Obituary by Bernard Holland published 4 August 1998 in The New York Times.
Alfred Schnittke, Eclectic Composer, Dies at 63
Alfred Schnittke, an iconoclastic composer who won fame in the West as he struggled against the restrainst of Society ideology at home, died yesterday at the University Hospital in Hamburg, Germany. He was 63 and lived in Hamburg and Moscow.
The cause was a stroke, one of a series he had suffered in recent years, according to his wife, Irina.
Mr. Schnittke’s eclectic method of composing, a collagelike approach in which many styles and periods came together, was particularly emblematic of music late in this century, reflecting an international environment in which many languages competed for attention with none speaking in an authoritative voice. No matter the medium – be it Serialism, updated Romanticism, Baroque gestures or collages made up of all the above, his eclecticism was colored and weighted by a sense of pessimism and anxiety bordering on, and aften crossing over into, despair.
Some of Mr. Schnittke’s music has humorous elements, but wit’s light touch usually eluded him. More successful are the heavy comic ironies placed against gloomy and imaginative elucidations of modern life.
“In the beginning, I composed in a distinct style,” Mr. Schnittke said in an interview in 1988, “but as I see it now, my personality was not coming through. More recenty, I have used many different styles, and quotations from many periods of musical history, but my own voice comes through them clearly now.”
He continued, “It is not just eclecticism for its own sake. When I use elements of, say, Baroque music,” he added, “sometimes I’m tweaking the listenter. And sometimes I’m thinking about earlier music as a beautiful way of writing that has disappeared and will never come back; and in that sense, it has a tragic feeling for me. I see no conflict in being both serious and comic in the same piece. In fact, I cannot have one without the other.”
Mr. Schnittke was born in 1934 in Engels in the Volga republic, which was then an autonomous region for ethnic Germans within the Soviet Union. His music training began in Vienna, where his father worked after World War II, and finished at the Moscow Conservatory, where he subsequently taught instrumentation, score reading, counterpoint and composition until 1972.
He came to music late in his youth because of the war. “We didn’t have a radio,” he recalled. “I don’t think I heard any music at all. One of the first pieces I heard, in 1946, was the Shostakovich Ninth Symphony, which was very refreshing but also very strange.”
Between 1961 and 1984, Mr. Schnittke wrote the scores for more than 60 films, but did so in popular styles removed from his privately inspired compositions. His major shift into eclecticism began with his Second Violin Concerto in 1968 but had its origins in film score writing, a medium demanding many kinds of music. Mahler and Ives were among its influences, as well as the rigorous Serial thinking of Henri Pousseur.
Mr. Schnittke was a busy and productive composer and did not lack for exposure in the United States and Europe. New York performances of his work in recent years included all four of his string quartets, a Piano Sonata (performed by Vladimir Feltsman, to whom it was dedicated), a Cello Sonata, his first two cello concertos, a Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra and a Concerto for Piano and Strings.
His first opera, “Life With an Idiot”, had its world premiere at the Netherlands Music Theater in Amsterdam on April 13, 1992. It is a surreal musical satire about a man who is ordered by the Communist Party to bring an idiot into his home as a punishment for some unnamed crime, and who suffers disaster as a result. The work was conducted to great acclaim by Mstislav Rostropovich. The Dutch press labeled the opera “a requiem for the Soviet Union”.
Mr. Schnittke belonged to a rebellious arm of Soviet composition that included Sofia Gubaidulin, Arvo Pärt and Edison Denisov. Their nemesis was the Soviet Composers Union, which frowned on Serialism and many forms of experimentation. The premiere of Mr. Schnittke’s First Symphony – a piece the composer described as “beginning like a circus and ending in an apocalyptic, terrifying way” – lost him the union’s support in 1972, but he survived on film work and commissions from admiring musicians.
Such famous expatriates as Mr. Rostropovich, Mr. Feltsman, Gidon Kremer and Dmitri Sitkovetsky brought their firm belief in Mr. Schnittke’s music when they came from the Soviet Union to the West. Musicians like these, and now increasingly those who remained at home, have been largely responsible for his international reputation, which has been strengthening for a decade or more. Poor health, however, slowed his activities recently.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Schnittke is survived by a son.
Obituary published in The Musical Times, Autumn 1998
SUSAN BRADSHAW assesses the achievement of the internationally renowned Soviet composer who died, aged 63, on 3 August
OF PART German descent, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, always acknowledged the musically formative importance of the two years he spent in Vienna as a child. It was there that he started to learn the piano at the age of 12 – incidentally becoming a fine exponent of keyboard chamber music, in which capacity he toured extensively as a young man. It was there too that he began to try his hand at composition, and to gain early insight into the nature of his wider European inheritance. His early adult musical character was nevertheless very much a product of his Soviet training and environment, and it was doubtless to his eventual advantage that, like others of his student generation in the USSR, he was almost totally protected from the supposedly evil influence of 20th-century musical developments in Western Europe and, in particular, from those of the postwar avant-garde.
As a student in Moscow during the enforced isolation of what amounted to a musical timewarp, Schnittke’s work was necessarily grounded in the Russian tradition with which he must initially have identified, and it was certainly the security of this inherited identity that was later to give him the courage to maintain a childlike freshness of approach – an approach that was in turn to act as protection against the more defiant position-taking of many of his contemporaries. It could even be said that his own eventually unmistakable persona was achieved by means of a kind of musical hide-and-seek: often working from behind a neutral screen of borrowed – even purloined – stylistic fragments, it was as if he needed the safety of this emotional hiding place in order to be able to give free rein to the agony and the ecstasy that were seldom far beneath the surface of his work.
Schnittke’s ‘own’ musical style arose from a quite singular ability to make the commonplace seem extraordinary, to combine consonance with dissonance in the most natural-sounding way possible. But this seemingly carefree expression was hard won. Far from the carelessness all too readily assumed by his detractors, Schnittke agonised over everything he wrote, sketching and discarding ideas by the bin load until they were sufficiently proven to pass the ultimate test of workability. The magical contrasts he was to derive from setting the old alongside the new had to be long tried before he was able to discover a context that would enable him freely to reintroduce major and minor chords without fear of classical consequences or expectations. And it is the originality and musically-expressive purpose of this particular freedom (including freedom from fear of being thought naive) which not only forms the core of the Schnittke legacy but is his most personal contribution to the second half of the 20th century
Schnittke wrote a large amount of music in all genres, much of it composed following a succession of severe strokes in the summer of 1985 that left him physically weakened and partly paralysed. His mental energies nevertheless seemed undiminished, enabling him both to complete his illness-interrupted Viola Concerto and to compose the first of two cello concertos in less than a year thereafter. Showing extraordinary spirit and a determination to live the rest of his musical life to the full (forced to retire from freelance work as a composer of film music, his tally of completed film scores stands at a remarkable 64) his later music quickly came to suggest that physical adversity may even have had creativity-enhancing consequences of a more spiritual kind.
Like that of his three great Russian compatriots, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Schnittke’s mature music seems inspired by a vivid sense of urgency that can even now be intensely moving whether suggesting a quasi-religious serenity or provoking a carefully controlled musical chaos that can veer from humour to violence as part of the terrifyingly passionate involvement of even so apparently light-hearted a piece as the little (K)Ein Sommernachtstraum.
Four outstanding string quartets, a string trio and a piano quintet are fine examples of a classical high-art seriousness within a chamber music repertoire the extremes of which range from the seriously experimental to the frankly hilarious. But it is perhaps less for his two recent operas, The life of an idiot and Faust, or nine symphonies than for his distinctive contribution to the repertoire of instrumental concertos – mostly for one or more strings, but including three for piano and one for piano four-hands that he may be best remembered.
Moving to Germany in the late 1980s with his second wife Irina, he spent some time in Berlin before settling in Hamburg, where he taught at the Hochschule fair Musik in between travelling the world to attend performances of his works. These invitations he continued to accept with alacrity and, despite the increasing physical effort involved, with all the touching enthusiasm of a previously fettered Soviet citizen.
Obituary by Alex Ross published 7 September 1998 in The New Yorker
The Tragic Prankster
The Interfax Russian News Agency recently issued this curious report of a notable death:
Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who died at 63 of a stroke in Hamburg, Germany, on August 3, was buried Monday at Moscow’s Novodevichye cemetery. About 300 people came to the cemetery, but not all were allowed to attend the burial. None of Schnittke’s relatives or friends made any speeches or agreed to talk to reporters. Famous Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich said the composer’s death was a loss too big to be put into words. “There’s nothing else I can say,” he added. It started raining when the coffin was being lowered into the grave, which in Russian folklore is a sign that the angels are weeping about the deceased and welcoming him in heaven.
It has an anachronistic air, this bit of news. It reads like the final paragraph of a murky Romantic novel of ideas: first the awkward, silent, rain-soaked scene of the artist’s burial, then the abrupt flight toward the mystical. Yet it’s all compressed into a magazine-ready sound bite. It is a fitting epitaph for Alfred Schnittke, who struggled to reconcile his sometimes tremendous musical orations with the narrow, rickety platform of contemporary classical music on which he had to speak. He was aware of the potential absurdity of his situation, and he was able to draw a dark, Felliniesque kind of comedy from it. He wrote a Requiem with electric guitars, a Faust scene with cabaret contralto. In his later years, as he was isolated by illness, he worried less over the irony of being a Romantic in an un-Romantic time: he aimed for maximum nineteenth-century grandeur, and at certain moments he achieved it. A mocker turned tragedian, Schnittke was the emblematic composer of our time.
Solomon Volkov, in the notes to a new recording by the Kronos Quartet, writes, “Schnittke actually resembled an alien in some ways: his large head, topped with a peculiar hairdo, tilted to one side; his fearful eyes closely set on his pale face, expressive and captivating.” That freakish, fragile air was a mask: in private, Schnittke was lively and witty, and he worked amid a hubbub of family, friends, students, colleagues, and hangers-on. When I interviewed him, in 1994, in Washington, I caught a sense of the brilliant, caustic man behind the monkish façade. He answered questions with a practiced cryptic air, but on the one or two occasions when I accidentally asked something intelligent his eyes opened wide—pleasure combined with ironic surprise. His mind was of the devouring kind. His music had an astonishingly wide frame of reference: each work was an essay on its genre. Yet he was anything but an academic composer. His best pieces had the drama of events unfolding in real time—of human voices speaking, shouting, pausing, remembering, and fading away.
Schnittke was born in Russia, in the city of Engels, but his father was a German-speaking Latvian Jew and his mother was a Volga German. He spoke the antique Volga German dialect before he spoke Russian. As a teen-ager, he spent two crucial years in Vienna, just after the Second World War, while his father was working in the Russian sector of the city. Thereafter, he spoke German with a Viennese accent, and, arguably, composed in Viennese as well. His harmonies had a Mahlerian heft, his melodies a Schubertian lilt; he spun them out effortlessly. But he could not keep the Austrian-Romantic tone pristine. The prototypical Schnittke phrase begins in an innocent, nocturnal-wanderer tone and then is waylaid by dissonances. Like a smearing of paint, suspended tones blacken into clusters. The Vienna in which he came of age was, after all, the bombed-out city of “The Third Man.”
