Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Never mind the bollocks …

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on October 10, 2006

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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: