Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Works from Grove Music

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 11, 2006

In Schnittke’s early works, Shostakovich was an obvious model, but many other influences were also absorbed. In the oratorio Nagasaki (1958, written just after he had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory), both the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Russian tradition of the 19th century are still clearly felt, notwithstanding an atonal episode representing the explosion of the atomic bomb. An absorption of new techniques followed intensive research into Western music and this led, after intensive concentration on serial writing (evident in the Violin Sonata no.1, 1963, and Violin Concerto 1966), to such works as the Violin Sonata (‘Quasi una sonata’) and the Serenade, both of 1968, which employ aleatory and extended instrumental techniques with wit and humour, and whose sense of openness to all styles and sound-phenomena presage his later, more consistent use of polystylism. The Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1971) continues to employ elements of the rather fragmented style of the Serenade, but melds them into a taut dramatic structure which moves towards the stasis of the work’s final section.

Despite the inherent risk in polystylism of appearing, in formal terms, to be mere pastiche unless disparate stylistic elements are adequately incorporated within the music’s aesthetic and physical structure, this approach proved in general to be an efficient generator of that kind of alienation, expressed through irony, which Schnittke inherited from Shostakovich, whose natural successor he has often been considered to be. The Piano Quintet of 1976 (later reworked as the orchestral In memoriam) juxtaposes non-tonal material with nostalgic reminiscences of other types of music (a Viennese waltz, for example) in such a way as to make the feeling of isolation and bereavement almost unbearably acute. In memoriam relies heavily on the emotional, associative power of the strings (in contrast to the fragmented style of the Concerto), a harking back to Tchaikovsky and Mahler which continued in his symphonies.

1977 saw the composition of the Concerto Grosso no.1, in which the wit inherent in the Serenade is developed into a commentary on the idea of the Baroque concerto grosso. The composer noted that he achieved an alienating effect through “formulae and forms of baroque music; free chromaticism and micro-intervals; and banal popular music which enters as it were from the outside with a disruptive effect.” Quotation of material of very diverse origins is an important feature of several of his works; he developed this particularly in the film music which he wrote throughout his life. Many of his concert works utilize material first heard in his film scores (the Concerto Grosso no.1 is no exception, using as it does material from Butterfly, a cartoon score).
Schnittke’s chamber music, as well as being a vehicle for his most intimate thoughts, also served as a kind of laboratory for refining procedures which were then used on a larger scale in other works. The First String Quartet (1966), whose movements have deceptively traditional titles, employs freely imitative polyphonic writing and a free dodecaphonic vocabulary which is contradicted by the pronounced emphasis of C at the beginning and end as well as during the course of the piece: Schnittke’s approach to twelve-note writing was always unorthodox.

The later 1970s saw a gradual abandoning of the rather obvious kind of polystylism of the previous decade, and works such as the First Sonata for cello and piano (1978) and the four Hymns (1974–9) show the creation of a new, homogeneous language with a structural rigour which retains the capacity to allude to other music in more subtle ways than direct quotation. Although the Second String Quartet (1980) is built almost entirely upon medieval Russian sacred music which is quoted relatively clearly in the outer movements, the already idiosyncratic harmonic and melodic character of the quoted material is refracted and distorted in the second and third movements as though it formed a part of Schnittke’s own language. Similarly, the Third String Quartet (1983) takes as its material three quotations: cadential material from Lassus’s Stabat mater, the theme from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Shostakovich’s DSCH motto. The chromatic juxtaposition of the latter two provides a foil for the simplicity of the Lassus fragment with which the work begins; all three themes undergo a gradual transformation and reconciliation in Schnittke’s own musical language. In the String Trio (1985), a homage to Berg, Schnittke refers to the older composer’s style in a general way, rather than using specific quotation, the whole being a complex set of variations or transformations of the opening material. Its polyphonic density is shared by the Fourth String Quartet and the Piano Quartet (both 1989, the latter incorporating material from an unfinished piano quartet by Mahler). Later chamber works, in common with the symphonies, reveal a greater textural transparency. This is apparent, for example, in both the Second Sonata for cello and piano (1993–4) and the Third Sonata for violin and piano (1994).

