the logical completion of a late twentieth-century symphonic span. What Schnittke begins, Mahler finishes.
A fairly considerable fraction of Schnittke’s output falls into the category of “anti-music”, aiming to demonstrate the seeming foolishness of composition this late in the twentieth century. Much of the confusion and controversy over his work probably emanates from an over-familiarity with these extrovert exercises in self-deconstruction. The Violin Sonata No. 2 (“Quasi una Sonata”), the first piece composed after Schnittke’s decisive break from twelve-tone writing in 1968, is perhaps his most strenuous exercise in futility. A “borderline case of sonata form”, it never seems to get past a confident opening chord of G minor; as a “report on the impossibility of the sonata”, it resembles many other works of the late-modernist era. The composer himself compares it to Fellini’s 8½, in which a film director is incapable of completing or even beginning his much-anticipated masterpiece.
Schnittke has also composed five symphonies, mostly out of a sense of duty: “I do not know whether or not the symphony will survive as a musical form. I very much hope that it will and I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless.” None of the series conforms to the traditional symphonic plot, although all exceed forty minutes in length. The most remarkable is the Symphony No. 1 (1974), perhaps the apex of unruliness in Schnittke’s output. Miraculously, the piece was performed in the Soviet Union soon after its composition – apparently even with the private blessing of Tikhon Khrennikov, long-time head of the Soviet composers’ union who helped instigate the musical purges of 1948. How it came to be praised for “civic-mindedness and patriotism” is a mystery best left to future scholarship. Although classical composition no longer received the deadly scrutiny of Stalinist henchmen, conditions persisted in which the setting to music of Brezhnev’s diaries (for example) was a potentially useful act of self-abasement.
Bedlam erupts in the very first bars of this symphony, and never really subsides. Jazz combos do not merely add flavor to the texture, as they do in many urbane twentieth-century scores, but actually take charge of the piece for considerable stretches. From time to time the full orchestra attempts to bring the madness to a halt, with a loud minor chord heavy on the interval of the third. This warning goes unheeded. The second movement opens with a lampoon of mindless Baroque music that falls quickly into disrepair. At the outset of the fourth, a trumpet plays the lilting second theme from the funeral-march movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, significant in the annals of musical satire for its refurbishment as kitsch in Erik Satie’s Embryons desséchés. The Chopin tune is the fanfare for an unrestrained five minutes of mayhem, in which Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (among other works) fights like a wounded animal against a fusillade of sound that recalls and exceeds the most anarchic moments in the music of Charles Ives.
The Symphony No. 1 makes an especially dramatic impact in live performance, with choreography supplied in the score for the musicians as they wander on and off the stage – the only possible precedent for this work in the symphonic repertoire is Haydn’s Farewell. Schnittke has followed to its logical extreme the creed once voiced by Mahler, that “the symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” Western musical history is re-created as a barrage of garbled transmissions, a radio receiving many stations on one channel. Despite its veneer of goofiness, this triumph of planned anarchy has a simple and serious effect. It produces the sound of music, rather than music itself – what is overheard by a society that no longer knows how to listen. The society in question need not be Soviet.
If Schnittke were only an imp of the perverse, the composer of quasi-sonatas and un-symphonies, he would be a beloved figure of the avant-garde, but by no means a candidate for the mantle of greatness recently offered him by various critics. Since the mid-seventies, however, he has approached the sacred genres of classical music more reverently: in the compact and emotionally intense Piano Quintet (1972/76); in the choral-orchestral Symphony No. 2 (1980), inspired by the St. Florian monastery where Anton Bruckner performed and composed; and in the staggering two-movement String Trio (1985), dedicated to and worthy of the memory of Alban Berg.
And in writing a series of concertos for soloist and orchestra between the years 1978 to 1985, Schnittke has achieved an unusually accessible balance of competing styles with his own unmistakable timbre – an extension of the technique of Berg’s Violin Concerto, in which a progressive style served as frame for a rich and haunting succession of recollections and recombinations. The philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who studied with Berg, called his teacher’s valedictory work a “concerto for composer and orchestra.” Schnittke’s concertos are seemingly a series of fantasies on this idea, with the soloist ventriloquizing the composer’s lonely voice as he negotiates his way across the minefield of tradition.
The Violin Concerto No. 3 (1978) opened Schnittke’s great concertante sequence. Its first movement tersely presents the various thematic materials from which the work will grow. A second movement interrogates that material to the point where it breaks down. In the finale, atonal argument is disrupted by the entrance of a straightforward and deliberately second-rate exercise in German Romanticism (“forest music”, the composer calls it). A slow re-opening of musical archives follows, ending in a chorale passage cast in the moody splendor of Russian Orthodoxy. The violin’s wailing trills at the outset are, in retrospect, the beseechings of a chanter whom the orchestra at first confounds and then eventually follows en masse. Opening unexpected depths in a customarily virtuoso genre, the score stands alongside Sofia Gubaidulina’s masterful Offertorium (1980) as one of the late twentieth-century’s premier violin concertos.
Unlike another “kindred soul”, Arvo Pärt, who abandoned exuberant polystylistic exercises in the 1960s for a uniform and deadly-serious regeneration of medieval modes, Schnittke cannot permit a clean escape. The Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979) again introduces a chorale in the old-Russian manner, but then catches it in a dissonant web of sound – noises from the twentieth-century street. In the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1984), the orchestra’s nostalgic forest murmurs are a “fatum banale”, an inescapable platitude which receives fatal wounds in the first movement but haunts the entire span of the work. Negotiations between soloist and orchestra break off completely in the second movement; the violin is reduced to performing a “cadenza visuale”, frantic motions of virtuosic showmanship that emit no sound.
But these exercises in an old-fashioned medium are more notable for their subtle fluidity of musical construction than for their spectacular attempts at self-detonation – particularly in the case of the Viola Concerto, composed in 1985 just before Schnittke suffered a near-fatal stroke. This work is notable first for its dazzling exploitation of the possibilities of the viola’s sound, combining the brilliance of the violin and the sonorousness of the cello. The ambivalence of the instrument is perfectly suited to the composer’s predilections. The three-movement structure recalls the Violin Concerto No. 3, although it is wider in scope. In the histrionic second movement, Schnittke accomplishes what may be his most impressive conjuring act to date: the gradual transformation of a blithe German-Romantic motif into a ruthless, hammering act of orchestral rage. Everything leads up to and then retreats from this enthralling gesture. Violist and dedicatee Yuri Bashmet conceives the solo part as a Barrymore-like dramatic role, and his brilliant performances have made the concerto one of the most publicly effective of Schnittke’s works.
Schnittke’s course since 1985 is difficult to trace. The composer has told his friends that a “series B” has commenced, in which everything must be different. Even before his near-death seven years ago, signs of a new direction were beginning to appear. The tremendously moving Concerto for Choir, based on medieval Armenian poetry, seemed to indicate a tendency toward simplicity, a whittling down of musical means – the sort of development that took place late in Shostakovich’s career. Several new works conform to this trend, and others do not. The recently premiered opera Life with an Idiot is reported to be another romp in the remorseless satiric line; but the Monologue for viola and orchestra is densely atonal in texture, with the exception of a painfully brief tonal epiphany at the end. The emergence of real-life glasnost in the Soviet Union – a decade after Schnittke’s own, rather spooky prophecy of it in the seventies – evidently has not moved him to celebration. He now lives in Hamburg, Germany.
The various tendencies exhibited by recent works pale before the possibilities suggested by Schnittke’s theoretical writings, which have not been translated in the West but might prove tremendously influential. In English and German interviews, he has meditated on the boundaries, past and future, of classical composition, and how an eventual synthesis might emerge in which genres will become obsolete. He reports that his own experience writing for the Soviet cinema (some thirty scores in all, including several for cartoons) has played an important role in the development of his montage-techniques, particularly in the Symphony No. 1. (One film with music by Schnittke is currently accessible on video – Elem Klimov’s Rasputin, somewhat mangled in the course of release and distribution but still displaying some virtuoso musical/cinematic cross-cutting.)
Addressing the “commercial abyss” separating classical composition from “so-called light music”, Schnittke has said: “Perhaps I am thinking in Utopian terms, but maybe there is a way to bridge this abyss – a way that may be the challenge for the next generation. Contemporary reality will make it necessary to experience all the music one has heard since childhood, including rock and jazz and classical and all other forms, [as] a synthesis. This has not happened in my generation.” He is an admirer of jazz fusion, and speaks of a “border-complex” of fused genres as a compositional ideal. Here we enter dangerous territory. The harrowing revelation in store for artists who have previously attempted to “cross over” the classical/popular barrier (witness such bathetic spectacles as Carl Davis and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio, or Michael Kamen’s orchestral back-up for an Aerosmith song on MTV, or even the violinists accompanying the Doors in “Touch Me”) is that burden of bathos falls not on the rock performer but on the classical musicians who sample his aura.
Schnittke’s ventures across the border have been cautious but effective. Jazz elements appear throughout his music, although he has apparently not been influenced by the fractal dissonances of free jazz. (A meeting of Alfred Schnittke and Cecil Taylor might change the world.) Here and there one finds fascinating intrusions of a rock aesthetic. Electric guitars flavor such works as the Symphony No. 2 and the highly peculiar Requiem (1975), whose “Credo” is also propelled by the syncopated stylings of a basement drum-set. And in the cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet of 1983, a setting of the 16th-century History of Dr. Johann Faust, the gruesome scene of Faust’s going-under is delivered by a Satanically amplified mezzo-soprano: in the BIS recording, Inger Blom presides over a hectic cabaret orchestra like some Ethel Merman of the apocalypse. It may not amount to “ordinary rock-music”, as the composer intended, but it manages to dumbfound listeners all the same. This cantata, one of Schnittke’s most viscerally thrilling pieces, will furnish material for an upcoming opera on Faust themes.
There is a final border Schnittke has put into question. From beginning to end, his music has been haunted by a man who does not and never did exist – Adrian Leverkühn, the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus. Schnittke’s Faust cantata employs the same 1587 German text that was used in Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus. Schnittke’s methodology of parody, of polystylistics and playing with forms, also unmistakably recalls Leverkühn, whose works were a musical endpoint at which all possibilities were combined and then destroyed. A Soviet musicologist who has interviewed Schnittke extensively has gone so far as to state that the composer “internalized” Mann’s novel – “the book has been a program for him” (V. Cholopowa). There could be no better evocation of the atmosphere prevailing in Schnittke’s finest music than this description of a passage from Leverkühn’s Apocalypse oratorio:
Adrian’s capacity for mocking imitation, which was rooted deep in the melancholy of his being, became creative here in the parody of the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges: French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz – like a tilting-ring it goes round and round, gaily glittering, above the fundamental utterance of the main orchestra, which, grave, sombre, and complex, asserts with radical severity the intellectual level of the work as a whole.