Schnittke suffered under the Soviet cultural system, but, as a child of the Khrushchev thaw, he was able to resist its tyrannical idiocies. After a few attempts at socialist-realist bombast, he adopted an idiosyncratic, spiky modernism; then, in the late sixties, he began to write in what he called the “polystylistic” vein—a musical montage technique that blended styles of various eras. The turnabout was influenced not only by the kaleidoscopic musical fashions of the sixties and seventies but also by the experience of scoring films—work that paid the bills whenever the composer fell out of favor with the Soviet classical establishment. In his carnivalesque First Symphony, of 1972, players wander in and out, a jazz ensemble improvises, bits of Tchaikovsky explode and fizzle, and the orchestra collectively delivers itself of dire, deafening minor chords. Schnittke’s early symphonies had a huge impact on Soviet audiences of the time: they found the sheer chaos of the sound daring and liberating. Such works are less impressive today: overblown and murky, they all try to do the apocalypse in about an hour.
But Schnittke’s stylistic journey was just beginning. In the late seventies, he reined in his quotations and parodies, evolving a more disciplined voice. On a now classic BIS recording—one of many dozens that his music has received—you can follow Schnittke’s rapid progression from the madcap, hallucinogenic First Concerto Grosso, written in 1977, to the mature mystery of the Piano Concerto, from 1979, which begins with surreal classical touches and ends with a translucent twelve-tone row. What then came to the fore was Schnittke’s identification with the great Austrian tradition that stretched from Mozart to Berg. His approach resembled Shostakovich’s: a scholarly devotion shot through with Russian irony and pessimism. There is an old Bachian machine—a broken, tangled chromaticism—at work behind such later masterpieces as the String Trio and the Viola Concerto. They were both written in 1985, just before the first of the strokes that beset Schnittke’s final years.
Thomas Mann entitled one of his essays “The Sufferings and Grandeur of Richard Wagner.” You could speak without too much exaggeration of the sufferings and grandeur of Alfred Schnittke. Nothing underscores the power of his spirit more than his determination to keep writing music, even when it became almost physically impossible. The stroke of 1985 spurred him on: in the next few years, he wrote music of exceptional lyrical generosity, even of embarrassing kitschiness. After a second stroke, in 1991, he became scarily austere. From this period came the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which mystified even the composer’s fans when they were played within a few days of each other in New York in 1994. He broadened his style again with the Eighth Symphony, allowing himself a few Brucknerian flourishes. In one of his very last works, the “Concerto for Three,” he played a joke on his own tragic profile: as the three string soloists throw themselves into a drunkenly racing finale, an anonymous-looking person is directed to get up from the audience and finish off the piece with a dissonant crash on the piano. (EMI’s recording of this piece and of the String Trio—both with Mstislav Rostropovich, Gidon Kremer, and Yuri Bashmet—is essential.)
In 1994, Schnittke suffered a third stroke, and it left him unable to speak. He had nearly completed “Historia von D. Johann Fausten,” his long-awaited opera based on the original, sixteenth-century Faust tale. He went on composing, but turned his attention to the ominous task of writing a Ninth Symphony. Gennady Rozhdestvensky attempted to conduct the nearly illegible manuscript of the Ninth in Moscow last June, with reportedly confusing results. The Faust opera, too, remains in limbo. I heard a version of it in Hamburg in 1995, and came away both thrilled and disappointed: it seemed that Schnittke had fallen short of the summary Faust work that he had been seeking. The final act, in which Faust is eviscerated to the tune of a remorseless tango, is a tour de force, but the remainder is sketchy.
The masterpiece of Schnittke’s last years will probably be the symphonic ballet “Peer Gynt,” which runs the full Faustian gamut of ambition, destruction, and redemption. As Ibsen’s hero is crowned Emperor of the World by a mob of lunatic philosophers, a magnificent yet not quite believable theme rises in the brass and shatters into piercing fragments. The theme returns, ennobled, in the closing Adagio, “Out of the World.” That is the music that went through my head when I heard that Schnittke was gone. There are many brilliant composers in our midst, but I wonder how soon we will feel again the rush of emotion that a new work of Schnittke’s used to bring: the promise, sporadically fulfilled, of the sublime.
Obituary published 4 August 1998 in The Daily Telegraph. I have not yet identified the author.
Alfred Schnittke, Russian composer whose work became a vogue in the West despite his pushing pastiche beyond irony and into the grotesque
Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, was the leading Russian composer of the generation which followed Dmitri Shostakovich.
Schnittke’s music enjoyed a vogue in the West, where he had lived since 1990. Many of his works, for all their dissonance and occasional bizarre features of orchestration, borrow elements from music past and present, from plainchant to rock, rather as Mahler and Shostakovich borrowed.
This technique of mixing direct quotations, original invention, historical cross reference and pastiche was called “polystylism” by Schnittke. Before him, Mahler, Charles Ives, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky had explored a similar avenue, but none of them had advanced as far along it.
Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 of 1977, for example, is a parody of the Baroque style and very entertaining. The juxtaposition of 18th century manners with contemporary acerbity proved to be both successful musically and accessible.
His (No) Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in Salzburg in 1985, is a pastiche that led some listeners to declare that the tunes were by Mozart. Schnittke confessed: “I faked them.”
A Salzburg audience some years earlier had booed the cadenzas he wrote for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which included references to many violin concertos composed between the times of J.S. Bach and Berg.
In Schnittke’s Third Symphony (1981), the themes are developed from the monograms of more than 50 German composers from Bach to Bernd–Alois Zimmermann, the finale being based on B-A-C-H.
