Article by Andrew Marr
It may be that Alfred Schnittke has portrayed the downfall of Western Civilization. Perhaps he has also portrayed the rebirth of a new civilization. With many of his works, I get the impression that Schnittke has picked up the scraps of a disintegrated tonal system and an equally disintegrated twelve-tone system and built a collage out of these scraps. The most common word in critical comment on Schnittke is “eclectic”. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Not every work of Schnittke’s is a patchwork quilt, but many of them are.
Alfred Schnittke has written some of the saddest music I have ever heard. The pathos seems to be due, not only to personal tragedies but also to the tragedy of his country, Russia, and to Western Civilization as a whole. It is hard to imagine as sensitive a person writing cheerful music during the Brezhnev years in Russia. The plight of Western Civilization does not seem to cause every composer to shroud his or her music in black, but something is passing away and it is fitting that someone should mourn that passing. However, since civilizations are finite and should not be objects of worship, the passing of an era need not be grounds for despair. Whether or not Schnittke’s music expresses faith in the midst of this passing is an open question. It may have been an open question to Schnittke himself. More often than not, I hear faith, or at least faith in the midst of doubt, in much of Schnittke’s music.
An element of the eclectic style in Schnittke is the use of scraps from earlier styles. Schnittke’s use of earlier styles is radically different from the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and some of his contemporaries early in the century. Schnittke does not give Baroque and Classical styles a new coat, he reveals their threadbare state. For example, in the Concerto Grosso No. 1, there is an allegro that starts out like any spritely Vivaldi allegro but then it suddenly disintegrates into incredibly dense tone clusters, aided by the microtonal capabilities of the strings. In contrast to this work, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 is much more a positive reworking of classical styles in Postmodern dress, including a few outbursts of electric guitar. As if to stress the fragmented state of our civilization, Schnittke took a fragment of Gustav Mahler’s, his unfinished piano quartet, and wrote a completion of the scherzo of which Mahler had written only about thirty bars. The result is a two-movement work dovetailing the late Romantic and Postmodern styles.
The First Symphony is perhaps the most extreme work of the scrapheap style. There are several stunts to the work, with the orchestra coming on stage after the works starts and leaving before it ends. For over an hour, the symphony tries to find a beginning that will keep it going, and when that doesn’t happen, it spends that last half trying to find a viable conclusion. That doesn’t happen either. In the course of all this, just about everything, including a jazz violin cadenza if not the kitchen sink, can be heard. For a stunt piece, it is ingenious, but it is not where I hear Schnittke’s greatness as a composer.
One of the first works of Schnittke’s that I became familiar with, and which convinced me that he was among the most compelling voices in the late twentieth century, is the concerto for piano and string orchestra. This one-movement work is constructed on a dialectic between tonal and atonal elements, triadic and tone-cluster harmony. There are two main themes, one of them based on a twelve-tone row (but not strictly using serial techniques) and the other an Orthodox liturgical chant. These disparate elements fuse in the course of the work so that there is a sense of a new musical unity of styles. Other episodes along the way, including a “nightmare blues section” as Schnittke called it, also blend into the overall musical statement. As is often the case with Schnittke, this concerto is charged with strong emotion. There are dissonances which are enough to make a bald man’s hair stand on end. There are also passages of heart-breaking beauty. The music does not suggest that questions about life have been answered, but it affirms the possibility of making a musical statement out of elements that in earlier music had not spoken with each other.
The Third Symphony is one of Schnittke’s most powerful musical statements. The first movement is quite remarkable. It is marked as having no tempo. The movement is a swirl that swells and dies down again, but otherwise, nothing happens. A triadic theme weaves in and out of more nebulous material, creating a tapestry of sound that seems always to have existed and always will, even when the movement dies down. In contrast to this close union of musical materials, the second and third movements show advanced states of de-composition. The triadic theme from the first movement is cast in a Mozartian style, which soon is developed in a Romantic style and then the musical fabric falls apart. As if that were not enough, the third movement is a demonic scherzo that is frankly rather frightening. However, although it gives the feeling that all music and everything else is falling apart, I recently noticed that it was following the same tight Passacaglia design as the last sublime last movement and with the same theme. The sound of chaos, then, is still ordered and, after the horror has reached its climax, it is answered by the continuing development of the theme in a long slow meditation that conveys to me the sense of waiting in hope. The passacaglia opens up to a coda that concludes with a statement of the triadic theme of the first two movements played by a flute over a sustained bass. The movement of the symphony goes from a primordial sort of unity, through a progressive shredding of unity, and on to a long waiting period in hope for a new vision of contemplative unity.
By and large, in his late works, Schnittke tended to eschew mosaic eclecticism for a seamless tissue of interrelated themes. In the piano trio, for example (also incarnated as a string trio), there are two movements, both at moderate tempos, that develop the same thematic material, all closely related, in an extended funeral march. In the Eighth Symphony, which is among the greatest of Schnittke’s last works, there is a strong tendency to monothematic movements, much like the Eastern minimalists. The first and third movements are relentless in their repetition of their oppressive themes that suggest that humanity is caught in a vice-like grip of unfreedom. The long Adagio, however, soars with a subtle sense of cosmic freedom, as if the heavens are well within reach of the human heart. Although the third movement tries to dispel that sense of freedom, there is a short final movement that reasserts the gentle transcendent reach of the Adagio.
Perhaps the most comprehensive work, the magnum opus of Schnittke’s career, is the ballet score for Peer Gynt. Ibsen’s play, itself, is broad in its scope so that there is much to depict in supporting the plot, from the rustic dances of the early scenes to Peer Gynt’s career updated to that of a popular entertainer, to his insanity and to his cosmic journey after death. Not surprisingly, much of Schnittke’s earlier eclecticism enters in. The prelude to Act II is a brief tribute to Edvard Grieg. The following dance movements include ragtime played on an out-of-tune piano. The epilogue, however, where Peer Gynt continues to try to find his elusive self is another of Schnittke’s seamless structures where all the themes in this ballet float in and out, somehow reconciled in the mystery of Eternity and in the human questioning that still persists as we seek to live under the judgment of Eternity.
I admit that I have singled out works that are more positive than others. The third cello sonata, for example, his last completed work before he died, is very bitter. The Concerto Grosso No. 5 follows on a Four Seasons structure, ending with winter. It is an open question as to whether or not spring will come or if winter is all that there will be. On the other hand, both cello concertos end with intense expressions of overwhelming, even defiant, hope. This suggests to me that Alfred Schnittke spent his musical life waiting in hope, and that the hope with which he waited was stronger at some times than at others. That is true of many of us. It is not easy to see deeply into the fragmented state of our culture at the end of this Millennium. Schnittke did see deeply into it and he did not find that perception easy to live with. But he lived with it and he asked questions about the meaning of life. Although raised in the Soviet State with no religion (although his mother was Jewish) he was baptized at St. Florian’s Church, the Church that Anton Bruckner served. How easily he assimilated Anton Bruckner’s faith is another question. That Schnittke faced life honestly and with a deep heart is beyond dispute.