Yet Schnittke does not fall prey to the “aristocratic nihilism” that shadows Leverkühn, the colossal aloofness and condescension. The “tilting-ring” that goes round and round in Schnittke’s works might be either the insipid wantonness of light music or the grave and serious classical tradition itself. One can almost guess that melancholy is what holds Schnittke to the tradition, and that his capacity for mocking imitation is a secret urge for the outside. Registering his discontent, he has chosen to pursue a career in music prefigured by a character in fiction.
A Faustian four-and-twenty years after his breakthrough into musical freedom, Schnittke still sounds the depth of that which he professes. His music lays itself out like a documentary record – not a transcript of the crises of any particular moment, but a confession of the unease that has gathered around the practice of classical composition. As the devil tells Leverkühn, twentieth-century music has an aspect of the “highbrow swindle” about it. Schnittke has dropped the pretence of the total, self-contained work of art, and the dreadful condition that he puts in its place has a ring of truth. His chaos clarifies; his drift is mastery.
Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 12 January 2001
Alfred Schnittke’s music, suppressed by the Soviets, was all about dark spaces, mystery and fleeting details. Adrian Searle celebrates the distinctive art of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.
The music is sliding back into that low, constant background that we take for silence. I hear the noise of the guy in the flat upstairs pacing about and doing his morning callisthenics to Robbie Williams. Canned laughter is coming up through the floor. Then there’s the shouting and the sirens from the street. My own noise is just as pervasive. It buries the rest and papers over my empty moments.
There is never any real silence; I think it was John Cage who, when visiting a sound-proofed, anechoic chamber, heard two distinct sounds: the technician later told him that what he had heard were the sound of his blood going round and the electric hum of his own brain.
The general noise level here is unexceptional – less, I guess, than in the Moscow apartment buildings where composer Alfred Schnittke, whose work is celebrated this weekend at the Barbican, wrote much of his music. His father-in-law would slump in front of an ice-hockey game on TV in the same room; he worked next to a window above the street, with his adolescent son’s rock music bulging through the room. Schnittke, apparently, never unplugged the telephone when he worked, even when, in the 1980s, he was always in demand. No wonder so much of what he wrote was full of interruptions.
I imagine the harassed composer at work in the warrens of everyday Soviet life. So much music – scores for 66 films, eight symphonies, all those chamber pieces, choral works, solo piano compositions, an electronic work. Perhaps composers don’t need silence, in the same way that chess masters don’t need a board to run through their moves. It is all in the head. Artists, frequently, play music while they work: maybe it drowns out the doubt.
As a writer I find it hard to work to music. I need to hear the voice in my head, a voice I like to imagine is my own. It is not always the same voice, and a writer often needs the voices of others, whose cadences and tone shake you out of your own frightful monologue, or fill in when your own voice refuses to speak. Alfred Schnittke’s replay of old forms (the concerto grosso, Gregorian chants) and of other voices (Beethoven “mottos”, Mozart and Vivaldi licks, memories of Schoenberg and Shostakovich, tango fragments, the brass section that swerves unexpectedly into big-band mode for a few bars) go to demonstrate that for him the past wasn’t all used up.
Schnittke’s phrase, “the difference between the conceivable and the audible”, was his measure. There is a tension between what a composer can imagine and write, and what can be performed. He was at times happy to utilise what seemed like jazz improvisation – unscored tuning up as an integral part of a piece; or to ask performers to mime frenetic playing in performance while producing no sound at all – a “cadenza visuale”, which, in recordings, is marked by the performer’s exhausted sighs, sudden explosive “Oohs” and laboured breaths; or to orchestrate for an invisible piano (amplified, and hidden behind the stage).
Schnittke’s music is much more than accumulation, accretion, disruption and surprise. It may be filled with other voices and different styles, but he is never just a montage-mannerist; no more a ventriloquist than any other artist of our time. But inevitably no less of one, either. Doubts about the authenticity of a voice, are for him another level of play: what he called his “polystylistic” voice.
You can’t have Schnittke as background music. It demands too much attention. It isn’t just the dissonant patches, the eardrum-flexing notes, the changing pace of it, the chase-music losing its way in the weeds, the alternating currents of anxiety and grace. It is simply too arresting. A passage of lush strings is systematically prised apart just when you are getting into it. Not simply because of all the switches, turnstiles and reverses the music goes through, but because Schnittke continually reconfigures our emotions, changing the pattern as well as the material, and our response to it.
His music is not like Matisse’s comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. Nor is it bracing in that muscular, angular, tough-love way you think must be good for you, but makes you wish it would stop. Schnittke’s music is very carefully structured, paced, configured, for all its seismic faults. If his music is as much spatial as temporal – sculptural and filmic as much as it is atmospheric – then all those movie scores may have had their uses.
His music is big, complex, erudite and multiformed, but you never lose the details amid it all – he is very good at details, at what I think of as glimpses, an eye flickering from the larger forms to something left accidentally on the floor. Listening, then, becomes an experience of transitions. Of phases, figures passing in front and behind one another, things in transit.
Familiarity doesn’t dull it. The familiar is a necessary part of his repertoire, the almost subliminal sense of déjà vu that holds the shapes together. I don’t think Schnittke cared whether what he did sounded “modern” or “difficult”, high or low. He could be all these things, with enough space in hand to let things breathe, to keep them alive.