In the Fourth Violin Concerto, the soloist mimes during a particularly loud orchestral passage and in the Fourth Symphony there is a cadenza for conductor.
The question must arise, as it sometimes does with Shostakovich, whether there is a real man behind the mask of clown or tragedian.
Undoubtedly Schnittke carried irony into a grotesque region which Shostakovich approached but never entered, except perhaps in the Gogol opera The Nose.
Schnittke’s achievement was to convince the majority of listeners that, notwithstanding all the quotations, what they were hearing was a piece of genuine invention.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the Third Concerto Grosso of 1985. This ostensibly paid tribute to five composers – Schütz, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and Berg – who had anniversaries that year. For all the nods in their direction, the final impression is of a contemporary composer of remarkable individuality. When so much new music seems anonymous this is a considerable feat.
Alfred Harrievich Schnittke was born at Engels, near Saratov, in what was once the German Republic of Volga on November 24 1934. His father was a journalist and his mother a German teacher. Schnittke’s musical studies began in 1946 in Vienna, where his father was correspondent for a German-language Soviet newspaper.
He studied the piano with Charlotte Raber and began to compose. IN 1948 he moved to Moscow where he gained a diploma as a choirmaster. From 1953 to 1958 he studied composition with Yevgeny Golubev and orchestration with Nicolai Rakov at Moscow Conservatory.
At the same time he was helped by a Webern disciple, Philipp Herschkowitz. From 1962 to 1972 Schnittke taught orchestration at the Conservatory.
During this decade he published several musicological essays on such subjects as the orchestral harmonisation in works by Shostakovich and Stravinsky, and on the music of Bartók, Webern, Berio and Ligeti. After 1972 he concentrated on composing.
The bewildering stylistic kaleidoscope of Schnittke’s music was probably also his method of countering the stifling formal prohibitions of Soviet artistic policy.
After Shostakovich’s death in 1975, Schnittke became the Soviet establishment’s main target among musicians. Under Brezhnev, his symphonies were virtually banned. During this time, Schnittke composed music for 60 films and eight plays (including Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra).
He had brave advocates. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted the first performance of the First Symphony in 1971 in Gorki and premiered the Second Symphony for chorus and orchestra in London in 1980.
The violinists Gidon Kremer and Mark Lubotsky and the violist Yuri Bashmet commissioned and performed concertos, as did the oboist Heinz Holliger.
Some of Schnittke’s early works employ the aleatory technique – when players, within prescribed limits, make up the music as they go along – but he gradually abandoned these avant–garde procedures for eclecticism. In doing so he was followed by a talented group of younger Russian composers such as Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov.
A piece like Ritual, composed in memory of the victims of the Second World War, is a profoundly serious and impressive work, progressing from growling brass to a tremendous climax with bells and organ and fading away to a gentle tolling of a single bell. This is very Russian music, yet it is also oddly homeless.
Schnittke travelled to Germany, Austria, Britain and France but characteristically did not finally leave Russia until the freer Gorbachev regime was established. In 1990 he emigrated with his family to Hamburg, where he became professor of composition at the Music School.
In 1985 he had the first of several strokes. These did not affect his ability to compose, also his scores became sparser and more economical. His illness brought about a change of style. Gone was the time travelling and idiom-mixing; in their place came a dark and morose contemplation of the unknown, relieved occasionally by bizarre outbursts of grim humour.
This nihilistic preoccupation can be heard in the Viola Concerto and First Cello Concerto of 1986 and in the sixth, seventh and eighth symphonies. It is also evident in the Concerto for Three, which he wrote in 1993 for three friends – the cellist Rostropovich, the violist Bashmet and Gidon Kremer.
Schnittke’s 60th birthday was marked by the first performance of his Eighth Symphony in Stockholm in November 1994. Another stroke prevented his attending it.
In 1990 he was composer-in-residence at the Huddersfield Festival where his Faust Cantata had its first performance.
The Town Hall, where generations have sung Messiah, has not often witnessed the sight of a mezzo-soprano without the support of a brassiere in a clinging gown slinking up the aisle, picked out by a coloured spotlight and singing in tango rhythm into a hand-held microphone about Faust’s gruesome death.
This cantata was based on material from his Faust opera commissioned by Frankfurt, a project which had occupied him for many years.
His opera Life with an Idiot, based on a 1980 short story by Viktor Veroleyev, who wrote the libretto, was first performed by Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in April 1992 when Rostropovich conducted. The principal character, an asylum patient who murders a university lecturer and drives the lecturer’s wife insane, was presented as a “lookalike” of Lenin. It had its first British performance, conducted by Richard Armstrong, at the Coliseum in 1995.
Schnittke’s long list of works includes transcriptions and arrangements of music by other composers, among them Shostakovich, Scott Joplin and Nietzsche.
Alfred Schnittke married first, in 1956 (dissolved 1958) Galina Koltsma, he married secondly, in 1961, Irina Katayeva; they had a son.
Obituary by Peter Hoar published 1998 http://www.thepander.co.nz/
Alfred Garriyevich Schnittke – 1934–1998
Seid nüchtern und wachet, denn euer Widersacher, der Teufel geht umher wie ein brüllender Loewe und suchet, welchen er verschlinge; dem widerstehet fest in Glauben. (Be sober and attentive, for your opponent, the Devil, goes around like a roaring lion and seeks someone to devour. Oppose him firmly, your faith assured.)
Faust Cantata (1982/3)
Alfred Schnittke died after a long illness on the 3rd of August 1998. He is regarded by many as the leading Russian composer of the post–Shostakovich generation and his music has become extremely popular in the West since the 1980s. The parodic, hysteric and chaotic elements of his music have been heard by many as the soundtrack to our witty, ironic, ‘Post–Everything’ age.
