Nagasaki – oratorio for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra (1958)
BBC Prom 52: Royal Albert Hall
Elena Zhidkova mezzo-soprano
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev conductor
The belated UK premiere of Schnittke’s early, Orff-influenced oratorio, an agonised expression of solidarity with the victims of the second atomic bomb, dropped on the city of Nagasaki the day before Japan’s surrender.
Heavily criticised by the Soviet Composers’ Union, it only received its 1959 broadcast premiere (on Moscow World Service Radio) after Shostakovich’s recommendation, and was not publicly performed until 2006.
1 Nagasaki, city of grief
2 The morning
3 On that fateful day
4 On the Ashes
5 The Sun of Peace
Schnittke’s oratorio Nagasaki was composed while he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Indeed, he successfully offered it as his graduation piece. The subject – the devastation visited upon the Japanese city of Nagasaki by the dropping of the second American atomic bomb at the end of the Pacific War – was not Schnittke’s own choice but was suggested by his composition professor Yevgeny Golubev. He directed the young composer’s attention to a poem on Nagasaki by the official Soviet propaganda poet Anatoly Sofronov. However, in movements 2 to 4 Schnittke set translations of poems by two Japanese poets, Eisaku Yoneda and Shimazaki Tōson. (Yoneda was himself a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, and wrote many poems about the event; Tōson, better known as a novelist, died during the Second World War.) The finale returns to Sofronov, but also uses lines specially written by Schnittke’s friend Georgy Fere when the movement was altered from its original form, as explained below.
After his graduation Schnittke submitted the full score for performance at a festival for young composers being organised by the Soviet Composers’ Union. Instead the 24-year-old composer was accused of succumbing to ‘Expressionism’ and ‘forgetting the principles of Realism in music’. His attempt to portray the explosion of the atomic bomb in the third movement clearly gave offence. Schnittke was persuaded to suppress one movement entirely and rewrote the finale, introducing sections that required the aforementioned additional text. In this final form, and with a letter of recommendation from Shostakovich, Nagasaki was performed in 1959 by the Moscow Radio Orchestra and relayed by Moscow World Service Radio to Japan. Apart from this studio broadcast there was no further performance in Schnittke’s lifetime; after considerable editorial work, Nagasaki received its first public performance in Cape Town in November 2006.
Nagasaki was stylistically the most ‘advanced’ and eclectic work Schnittke had so far attempted. It is also highly ambitious. The orchestra includes quadruple woodwind, eight horns, much percussion, celesta, piano, organ, two harps and an electronic instrument: a theremin. In addition to obvious Russian influences (Shostakovich, Prokofiev), the music appears to allude to J. S. Bach, Hindemith, Stravinsky and even to Carl Orff, whose Carmina burana had greatly impressed Schnittke when he heard its Soviet premiere in the mid-1950s.
The majestic opening of the first movement, with its imploring string melody, relentless bass and hushed choral entries, is clearly indebted to the Bach Passions; the continuation, with livelier word-setting and percussion interjections, is more reminiscent of the Stravinsky of Les noces, while the way Schnittke builds to the movement’s climax suggests the example of the symphonic Shostakovich. There is a climactic return of the opening music on the most angrily monumental scale. The apparently clear and joyful ‘morning’ music of the second movement, with its faintly oriental tunes, fanfares and unison choral writing, is progressively undercut by its irregular metres and widely contrasted dynamics.
The third movement, which follows without any break, is the most radical part of the oratorio, the most prophetic of Schnittke’s later work. Here, in the opening bars, he attempts to render in sound an impression of the nuclear explosion by a bold excursion into totally chromatic harmony, cluster-chords, and the deployment of a battery of unusual textural effects, including string and trombone glissandos and a wealth of tremolandos in percussion, strings and woodwind. Stravinskyan staccato chords and a furious, Hindemithian fugue on an urgently stabbing subject take over, driving to a climax with clear echoes of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The pulverising ‘nuclear explosion’ music returns, this time introducing the chorus, who after declaiming their short text add their moaning and howling
to the final catastrophic tutti outburst.
The fourth movement is an aria for mezzo-soprano (it has been compared to the after-the-battle aria from Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky). The sinister, quiet underpinning ostinato derives from the previous movement’s fugue; string tremolandos, vibraphone and pitched percussion edge the soloist’s lament around with a dream-like penumbra. The chorus joins in the lament at the climax with wailing cries.
The finale is the longest movement and the most conflicted. Schnittke’s original intention had been to end tragically, and this was one feature that the ‘experts’ of the Composers’ Union objected to, demanding a more positive conclusion. Schnittke’s revision of the movement was intended to satisfy their strictures, but an underlying tension can be felt. The Passion-like music of the first movement is extensively and hauntingly reprised, along with the more Shostakovich-like elements from that movement. Then the skies seem to clear and another busy fugue – an optimistic-sounding one, this time – starts up. The chorus re-enters in a declamatory, oratorical style, heavily doubled in the orchestra. These elements combine and jostle each other in a vigorous development. Trumpet fanfares introduce a purposeful march that leads to a big orchestral climax and the delivery of ‘People all over the world …’, involving the full forces at full strength. This forms the apotheosis – more grimly majestic than triumphant – of the whole oratorio.
Although the subject had not been Schnittke’s own choice, he was nevertheless thoroughly in sympathy with it and viewed the protest against mass destruction as an urgent contemporary imperative. In later life he commented that, though Nagasaki ‘might be fairly naive by modern standards’, it was ‘a very honest work … where I was absolutely sincere’. And, although it shows a wealth of outside influences, Schnittke indeed succeeded in binding them into a powerful emotional unity. By any standards Nagasaki is a remarkably assured and powerful achievement.
Programme note © Calum MacDonald
Calum MacDonald is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and is Editor of ‘Tempo’. As Malcolm MacDonald he has written books on Brahms, John Foulds, Havergal Brian and Varèse, and a new expanded edition of his ‘Schoenberg’ was recently published (OUP).