Certain of Schnittke’s spiritual preoccupations, such as his dabblings in the occult, in the I-Ching (like John Cage), in anthroposophy (though he said he could never trust a man with eyes like Rudolf Steiner’s), culminated in his indecision as to whether to join the Catholic or the Russian Orthodox churches. Schnittke, half Jewish, his parents and grandparents atheists, a German Russian who spent much of his post-war childhood in Vienna, was a polystylistic man. He was led to the spiritual. His music, therefore, makes appeals to dark spaces, to mysteries, to enduring things, certainties. He was no reductivist, and more, I think, a synthetic than an analytical composer.
He plays too, on our sense of perpetual expectation, our hunger for differences, for change and mutability. Where he leads is another matter. His unusual orchestrations (the piano, harpsichord and celesta opening to the Fourth Symphony, for example) keep us listening, and waiting, keep us wanting more. The mad plunges, the returns to a sober, almost sentimental lyricism, sounds creeping in like light under a door and the shadow of someone pacing about beyond: there is real suspense here. It has been said that Schnittke’s music is both ambivalent and pessimistic. This is its unavoidable condition. I can throw adjectives and claims at it all day, but they just slide off the surface. He is seductive, awkward, unhinging. Schnittke’s music knows it will be subsumed back into the world around it when it is done, back into what passes for silence.
Notes from a life in music
1934: Alfred Schnittke is born in Engels, Russia, to German parents.
1946-8: Studies composition in Vienna – a formative experience of Austrian culture.
1949-61 Studies at the October Revolution Music College, Moscow, and at the Moscow Conservatory.
1958 His oratorio Nagasaki is condemned by the Russian Union of Composers. A troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities begins.
1974: His First Symphony is effectively banned in the Soviet Union. Schnittke dubs his work of this period “polystylistic”.
Late 1970s: Works such as the First Sonata for Cello and Piano see him move to a personal language less reliant on musical quotation.
1982: Baptised a Catholic.
1985: Gorbachev comes to power; for the first time Schnittke is allowed to travel regularly outside the Soviet Union. At the same time, his health begins to fail.
1990: Moves to Hamburg.
1993-4: Schnittke’s eighth and last symphony is completed. His mature style is spare and refined, reminiscent of late Shostakovich and the work of the Italian Luigi Nono.
1998: He dies in Germany after a series of strokes.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 21 January 2001
(Schnittke actually said “The goal of my life is to unify “E” and “U” even if I break my neck in so doing!”, “E” being Ernste Musik, “U” being Unterhaltungsmusik.)
You knew they were die-hard Schnittke fans. Nobody coughed …
Alfred Schnittke said that his goal as a composer was to bridge the gap between serious music and music for entertainment, “even if I break my neck doing it”. Today that ambition may strike us as a less literal risk than would have been the case in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Schnittke’s compositional powers were at their height.
His relationship with the grim regime was always volatile, his music at turns the object of adulation and condemnation. Officialdom governed his every move (or, more often, failure to move, since for much of his life he was forbidden from travelling outside the Soviet Union, even to hear performances of his own music). If, for most of us today, that era of Soviet state control has faded to mere reported memory, its painful legacy was felt afresh at the Barbican’s Schnittke extravaganza last weekend. Every note of his music, even at its buoyant best, carries the ironic shadow of adversity. Wit becomes a weapon.
The BBC’s annual Composer Portraits have long been a pleasurable obligation in the January calendar. Judging by the surreal silence and absence of arbitrary bronchial display which attends each concert, these marathons attract only dedicated music lovers. The joy is that this species, supposedly threatened, is determinedly alive; many of the concerts were sold out.
All were well attended and hungrily received. To spend three evenings and two days in the Barbican, or communing with Radio 3 which broadcasts the entire proceedings, requires a certain staying power. Yet the prerequisite for enjoyment is curiosity, not expertise. A sense of shared discovery unites the audience. An excellent complementary programme of talks and films (Schnittke wrote some 66 film scores) exists to fill any gaps in our knowledge. No one should feel daunted.
“Seeking the Soul” was an appropriately ambiguous title for the weekend (who was doing the seeking – the composer or his audience?). Schnittke’s chameleon ability to change mode and mood has made his musical dialectic seem unfairly elusive or superficial. A German-born Russian, a Jew who embraced Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, throughout his life (1934-98) he sought a homeland, a place of acceptance.
His eclectic use of jazz, baroque, mainstream classical and Russian Orthodox chant, tossed together in a bubble-and-squeak of musical variety, might seem to dash any hope of finding the real Schnittke. The reverse is true. Immersion in his music, from expansive, collage-like symphonies to unadorned chamber or choral works, merely confirmed the singularity of his artistic vision. His mission, always, is to wrestle with the musical tradition he has inherited, both within Russia and beyond.
In his favoured form, the concerto grosso, he borrows from the Italian baroque, not to imitate as a neoclassicist ( à la Stravinsky) might, but to explore a type of music which Russia itself never possessed. The string quartets survey the Austro-German tradition, as if sampling Beethoven’s entire output and reconfiguring it, refining and redefining it in his own terms. The Keller Quartet gave haunting accounts of Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 in St Giles’s, Cripplegate, one of the weekend’s many highlights.
In similar vein, at the frenzied climax of the Violin Concerto No. 4, the soloist has to mime virtuosity, his bow sawing crazily above the strings, as if silenced grotesquely by his accompanists. Here, the violinist was the work’s dedicatee, the dazzling Gidon Kremer, who added spice and brilliance to several concerts during the weekend. He was accompanied by the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins, who in the same concert negotiated the mesmerically theatrical Symphony No. 1 with assurance and skill. In this raw, explosive work, scored for huge orchestra, the players walk on stage one by one, then off, then on again, tuning frantically in parody of symphony concert conventions.