The events of his life are easily stated. He was born on 24 November 1934 in Engels on the Volga. His parentage was a mixture of Russian, German and Jewish which places him at the confluence of a number of turbulent streams of modern Europe’s history and culture. His musical education began in Vienna in 1946. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and was appointed instructor in instrumentation there in 1962. He held this post until 1972 after which he supported himself with film scoring of which he wrote more than sixty. His music began gaining international acclaim in the 1980s. He suffered the first of a series of strokes in 1985 but remained highly productive. He moved to Hamburg in 1990.
Such are the outward events of a life. Musically, he left a large body of work. The major works include three operas, nine symphonies, six concerti grossi, four violin concertos, and four string quartets. There are also many chamber works, ballet scores and choral works.
There is a development in his music which makes for a kind of coherency but is perhaps no more convincing than the division of any creative artist’s life into neat and tidy ‘periods’. He began writing music in the Serialist style which was the done thing for any Russian composer of that time who wished to be disassociated from state–sanctioned ‘tunes you can whistle’ (thank you Joe Stalin). Around about 1968 he decided to ‘alight from an already overcrowded train’ and began writing in the style that eventually became known as polystylism. He was influenced at this point by Webern and Ives.
His first composition in this style was the Second Violin Sonata Quasi una Sonata (spot the knowing Beethoven reference) which he described as ‘a report of the impossibility of the sonata, made in the form of a sonata’. This was followed four years later by the First Symphony which eviscerates the traditional form of the symphony. He juxtaposes quotations from the ‘Great Masters’ against blasts of free form orchestral noise, incorporates a jazz band, produces moments of stark terror neatly undercut by gross banality and generally destroys the whole notion of the symphony as a form and a cultural practice – the musicians process on to the stage while playing and are followed by the conductor.
He has written many works which use Baroque forms and idioms (the concerti grossi for example) but not in any neo–classical sense. These can range from ‘joke’ pieces such as a version of the old Christmas favourite Stille Nacht (Silent Night) which perfectly skewers the Hell that is the season of goodwill through to the Concerto Grosso No. 6 which has qualities of ‘the wind blowing through the graveyard’.
Juxtaposition tends not to be a game in Russia where music is heard as imbued with intentional codes and symbolism. This is how Shostakovich kept alive and more or less sane in the madness of Stalin’s state while giving hope to those who could hear, just as Akhmatova’s poems were whispered from person to person. Western listeners have often concentrated on the superficial musical games that Schnittke plays.
Polystylism is something of a theoretical non sequitur. As the violinist Gidon Kremer commented ‘Schnittke isn’t suggesting that his “backward glances” recall Good Music and that all the rest is bullshit. He’s reminding us that when these older styles existed, we dealt with different values – and that nowadays, we’re in a big mess.’ Composers have been using pastiche, parody and ironic juxtaposition since the days of Machaut.
Schnittke himself moved into darker and more complex realms throughout the 1980s as his declining health and the death of his mother focussed his mind on mortality. By the time he wrote his Eighth Symphony (1994) he seemed to be beyond all standard notions of form and musical logic. It’s as concentrated and frightening as the later Shostakovich quartets. It is far from works like Suite im Alten Stile where Baroque filigree was sharpened with atonal cadences – ‘corpses wearing make–up’ as he described it. The make–up is gone and what’s left is the skull.
Many find his music melodramatic, over–wrought, hysterical and the scoring amateurishly dense. Other composers of his generation such as Sofia Gubaidalina and Giya Kancheli are regarded as musically more expressive and interesting. Schnittke’s reputation has been over–hyped to some extent by being championed by people like Rostropovich and Kremer. Let’s not forget also the aggressive marketing which has been an interesting feature of the ‘Classical Music’ market over the last fifteen years or so.
It is far too early to try and decide where he fits into the ‘canon’ although such harmless party games are always amusing and help keep a number of academics from the dole queue. Schnittke’s music is by turns dark, funny, ironic, terrifying, trite, moving, simple, complex – and sometimes all of these at once.
The final word belongs to him. He wrote in a letter to Hannelore Gerlach about the First Symphony: ‘I merely wished to remain honest with myself – as a person (by taking the liberty of depicting the tension of our time without providing empty solutions) and as a musician (to let all the layers of my musical consciousness exist without worries as to style).’
The rest is silence.
Abstract of ‘Schnittke in Context’ by John Webb, from Tempo No. 182 (September 1992) – a study of the irony and polystylism employed by one of Russia’s most important living composers.
The doctrine of Socialist Realism attempted to limit the intonations composers could use to those which were primarily optimistic in nature. Shostakovich’s solution to this problem was to manipulate and parody styles in order to create an ambiguity of meaning. The result was a ‘hall of stylistic mirrors’, an ‘obscure and cryptic music’. His delight in musical ambiguity is displayed by his comment on Jewish music: ‘I never tire of delighting in it – it can appear happy while it is tragic.’
Schnittke’s polystylism is related to that of Mahler and Shostakovich. But to say it was a direct extension of a tradition they shared would be wrong. Although he shares a common musical inheritance with Shostakovich, Schnittke’s polystylism is in many ways closer to Mahler and Berg. This is not really surprising for Schnittke does not consider himself to be Russian. His mother was German, his father German-Jewish. His parents moved to Russia in 1926. Schnittke’s first language is German. Although he inherited the Russian musical tradition, he felt his true home to be Germany. This led to a situation in which he was ‘writing music out of one tradition in which he had been brought up but to which he did not feel he belonged, while drawing inspiration from a tradition to which he felt he ought to have belonged but from which he had been cut off by historical events’.
