Article by John Webb
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.