At one point, the music is interrupted by a pianist and violinist (Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan) who come and start their own anarchic jazz improvisations while the conductor looks on, bewildered. When performed with the kind of conviction shown here, Schnittke’s anarchy achieves strange and compelling grandeur.
The BBC players, who valiantly mastered a formidable number of works for the occasion, were less secure in the late Symphony No. 8, written in 1994, four years before the composer’s death when he was already incapacitated by a series of strokes. Nevertheless, a few fluffs could not cloud the spare intensity and transparent textures of this remarkable work, here conducted by Eri Klas in its UK premiere. In the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the BBC Singers (who performed the inspiring Choir Concerto) and BBC Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta and a group of fine soloists, Schnittke had the best possible advocates.
Jonathan Lennie, Time Out, 13 November 2009
As Vladimir Jurowski curates a festival dedicated to Alfred Schnittke, Time Out talks to the conductor about the composer’s legacy.
By the time of his death in 1998, Alfred Schnittke had become regarded as one of the major composers of the late twentieth century. The reason? His unique position both culturally and musically, engendering an eclectic sound-world – combining the tonal language of earlier Western music with the idioms of his time (such as 12-tone serialism). This gained him a reputation for “polystylism”, which became a defining feature of his work.
His distinctive sound and technique may be traced to his background. He was born to German/Jewish parents, and lived in Vienna until he was 12, before his family returned to Soviet Russia. As much of his work was banned (as decadent Western formalism), it instigated an explosion of interest and mass programming of his music after perestroika in 1980s Russia, where he was regarded as the natural successor to Shostakovich. Yet, over here, despite a four-day Schnittke festival at the Barbican in 2001 (care of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and the odd appearance (his oratorio “Nagasaki” was presented by the LSO at this summer’s BBC Proms), he remains somewhat obscure. Someone who aims to put that right is Vladimir Jurowski, who has curated “Between Two Worlds”, a festival exploring Schnittke’s life and works. The mercurial principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (and director of Glyndebourne) is well suited to the task, having himself experienced the same dual cultures – he was born in Moscow in 1972, then moved to Germany in 1990, where he studied and still lives.
“This is a very personal thing – you have to perform the music in which you believe. My whole philosophy on this series is that I am trying to set the composer in context. So Schnittke is never peformed on his own – there are works by his influences Haydn, Wagner, Webern and Berg. I hope it will give audiences the chance to see not just another twentieth-century composer, but an indispensable part – maybe the last link in the chain – of what we call the European tradition.”
Are Schnittke’s roots in German music rather than Russian?
“What simply springs out of his music is that this is a German composer at work, but also someone who has been very influenced by his life in Russia. I think Schnittke’s position is unique – until he was12, he studied piano with a private teacher in Vienna, so his roots are Schubert, Mozart and Haydn, not Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Borodin – something he added later.”
Schnittke said: “Faust is the theme of my whole life.” Why?
“Faust is an archetype of European culture and a problem of the European intellectual, and Schnittke certainly felt himself part of this intellectual and spiritual tradition … he was someone growing up in a cultural vacuum.”
Are all his works polystylistic?
“No, polystylism is something that he has developed as an idea in the middle period of his life. Basically it came from his very active involvement with the writing of film scores, which was the only secure way of making a living in Russia at the time as a composer. He realised about the mid-1970s that his affinity with music for entertainment was as strong as his affinity with more radical, experimental stuff. Either he would waste the rest of his life trying to reconcile them, or hiding one from another, or find a way of bringing them together under the same roof.”
Why is he a great composer?
“Schnittke has been through various phases – he has written strictly serialist works and strictly tonal works and so-called “polystylistic” pieces, but I find in his best works, and even at his worst, he remains absolutely recognisable Schnittke, and that is a rare gift.”
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 17 August 1998
“I’m sorry, but I’m loath to listen to my work,” the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke declared in 1981, preventing a scheduled performance of his Septet. “It’s a terrible composition.”
Earlier this month, when Schnittke died at the age of 63, he was almost totally unknown outside music circles. And though one hates to say it, that obscurity may be because it seems so easy to agree with that self-criticism and not just about the Septet. One could, a bit perversely, portray his career as one of crass vulgarity and crude effects.
Schnittke’s piece composed for his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory was called “Nagasaki” and included a musical evocation of an atomic bomb blast. Then came “The 11th Commandment”, an opera about the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After such melodramatic beginnings, Schnittke built a career in the Soviet Union by writing 66 film scores for cartoons, documentaries and features.
His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke’s First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.
This was not the exception. Schnittke’s Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It’s a post-modern playground.
I have indulged in this bit of mock criticism because it is almost impossible to describe Schnittke’s music without making it sound as if it really were awful, as if it were full of cliches. In his work, history is plundered; irony is rampant; pastiche becomes the only coherence; the beauties of art are seemingly beyond reach.
Schnittke once said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” But the remarkable thing is that even though this style – one for which I generally have very little sympathy or interest – really is Schnittke’s, any dismissal of his achievement is entirely wrong. Schnittke was a modern master. Or, better, a post-modern master.
He took a style that mocks the very idea of genius and turned it into an affirmation of genius. He applied techniques that are meant to undo notions of truth or beauty and used them in a life-and-death struggle to reassert those notions. He adopted an attitude usually associated with easy irony and facile posing and molded it into a profound expression of his inner life. In his music, even the classical-music tradition, which such mannerisms usually declare to be at an end, ends up taking on new life. Schnittke turned post-modernism on its head.