As Schnittke says, ‘I knew my home was not here (in Russia) and for a long time I thought it might be there (in Germany).’ Schnittke’s feeling of homelessness has a parallel quotation from Mahler: ‘I am thrice homeless … as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, as a Jew throughout the world.’
When Mahler borrows material, he often treats it with a sense of nostalgia or loss, as if trying to remember long distant and perhaps better times. This is also true of Schnittke’s music. In the Viola Concerto (1985), the soloist, trying to recapture a certain type of romantic expression, plays an ascending sequence of trills. But he fails to capture the past and is brought back down to the harshness of reality by the orchestra. In the last movement of the Piano Quintet (1979), the sense of loss is almost inbearable. This feeling is motivated by Schnittke’s loss of his homeland and the Mahlerian tradition, although in the Piano Quintet the feeling is compounded by the death of his mother, to whom the work is dedicated.
Review of Alexander Ivashkin’s “Alfred Schnittke” by Mike Waite (1996)
A melodic development that would be appreciated by any lover of “classical” music flows along in a predictable direction when suddenly! Big wedges of dissonance crash into it, break it up, leave it in bits; chords and fragments of music swirl around in no particular direction for a while, before you slowly realise that you’re hearing something very familiar as the whole orchestra prepares to come together in a direct quote from the best-known Beethoven symphony; a fragment found in Mahler’s notebooks is introduced and developed and then, imperceptibly at first, starts to be warped and twisted so that by the end of the piece you feel that you are listening to an ironic and cynical commentary on the romantic music you had been enjoying at the beginning.
These pictures of some of the most easily describable moments in three of Schnittke’s pieces do not do them justice. The unnerving effects of such moments, and the intense beauty of much of his work, are among the reasons he is routinely described as the most important Russian composer since Shostakovich. His works are frequently performed and broadcast in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, and commercial recordings of many of them have become available. Now a biography by Alexander Ivashkin has been published. This is the first substantial text about Schnittke to appear in English, and will no doubt further increase awareness of his music.
Although its tone and choice of detail sometimes reminds one of Michael Aspel on This Is Your Life, Ivashkin’s book does include many thoughtful analyses of Schnittke’s works, and describes the positive and negative influences that have shaped his musical language. Ivashkin presents his subject as “a foreigner everywhere; an ethnic German who was labelled a Jew since he was a teenager”. Now 62 and living in Germany as he battles with poor health, it is in fact clear that Schnittke’s work is rooted in the experiences of growing up, studying and working in Soviet Russia (with a brief but significant adolescent experience of life in Vienna immediately after the war). His family members included enthusiastic communists – workers for Progress publishers and organisers of the “Young Pioneers” – but his own path brought him into conflict with the authorities. Studying at the Moscow Conservatory during the Cold War, when any interest in modernist Western composers who did not subscribe to “socialist realism” provoked suspicion, Schnittke became one of a small cohort of composers who pursued interests and ideas that were not approved by the conservative controllers of the Composers’ Union. This closed off opportunities for his work to be performed, and Schnittke turned to writing film music to make a living. Experimenting with different styles as the films required became one of the roots of the “polystylism” that is a familiar feature of much of his work.
This polystylism is not a jumble of different things, but a successfully individual musical language. It opens up the spaces within which Schnittke can present music and “comment” on it at the same time, where he can relate contemporary experiences of dislocation and confusion of the optimistic and progressive language of much of the Western tradition. Some of his works suggest an easy political or social interpretation; the concerto player who finishes her piece looking as if she’s playing her violin furiously but who is not in fact connecting with the strings – her “classical” dialogue with the orchestra has ended in her being overwhelmed and silenced in spite of all her efforts; but such one-dimensional readings of Schnittke’s work do not tell the whole story.
The failures and frustrations his music points to are not just those of the heroic individual pitted against the social forces symbolised by the orchestra. Many of Schnittke’s works imply the end of, certainly the fragmentation of, the whole symphonic tradition and the conventions of coherence that have defined classical music – modernist as well as traditional.
Rather than stretch such points into a sustained argument about the relevance of Schnittke in times seen by some as “postmodern”, I finish with some further comments on this music; this is, after all, how he wants us to connect with his ideas. And with his feelings. For Schnittke’s work is not always cerebral and intellectual. His pastiches often go in humorous directions, whilst some of his most controlled works express his journey to a Christian faith. In this, Schnittke shares in a post-Soviet spiritual revival that has clearly been expressed in the recent work of Giya Kanchei, Arvo Pärt and others; though Schnittke’s faith is not so strongly stated. His “Amens” are fewer and less certain than those of some of his friends.
Works that date from the ’70s and early ’80s are often more sure. This was a period, before his first heart attack, in which Schnittke’s music was serving as a cultural challenge to the controlled stagnation of Russian artistic life, and in which his career was marked by such episodes as crowds of students breaking down a door to get into the Leningrad Composers’ Union concert hall to hear a tape of his work. Fast passages, such as those in remarkable chamber works like the Second Cello Sonata and Second String Quartet, inspire joy and the need to dance. Melancholy and emptiness are uncompromisingly conveyed in a group of connected works centred on the Piano Quintet and the orchestral In Memoriam, composed following the death of Schnittke’s mother. Fear, anger and ridicule characterise varied moments in such works as the Faust Cantata; genuine emotions expressed through music, which in its languages and broken structures echoes recent experiences in very many ways.
Interview by Alex Ross published 10 February 1994 in The New York Times
If you knew little of Alfred Schnittke or his music, you might say he is trendy, hip, in fashion. It is an understandable assumption, given the current spate of Schnittke performances: the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 tonight by the New York Philharmonic, the American premieres last week of his Piano Sonata No. 2 by Boris Berman and his Symphony No. 6 by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a forthcoming performance of his “Faust Cantata” by the American Symphony Orchestra. Other recent works are being rushed to recordings. Not since Britten has a living composer been given this kind of attention.
