Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Obituary by Peter Hoar

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on October 12, 2006

Obituary by Peter Hoar published 1998

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.


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