I first heard Schnittke’s music in 1981, when he was relatively unknown in the United States. When the contemporary ensemble Continuum gave one of the first New York concerts devoted to his work, I was unprepared for the shock. There was such a contrast between the eclectic, disjointed style and the incisive coherence of the results, that I could only think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes a traveler with his piercing gaze.
Schnittke’s is a storyteller’s art, able in the turns of a few phrases to leap across centuries, to adopt the most noble of attitudes, to inhabit the most vulgar of characters, to moan with despair and then burst out in laughter, to mock himself but command attention with his seriousness. One listens in disbelief but then realizes that one’s knuckles are white from gripping the chair.
Not every attempt was successful. The First Symphony really did seem to create a circus of sarcasm. The Sixth Symphony, performed a few years ago in New York, is weirdly fractured and despairing. But listen to any of the recordings of his most famous work, the 1977 Concerto Grosso, with its mixture of Vivaldi and cartoon music, elegiac melody and robust declamations. It is a universe of thwarted expression, everything is at risk; the result is maniacal, almost crazily daring.
But there is an odd kind of integrity in this music, a concentration that absorbs all contradiction, just as in the wrenching 1985 Viola Concerto, the soloist vigorously maneuvers about in a shape-shifting world of uncertain character.
Schnittke was akin to Mahler, not just in the way both used earlier musical styles and folk melodies to poke through a scrim of modern melancholy, but because both also found something profound in the midst of these musical recollections and meditations. A constant struggle is going on. And for both, irony was a temptation, not a solution. Yield to it, and everything dissolves into insignificance. It may be that for Schnittke, post-modernism itself had a kind of devilish character to which he was drawn and against which he had to struggle, sometimes turning to the comforts of religious faith. (He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.)
This may have been one reason why Schnittke was so preoccupied with the story of Faust. In 1959, he wanted to write a composition similar to “Lamentation of Doctor Faustus” that the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn writes in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. It would have been a drama not just about the soul but about the artist weaving his way through the temptations of easy sentiment and amusement. In 1983 Schnittke wrote the “Faust” Cantata. One of his last works was an opera, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten”.
One of Schnittke’s core dramas may have been a struggle between post-modernism, with its miscellany and mannerisms, and the far deeper desire to create coherence and comprehension. He once asserted that “everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful” is not external to the world, but an intrinsic part of its order. Disharmony and cacophony, which he called the world’s evil, is knit into what is “harmonious and beautiful”.
And Schnittke really did seem to keep that in mind. An astonishing number of his pieces use a motif created by the musical notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name in Germanic notation (B, A, C and B flat). That motif and Bach’s music are cited as if they were visitations from another world, at sea in a monstrous post-modern universe. But Bach is not dissolved in that universe. Instead, Schnittke treats him as his Virgil, leading him through the surrounding wilderness, helping him knit evil into the fabric of beauty.
Correction: August 19, 1998, Wednesday The Connections column on Monday about the works of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke misstated the order of the musical notes that spell out Bach’s name in Germanic notation. The notes, a motif Schnittke used in some of his compositions, are B flat, A, C, B (not B, A, C, B flat); B natural is H in Germanic notation.
Geoff Brown, The Times, 30 October 2009
In the cellist Alexander Ivashkin’s biography of Alfred Schnittke there’s a touching photo of the future composer, circa 1935, aged about 12 months. He’s grinning eagerly as babies do, clinging to the top bar of a battered crib in the family home in the drab Volga port of Engels, in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The future stretches before him.
But what future? The tot’s bright eyes know nothing of Stalin’s cruelties, of Hitler’s Holocaust, of atom bombs and the rest of the madness of the century conjured up so vividly in the expressive phantasmagoria of the adult Schnittke’s music.
By the 1980s he was labelled the natural successor to Shostakovich, but since Schnittke’s death in Hamburg in 1998, his reputation has been idling, if not taking a dip. Next month at the South Bank Centre Between Two Worlds, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Schnittke season – steered by Vladimir Jurowski, with help from Ivashkin and the Alfred Schnittke Archive – presents a chance to re-visit, re-evaluate or discover his tumultuous work.
He was born to reflect the century’s roar and chaos. Even his genes didn’t know which way to turn. His mother was German; his father German-Jewish. In the late 1940s his father’s newspaper work took the family to Vienna. In those two years Schnittke became saturated with Austro-German traditions. Reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus sparked a lifelong fascination with the Faust legend. The symphonies of Mahler took hold.
Culturally, he was almost a vagabond. “Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia,” he wrote. “But I am not Russian.” Nor could he feel completely Jewish: “My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew.”
No wonder, then, that Schnittke’s most individual gift to music was a collision of styles, high and low, crammed into a single piece. He called it “polystylism”. A simple example occurs in his first Concerto Grosso (featured on November 22), in which the strings’ baroque swirls suddenly cut off to reveal his grandmother’s favourite tango plonking away on a harpsichord. For complex examples, you can’t beat the First Symphony (missing, alas, from the season), where the stew includes jazz improvisation and transmuted morsels from classical music’s all-stars, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin and folks, jostling in madcap array.
Both are pieces from the 1970s, the years of the Brezhnev “stagnation”, of government by smoke and mirrors: a fitting context for Schnittke’s dysfunctional games, amply disliked by Moscow’s Establishment, especially Tikhon Khrennikov, the powerful head of the Composers’ Union.