In his symphonies, Schnittke attempted to take on the Mahlerian symphonic ideal, that of embracing the world. The First (1972), like the Third (1980) builds its universe from a very wide range of material. The First Symphony takes the principles of the contemporary Serenade much further, and in doing so it can be seen as a pivotal point in Schnittke’s output between the relatively conventional serial path he had been following and the unequivocal inception of polystylism. In no other work has the conflict of styles and quotations been so clear and so penetrating. Music by Beethoven, Haydn, Grieg, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss is quoted and brutally interrupted and transmuted, and Jazz is also included in a cadenza for violin and piano. The theatrical element is also important: at the opening there are only three players on stage, the other players then enter gradually and improvise in a chaotic fashion until the conductor signals them to stop. At the end, the musicians leave the stage, as in Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, leaving only a solo violin, but then return and begin the work again. They are interrupted by the conductor, who brings the music to an unexpected close.

Though less theatrical, the Third Symphony works with quoted material and stylistic reference in exactly the same way, but the Second (1979) and the Fourth (1983), though referential to other styles, make different use of them. The former, entitled ‘St Florian’ and an homage to Bruckner, comprises six movements which follow the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass; a chorus and soloists provide the liturgical material upon which the orchestra meditates. In the Fourth, Schnittke said that he strove ‘to find the general in the dissimilar’, and attempts to reconcile elements of znamennïy and Gregorian chant, the Lutheran chorale and Synagogue cantillation which are intoned by four vocal soloists within a dense, polyphonic orchestral texture. In this work Schnittke succeeds in absorbing his quoted material into the foundations of his own language in an unprecedented way. The culmination of this is found in the Fifth Symphony (1988), which because it is simultaneously the Fourth Concerto grosso, Schnittke could be said to be quoting a quotation. With the sixth, seventh and eighth symphonies (1992, 1993 and 1993–4 respectively) Schnittke entered into a new, sparer sound world, texturally reminiscent of later Shostakovich and late Nono. The Sixth, containing almost no writing for the full orchestra, makes conscious reference both to Bruckner in its trombone chorales and to Schnittke’s opera Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1983–94), and the Seventh, while also summoning Bruckner and Mahler, has its point of origin in a solo violin passage recalling Bach and, at times, the Berg of the Violin Concerto. With the Eighth and Ninth Schnittke brought this late, spare style to a new maturity and refinement.

The shadow of Berg may also be detected in Schnittke’s own series of violin concertos. The Third (1978) presents an amalgam of violin styles (though often implicity rather than explicitly), and the Fourth (1982) is not only more eclectic but theatrical: towards the end, the orchestra becomes so loud that the soloist cannot be heard, and is left miming the gestures of the virtuoso on stage. With the Konzert zu Dritt of 1994, Schnittke attained the concentrated, lyrical expressionism which would characterize his work thenceforth – confirmed particularly by the Viola Concerto (1985), the ballet Peer Gynt (1986), the Fifth Symphony (1988) and the two cello concertos (1986 and 1990) – until the simplification which occurred with such works as the Sixth Symphony and the opera Zhizn’s idiotom (‘Life with an Idiot’) of the early 1990s.

In his choral music, an obvious vehicle for the expression of religious belief (he was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1982), Schnittke showed himself increasingly a true inheritor of the Russian tradition: whereas in the 1975 Requiem the stylistic links are with Catholic liturgical music, in the Concerto for Mixed Chorus (1984–5) and the Stikhi pokayannïye (1987), stylistic echoes of and technical procedures derived from the ‘choral orchestration’ of Rachmaninoff abound. It was in his operas that Schnittke dealt with wider philosophical issues, employing a generally angular vocal style but also integrating stylistic reference and allusion in a manner that confirms the theatrical aspirations of his concert works. Life with an Idiot (1991) is a black comedy which while being superficially concerned with the collapse of communism in fact deals with the human condition on a broader scale, something Schnittke underlines by resorting to direct quotation from a great deal of music, including Russian folk songs, within textures of a singular spareness. The Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1983–94), which includes the earlier cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet (1983), may be seen as an operatic passion (a ‘negative passion’ in Schnittke’s words, dealing with the fundamental problem of good and evil), a connection which the composer reinforces with his use of chorales and a pseudo-evangelist, achieving a continuity and a greater stylistic homogeneity absent in Life with an Idiot. Gesualdo (1994) continues these preoccupations and is specifically concerned with the perceived divide between artistic genius and the ability of its possessor to perpetrate the sin of murder; the lean instrumentation of the score results in a textual transparency which goes beyond even Schnittke’s other works from his last years.

If the criticism might be made that Schnittke’s expressionistic all-inclusiveness could lead to the near-suppression of purely musical argument, this was perhaps inevitable in a composer who was concerned in his music to depict the moral and spiritual struggles of contemporary man in such depth and detail.


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