But the man who sat patiently through an interview at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning has nothing to do with the world of trends. Soft-spoken, shy and physically frail from two recent strokes, this Russian-born composer is incapable of self-promotion. Unlike many composers before him, he does not conduct, and he has written perplexingly little for his own instrument, the piano. He has gained recognition only through the substance of his music, with its anarchic conjuration of musical history and its underlying eloquence.
Mr. Schnittke talked about the new symphonies he has written for the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in typically muted and gnomic terms. “I prepared something that was not exactly perfect,” he said of the Sixth Symphony, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It seemed incomplete in a sense, and it’s not clear if we’ve really heard it. I already cut one episode, and I’m thinking about other ways to change it.” Mr. Schnittke’s printed discussions of his music regularly speak of attempts, reports, experiments and sometimes failures. A Little of Everything
As it happens, these new works, particularly the severe and enigmatic Sixth, are atypical of the 59-year-old composer’s output as a whole. He first gained notice in the West with a style that seemed to match popular trends, so to speak, of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was not one style, but many: “polystylistics,” he called it, a rampant musical eclecticism drawing on Baroque arpeggios, the Viennese waltz, 12-tone modernism and avant-garde procedures. There was an exhilarating expressive vibrancy to the blend, and more than a touch of dark comedy.
Some commentators, and some imitative composers, have mistaken this approach for mere nostalgia. “That’s one of the major inaccuracies,” Mr. Schnittke said. “The style was never focused on the past, nor, for that matter, on the future.” The most remarkable aspect of his work is how a distinctive and recognizable voice emerges through an impossible variety of material. The composer of the present is emphatically, grippingly in control.
Mr. Schnittke’s relation to the past remains very complex. He derived his polystylistic method from Mahler, Ives, Berg and Shostakovich, all of whom stitched together a musical language from disparate sources. If there was a formative moment in his career, it was his encounter in the early 60’s with Shostakovich’s monumentally chaotic Fourth Symphony, which had been hidden for three decades in the composer’s desk. “What was most important to me,” he said of the Fourth, “was not only the incredible technical accomplishments, but also the unexpected compositional choices, polyphony in the largest sense.”
Styles in Collision
The first major work of Mr. Schnittke’s mature period, his First Symphony of 1972, amplified the discoveries of the Shostakovich Fourth in every possible dimension. It is a good candidate for the wildest piece of music ever written. Gregorian chants, bits of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, motoric Baroque music and coffeehouse jazz collide in front of a dark and turbulent orchestral mass. It seems inconceivable that such a work was given a public performance in the Soviet Union of 1974, when other composers were setting Leonid Brezhnev’s diaries to music. But Rodion Shchedrin, then head of the Russian composers’ union, pushed the symphony past the bureaucracy.
“There was a great deal of tension and negative official reaction to the premiere,” Mr. Schnittke recalled. “But at the same time it was in an incredible moment, important and positive for me. The reaction of the public astonished me: people went not only to the performance but to rehearsals.” Mr. Schnittke was able to continue working without official support, although obstacles impeded him continually until 1985.
A tempting interpretation of this music is that it somehow represents or foreshadows the collapse of the Soviet state. Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, has indeed titled his Feb. 18 concert “The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror.” Mr. Schnittke’s reaction to this view was hesitant: “When I wrote, I wasn’t thinking about events, although some connection with events is of course possible. There is the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad.’ “
This last analogy is best interpreted as one of the Mr. Schnittke’s characteristic ironical gestures. His music demands a deeper historical perspective. Just as strong as the connection to Shostakovich are the links to Mahler and Berg, whose music, Mr. Schnittke said, he “adores above everything else.” He is of German as well as Russian descent, and one of his favorite stylistic modes is a wistful German Romantic lyricism; the introduction and coda of the Seventh Symphony furnish a strong example. He now lives in Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms. Music for the End of Music
Another plausible reading of Mr. Schnittke is that he pessimistically mirrors the decline of the classical tradition itself, writing music for the end of music. He has encouraged this sort of thinking with some dire pronouncements of his own. “I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless,” reads the program note for the Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, in four traditional movements, is an altogether frightening vision of music stripped to the bone; at one performance in Washington, several distressed young children were led out after the first movement.
But even though his music has taken on an increasingly grim tone, the composer is not a doomsayer: “In what I do, there is definitely going to be an exit and there is definitely going to be an answer to these questions, but at the same time there is a lot of rightful doubt about the forms and a nervousness about what the future holds for music.” While he considers the possibility of a synthesis of classical and popular genres “pure utopia,” he has dabbled in rock and jazz instrumentation, and enjoyed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.
Might it be possible that Mr. Schnittke’s music has been inspired by the eclectic, parodistic, fundamentally grave and serious compositions of Adrian Leverkun, the fictional hero of Thomas Mann’s novel “Doktor Faustus”? “Yes, the book had an incredible influence on me,” said Mr. Schnittke, becoming slightly more passionate than he had been for most of the interrogation. “I read it in the 50’s when I was still a young man. I thought about it my whole life, but unfortunately never wrote anything connected with it.”
There is, however, the “Faust Cantata,” based on the same 16th-century source that the fictional Leverkuhn employs for his valedictory work. It has been expanded into a three-act opera, with a libretto drawing from various “Faust” sources; the Hamburg Opera will give the premiere in 1995. “Faust was a man both good and bad,” Mr. Schnittke said of this 20-year-old project, “and that ambivalence draws me to the story.”