Another influence on the music was more practical. Between 1962 and 1984 Schnittke earned a living writing cinema scores, some for adventurous animated films such as The Glass Umbrella, with music and sound effects usually worked in counterpoint with the images. He became used to montage and collage: art in slices.
Was he a dissident? The violinist Dimitry Sitvoketsky, featured in several concerts, thinks not. “It was just that the music he wrote wasn’t officially liked.” Yet it wasn’t merely the music that irked the Soviet bosses. There was also Schnittke’s public popularity. “By the 1980s the public treated him almost like a rock star,” Ivashkin recalls. “Crowds in Moscow beat down the doors to come to his concerts. Police had to be called.”
Khrennikov’s petty response to his fame was to obstruct the composer’s travel. Once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1984, the situation eased, only for Schnittke’s health to worsen. In 1985 he had the first of three strokes that reduced the quality of his life, furthering a musical shift towards the greater simplicity of means made fashionable by the “holy minimalists”, such as Arvo Pärt. He admired the ascetic beauty of Pärt’s music, but he told Ivashkin: “I can’t be a saint!” A revealing reply. Schnittke’s music is always formidably human.
For Jurowski, born in 1972, the season will be in part a voyage of discovery. “Learning about Schnittke and his time,” he says, “has a special meaning for me, since it was also the time of my parents’ youth and my own childhood.”
As for Ivashkin, he hopes the season will help bring the music to the same pitch of popularity in Britain as Shostakovich’s, and encourage opera companies to investigate The History of D. Johann Faustus (the season presents extracts) or another neglected item, Gesualdo. “Maybe the situation is healthier now. We can hear his music from a more realistic perspective, and judge him more like a composer of the world.”
Crazy world; crazy music. But so compelling.
Martin Anderson, David Revill, The Independent, 5 August 1998
The “polystylism” that came to be characteristic of Alfred Schnittke’s music was a reflection of the man himself: he was a Russian composer, born in a once-German part of the Soviet Union, to parents of Latvian origin – his father Jewish and his mother German, who grew up a Catholic in a German community in an atheist state.
Schnittke’s natural openness to this kaleidoscope of influences was characteristic of his generous intellectual curiosity: he likewise accepted all the rest of music as material to feed his own creative urge. He was also two ways a hero, although, in keeping with his personal modesty, an unemphatic one: at the beginning of his career he assiduously took on the Soviet cultural dictatorship on behalf of new music, and at the end of his life he showed extraordinary physical courage in continuing to compose despite a series of vicious strokes.
Schnittke’s musical ambitions manifested themselves early but the family’s limited means, and their geographical isolation in the Volga during the Second World War (Stalin deported the Volga Germans en masse; Schnittke’s father’s Jewishness allowed his family to escape the net), meant that systematic instruction was not available. The child none the less made crude attempts at composition, demonstrating a creative will that was to ignore formidable obstacles throughout his career.
In 1945 Schnittke’s father, now a journalist in the Soviet army, was posted to Vienna with the occupying forces, and the nine-year-old Alfred could at last study music theory and piano, also soaking himself in concerts and broadcast music (Stalin had banned the private possession of radios during the Second World War). The Viennese tradition he encountered at this formative age provided a vital underlay to his later stylistic explorations.
The Schnittke family returned to the Soviet Union in 1946, settling in the Moscow area, and Alfred began to teach himself harmony. At the age of 15 he was accepted as a student in the army music college, and began private theory lessons with Iosif Ryzhkin, who taught him to compose in a wide variety of styles to improve the fluency of his technique. In 1953, just as Stalin’s death gave way to Khrushchev’s brief “thaw”, Schnittke became a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where the students courted the disapproval of their orthodox teachers by listening privately to the “bourgeois” music of composers like Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók and Schoenberg, who were only now beginning to be heard in Russia.
Another massive influence on Schnittke at this time, as on virtually every young composer of note in the Soviet Union, was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto, premiered in 1955, had a very direct impact. Schnittke’s friend Alexander Ivashkin – whose excellent biographical study Alfred Schnittke (1996) is the only publication on the composer in English – points to the similarities between the concertos of the two composers: there is “the same feeling of drama, the same sharp, even exaggerated, contrasts between the movements, and the same freedom and space for the cadenza, a monologue of the soloist ‘hero’”. Ivashkin neatly characterises the difference in their styles: “Shostakovich, under the burden of Stalin’s dictatorship, was much more cautious, preferring to speak indirectly and symbolically. Schnittke’s generation grew up in a different situation and wanted to speak more openly and directly.”
Schnittke’s graduation piece, an oratorio called Nagasaki (1958) brought him his first brush with authority: his depiction of the explosion of the atomic bomb, using atonality, tonal clusters and howling trombones, was hardly calculated to appease the apparatchiks of the Composers’ Union. Schnittke was unable to make the compromises in his musical language to suit the political lines of the commission he was offered, and so in the early 1960s he was blacklisted, a covert ban that was to last 20 years.
That meant that travel abroad, even to other Communist countries, would be a rare privilege, despite his growing fame as one of the Soviet Union’s most individual voices and leading modernists. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s Schnittke was invited to around 20 premieres of his works abroad; permission to attend them was never granted.
