Obituary by Alex Ross
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.