Article by Michael Church
Article by Michael Church published 21 January 2000 in The Independent.
The last great Romantic?
East and West take different views of Schnittke. Will a new archive reconcile them?
Who was Alfred Schnittke? In the West, the reply comes off pat: a political martyr, a professional invalid, and the inventor of something called musical “polystylism”. To Russians he was quite simply a hero, whose works were performed, in the dark Soviet days, amid fanatical pop-concert fervour. A year after his death following his fifth and final stroke, a new musical resource in London may close the gulf between these caricatured perceptions.
Last month the Schnittke Archive was set up at the Centre for Russian Music at Goldsmiths College in London. Ask Alexander Ivashkin, the curator, who Schnittke was, and you will get an impassioned reply.
“He was the last great symphonist in the Romantic tradition, and the most important composer after Shostakovich. The elements of his compositions may seem simple, but he took us to the deepest foundations of musical language.” Schnittke, he says, was an innovator in the Beethoven mould, reintegrating traditional elements to forge a new style.
On the reason for his compatriots’ pop-concert fervour, Ivashkin is equally clear. “Schnittke’s music speaks about more than itself. Perhaps we Russians could hear things in it which Western ears could not.” When the Sixties thaw ended, and censorship was reimposed, true culture acquired urgent significance. “Soviet art became a substitute for everyday reality, which had become a nightmare charade. Many Russians felt their ‘real’ life could only take place in art, music, or poetry.” To them, Schnittke’s music was meat and drink.
As a young musician, Ivashkin devotedly attended Schnittke’s classes at the Moscow Conservatory, as did an 18-year-old piano student called Irina Katayeva. “I went to him for help with my harmony,” says Irina now. “He was a remarkable teacher, very witty and tactful.” Was it love at first sight? With a mischievous smile, this handsome middle-aged woman shakes her head. “On his side yes, but not on mine. For me it took longer.”
The clinching moment came one day when he induced her to listen to Carl Orff; after a triple immersion in the rugged harmonies of Carmina Burana she was hooked. “We spent the next 38 years together, and still didn’t have time to finish our musical discussions.”
For only part of this period, however, was she his pianistic muse; initially she was too intimidated to perform his music, and for the final 13 years, as he succumbed to a series of intensifying strokes, she was his nurse. But when things went well, she not only premiered his works, starting with the lovely Variations on a Chord which he wrote for her graduation; she also advised on their composition.
“I never asked him about his work, but sometimes – when he’d hit a block – he would show me two alternative ways of developing an idea, and ask which I thought was better. I was terrified at the responsibility.”
She got plenty of work, but never as a performer of her husband’s compositions. “Because he was unfailingly polite, the authorities thought he was just a talented man whose work would become more conventional as he grew more mature. But gradually they realised that his originality and independence of mind was a threat. Then they did everything they could to block him.”
And they could do a lot. In the Seventies, all composers had to formally solicit their “older and wiser” colleagues’ views on their music. Schnittke’s First Symphony was instantly denounced by Tikhon Krennikov, the powerful general secretary of the Composers’ Union, who ensured that it was banned from performance both at home and abroad. Through a variety of dirty tricks, Schnittke was prevented from attending the Western premieres of 19 of his subsequent compositions. When he was finally permitted to bask in his international fame, he was just too sick to do so. For him, freedom came too late.
Ironically, it was Russian film directors rather than concert-hall managers who first recognised his worth: he wrote scores for 66 films, often playing the piano part himself. In contrast to Prokofiev and Shostakovich – whose film scores translated easily to the concert hall because they were always in the same recognisable style – Schnittke tailored each score individually, using an appropriate musical language each time. Everything he did conspired to thwart the conventional deification process.
To label Schnittke “the first polystylist” is crass – Charles Ives was cheerfully mixing idioms a century before – and it in no way reflects Schnittke’s chaste and subtle art. Irina’s next aim is to create a Schnittke Foundation which will celebrate both her husband’s music and that of the other leading lights of his generation. Meanwhile she is overseeing the deciphering of his Ninth Symphony: she won’t name the composer she has charged with this task, but we shall hear in due course. She has entrusted his as yet unperformed Viola Concerto to Yuri Bashmet, who will soon unveil it. There are yet more unfinished works in the can.
But for now we have the archive, with its sketches, letters, recordings, and manuscripts. Schnittke wrote out his complex works in a beautifully precise hand: on the page these are an art-form in themselves. The spiralling first movement of the Third Symphony looks like a leaning Tower of Pisa: an apt image for a man who dared all and, in losing, conquered the world.
Alexander Ivashkin’s critical biography ‘Alfred Schnittke’ is published by Phaidon (£14.95)