In a search for a musical language that would synthesise past and present Schnittke was already beginning to unite a variety of elements in his music, in the beginnings of his “polystylism”, where reminiscences of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical composers sit alongside the most dramatic devices of modernism, in stark contrasts that produce music of considerable tension and power. Studies with the Moldova-born Webern pupil Philip Hershkovich, who pointed to the origins of much modern music in the classics of the past, now gave Schnittke’s search intellectual cohesion, and the music began to flow fast from his pen.
In 1962 Schnittke wrote the first of his film scores, a genre that was to afford him a relatively good living over the next two decades, accounting for no fewer than 66 of his 200 or so works. It also allowed him more room for experiment than works destined for the Communist-controlled concert halls: he could choose his techniques according to the film in question, commenting on the action rather than merely illustrating it. These scores provided a rich vein of material for later concert works.
One of those pieces was the First Symphony, first performed in 1974, an unabashed ragbag of music, discordantly, exultantly sewn together with some pointedly rough needlework, like some crazed Charles Ives on speed. The effect on Russian musical life was electric: it heralded the beginning of the end for the old, repressive order, which predictably reacted by putting an effective ban on its performance.
Schnittke’s music meantime was moving on, refining his magpie eclecticism in favour of a new depth of emotion; the occasion for this search for expressive power was the death of his mother, from a stroke, in 1972; the sense of mortality it brought Schnittke was supported by a growing sense of religious awareness.
The advent to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 loosened the grip of Tikhon Khrennikov, the Stalinist head of the Composers’ Union, on musical life in the Soviet Union. Schnittke was poised to reap the rewards of his intellectual and moral consistency. And that was when he had his first stroke, with a brain haemorrhage so severe that three times he was pronounced clinically dead.
His reaction was to tighten his grip on life: he began composing his First Cello Concerto within three months. Stage works, orchestral music, choral pieces, chamber music followed, one score after another with an almost frantic urgency. A second stroke hit him in 1991, after which Schnittke completed his opera Life with an Idiot. Two years later another opera, Gesualdo, was finished, as were the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.
Schnittke’s doctor had advised him to take complete rest; when Schnittke found that the result was yet another stroke, he threw caution to the winds and, though he could barely speak and could write only with his left hand (he was right-handed), he managed to compose his Ninth Symphony, which was premiered in Moscow in June this year.
No composer as productive as Schnittke can expect to write a consistent string of masterpieces. But the best of Schnittke is, quite simply, great music: his Second Cello Concerto, for example, is one of the finest additions to the cello repertoire this century; and Ivashkin chronicles how the audience at his ballet Peer Gynt left the hall in tears.
Much of his work is touched with a sense of imminent loss, of some disaster about to break on the listener, in music of searing pain – which, indeed, is exactly how Schnittke lived much of the latter part of his life.
Alfred Schnittke was one of Russia’s most prolific and innovative composers and, in the last few years, became one of an elite of composers this century to achieve broad popularity, writes David Revill.
His interest in the European avant-garde was only awoken, however, by a visit to Russia from the Italian composer – and son-in-law of Schoenberg – Luigi Nono in the early Sixties. From then until the late Sixties Schnittke employed serial techniques himself. This brought him hostility from the Soviet authorities, whose criteria for good music were still basically political. Performances of works such as the First Symphony (1969-72) were delayed and often held in obscure parts of the Union (the Symphony premiered in Gorky on 9 February 1974). Other young Russian composers, on the other hand, increasingly admired his daring.
The authorities still let him teach at the Conservatoire and at the Experimental Studio for Electronic Music. From 1972 onwards, he began to make his living as a composer, thanks to such energetic work as writing music for stage productions of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, for films of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Eugene Onegin.
Starting with his Second Violin Concerto (1966), he returned to expressive music in a more broadly dramatic way. He fitted his interest in serialism into this, producing, for example, 12-note rows with implied tonal centres, so that he could build a contrast between tonal and atonal styles into a single piece. He tried this approach in pieces such as Quasi una Sonata (1968).
As early as the First Symphony, Schnittke had begun to combine earlier musical styles in pastiche – quotes from Beethoven symphonies, imitation Baroque music, stylised modern dances, and so on. This polystylism is one of his work’s most controversial features. Most offended are those who feel they own the music he has cited. When his arrangement of Stille Nacht was played near its composer’s birthplace, Schnittke recalled, “It made some people upset that I made some changes in his music, which gave it a much more mournful sense.”
Schnittke received little critical attention in the West before the end of the 1980s. After that, more and more attention was devoted to his music, though some critics derided him for crude structures, unsophisticated themes, and over-sentimentality. What was more significant was that at the same point there was an explosion of interest from a broader public – part of the biggest upsurge this century of enthusiasm for “serious” music, which also brought to prominence composers such as Henryk Górecki and John Tavener.
Popular interest brought wider opportunities for performances and recordings. Schnittke pieces were championed by, among others, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, the violinist Gidon Kremer, and new music stars, the Kronos Quartet. He was also the subject of a film by Donald Sturrock, The Unreal World of Alfred Schnittke.
Why the big explosion of public interest came when it did is a fascinating question. Partly it was because many people were ready for serious music they could actually understand. For decades composers had been pursuing their own musical agendas and scarcely thinking of an audience. A composer who could write dramatic, moving, humorous music, with references to recognisable syles, and who dared to call pieces by the kinds of title people could recognise, would have an enthusiastic welcome. Schnittke genially fitted the bill.
Alfred Schnittke, composer: born Engels, Soviet Republic of Volga Germans, 24 November 1934; married 1956 Galina Koltsina (marriage dissolved 1958), 1961 Irina Katayeva (one son); died Hamburg, Germany, 3 August 1998.