Ambivalence, in the end, is what draws us into Mr. Schnittke’s magic schemes; they match our best and worst imaginings. Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.
Review by Alex Ross published 6 July 1995 in The New York Times
Some dwell in darkness and others dwell in light, goes the line in “The Threepenny Opera.” Shades of light and dark, anticipation and despair, divide the otherwise closely allied work of Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke, the dominant figures in contemporary Russian music. Unquestionably they belong together, having followed almost identical career paths. Both were born in the early 1930’s; both pursued an avant-garde program in the 60’s in defiance of the Soviet regime; both have drawn on a broad range of contemporary techniques without becoming beholden to any of them, and both have taken refuge in Hamburg, Germany, in the turbulent 90’s.
Yet the differences are substantial, even irreconcilable. Mr. Schnittke has placed himself in the main line of German tradition; he has passed the ultimate hurdle of Germanic art by writing his own “Faust.” At the same time his work is marked by devastating pessimism, a certainty that classical traditions have come to an end. Ms. Gubaidulina, by contrast, has sought freedom and escape; she has avoided standard genres, used non-Western instruments, inclined toward improvisation, and cultivated a complex form of religious mysticism.
So it seems appropriate that recent performances of these composers’ works have taken place in very different surroundings. Mr. Schnittke’s “Historia von D. Johann Fausten,” perhaps the most important premiere of the last decade, appeared late last month beneath the modern hulk of the Hamburg State Opera. This week, Ms. Gubaidulina’s music floats out over the quiet, otherworldly Austrian village of Lockenhaus, the home of Gidon Kremer’s engagingly informal Kremerata Musica Festival.
The increasing brightness of Mr. Schnittke’s music perhaps can be explained by his deteriorating physical situation. In recent years he has suffered a series of severe strokes; he has yet to recover from the last, in June 1994. Yet his productivity up to that time had been phenomenal. “Faust” was one of two operas that received almost simultaneous premieres: The other was “Gesualdo,” at the Vienna State Opera. Mr. Schnittke also completed his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, a ballet based on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” a Triple Concerto and various chamber, vocal and choral works.
Whether this recent music is at the same level as his exuberantly eclectic, all-mocking earlier scores remains to be seen. The Eighth Symphony and “Peer Gynt” occupy a spacious Mahlerian canvas; the other symphonies, heard last year in New York City, are almost intolerably fragmented and forlorn. “Faust,” based not on Goethe but on the anonymous original published in 1587, at first bears all the hallmarks of the composer’s desolate style: Grinding pedal points, fractured triads, creeping solos for the like of double bass, contrabassoon and tuba, pained silences in the rest of the orchestra, a few abrupt cluster chords.
But Mr. Schnittke has been preparing this “Faust” for many years, and the final act makes use of the score written in 1983, before his change of course and decline in health. This is the “Faust Cantata,” a tour de force narration of Faust’s descent into hell. In an inspired anachronism, Mr. Schnittke casts the climax in the form of a diabolically melodious tango, with a contralto croaking in Brechtian style into a microphone and an electric guitar thundering underneath. He then retreats to chilling medievalisms for the admonitory epilogue. No Goethean redemption here: Faust’s is a lurid life that ends badly.
Is this Mr. Schnittke’s long-awaited masterpiece? It was difficult to tell in Hamburg. John Dew’s production unleashed spectacular demonic imagery, mixing Durer, Leonardo, Cy Twombly and Ken Russell. (In one scene Mephistopheles plays a pink piano.) The staging had enormous cinematographic and choreographic energy, but it distractingly one-upped Mr. Schnittke’s densely allusive score. The conductor, Gerd Albrecht, chose to make a number of cuts, telescoping three acts into two parts and dissolving an extended ballet interlude into intermittent fragments.
The result, while grimly brilliant as pure theater, was not quite what Mr. Schnittke seemed to have in mind. One hopes the composer recovers to put his opera in final form; even if he does not, the torso heard in Hamburg stands as a major event in itself. Act III achieves a hurtling dramatic momentum that has not been seen in German opera since the death of Berg.
Mr. Schnittke did not attend the “Faust” premiere, an event heavily patronized by elements of high culture and big business. The contrast could not be more complete to the dressed-down concerts here in Lockenhaus, with its programs invented day by day. Ms. Gubaidulina has been very much in evidence; on Monday night she energetically whirled among an exotic array of Asian Russian folk instruments, leading an extraordinary performance by the improvisation group Astraea.
Alongside two like-minded colleagues, the composer Viktor Suslin and his son Alexander, Ms. Gubaidulina demonstrated that a carefully controlled improvisation can have an electricity unmatched by printed music. The two pieces on Monday moved from an anarchic free-jazz-like textures to steady ostinato beats or widely spaced lyric solos. They seemed no less fully argued than the notated works heard later in the evening, Ms. Gubaidulina’s savagely concise 10 Preludes for cello and Mr. Suslin’s softly chiming “Mitternachtsmusik.”
In her way, Ms. Gubaidulina is no less eclectic than Mr. Schnittke. At passing moments, her music alludes to Russian Orthodox chant, Russian and Tatar folk tradition, Bach, even Webern. But the citations are all part of a viscerally evolving fabric in which recognition of sources is secondary. She refuses the intellectualism common to 20th-century composers; her work is wholly devoted to fullness of sound and richness of story. Its deep intelligence becomes apparent only on later hearings.
This is not to give one composer precedence over the other. Although Mr. Schnittke offers no way out, his journey into the depths of musical history is immensely enthralling. His accomplishment in “Faust” is singular; no composer before him has come so close to the story’s primal terror. But Ms. Gubaidulina’s music offers hope, which is something no less rare and more precious.