Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

A Shy, Frail Creator of the Wildest Music

Posted in Articles, Interviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 26, 2010

Alex Ross, The New York Times, 10 February 1994

If you knew little of Alfred Schnittke or his music, you might say he is trendy, hip, in fashion. It is an understandable assumption, given the current spate of Schnittke performances: the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 tonight by the New York Philharmonic, the American premieres last week of his Piano Sonata No. 2 by Boris Berman and his Symphony No. 6 by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a forthcoming performance of his Faust Cantata by the American Symphony Orchestra. Other recent works are being rushed to recordings. Not since Britten has a living composer been given this kind of attention.

But the man who sat patiently through an interview at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning has nothing to do with the world of trends. Soft-spoken, shy and physically frail from two recent strokes, this Russian-born composer is incapable of self-promotion. Unlike many composers before him, he does not conduct, and he has written perplexingly little for his own instrument, the piano. He has gained recognition only through the substance of his music, with its anarchic conjuration of musical history and its underlying eloquence.

Mr. Schnittke talked about the new symphonies he has written for the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in typically muted and gnomic terms. “I prepared something that was not exactly perfect,” he said of the Sixth Symphony, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It seemed incomplete in a sense, and it’s not clear if we’ve really heard it. I already cut one episode, and I’m thinking about other ways to change it.” Mr. Schnittke’s printed discussions of his music regularly speak of attempts, reports, experiments and sometimes failures.

As it happens, these new works, particularly the severe and enigmatic Sixth, are atypical of the 59-year-old composer’s output as a whole. He first gained notice in the West with a style that seemed to match popular trends, so to speak, of the 1960s and 70s. It was not one style, but many: “polystylistics”, he called it, a rampant musical eclecticism drawing on Baroque arpeggios, the Viennese waltz, 12-tone modernism and avant-garde procedures. There was an exhilarating expressive vibrancy to the blend, and more than a touch of dark comedy.

Some commentators, and some imitative composers, have mistaken this approach for mere nostalgia. “That’s one of the major inaccuracies,” Mr. Schnittke said. “The style was never focused on the past, nor, for that matter, on the future.” The most remarkable aspect of his work is how a distinctive and recognizable voice emerges through an impossible variety of material. The composer of the present is emphatically, grippingly in control.

Mr. Schnittke’s relation to the past remains very complex. He derived his polystylistic method from Mahler, Ives, Berg and Shostakovich, all of whom stitched together a musical language from disparate sources. If there was a formative moment in his career, it was his encounter in the early 60s with Shostakovich’s monumentally chaotic Fourth Symphony, which had been hidden for three decades in the composer’s desk. “What was most important to me,” he said of the Fourth, “was not only the incredible technical accomplishments, but also the unexpected compositional choices, polyphony in the largest sense.”

The first major work of Mr. Schnittke’s mature period, his First Symphony of 1972, amplified the discoveries of the Shostakovich Fourth in every possible dimension. It is a good candidate for the wildest piece of music ever written. Gregorian chants, bits of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, motoric Baroque music and coffeehouse jazz collide in front of a dark and turbulent orchestral mass. It seems inconceivable that such a work was given a public performance in the Soviet Union of 1974, when other composers were setting Leonid Brezhnev’s diaries to music. But Rodion Shchedrin, then head of the Russian composers’ union, pushed the symphony past the bureaucracy.

“There was a great deal of tension and negative official reaction to the premiere,” Mr. Schnittke recalled. “But at the same time it was in an incredible moment, important and positive for me. The reaction of the public astonished me: people went not only to the performance but to rehearsals.” Mr. Schnittke was able to continue working without official support, although obstacles impeded him continually until 1985.

A tempting interpretation of this music is that it somehow represents or foreshadows the collapse of the Soviet state. Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, has indeed titled his Feb. 18 concert “The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror”. Mr. Schnittke’s reaction to this view was hesitant: “When I wrote, I wasn’t thinking about events, although some connection with events is of course possible. There is the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’.”

This last analogy is best interpreted as one of Mr. Schnittke’s characteristic ironical gestures. His music demands a deeper historical perspective. Just as strong as the connection to Shostakovich are the links to Mahler and Berg, whose music, Mr. Schnittke said, he “adores above everything else”. He is of German as well as Russian descent, and one of his favorite stylistic modes is a wistful German Romantic lyricism; the introduction and coda of the Seventh Symphony furnish a strong example. He now lives in Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms.

Another plausible reading of Mr. Schnittke is that he pessimistically mirrors the decline of the classical tradition itself, writing music for the end of music. He has encouraged this sort of thinking with some dire pronouncements of his own. “I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless,” reads the program note for the Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, in four traditional movements, is an altogether frightening vision of music stripped to the bone; at one performance in Washington, several distressed young children were led out after the first movement.

But even though his music has taken on an increasingly grim tone, the composer is not a doomsayer: “In what I do, there is definitely going to be an exit and there is definitely going to be an answer to these questions, but at the same time there is a lot of rightful doubt about the forms and a nervousness about what the future holds for music.” While he considers the possibility of a synthesis of classical and popular genres “pure utopia”, he has dabbled in rock and jazz instrumentation, and enjoyed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.

Might it be possible that Mr. Schnittke’s music has been inspired by the eclectic, parodistic, fundamentally grave and serious compositions of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus? “Yes, the book had an incredible influence on me,” said Mr. Schnittke, becoming slightly more passionate than he had been for most of the interrogation. “I read it in the 50s when I was still a young man. I thought about it my whole life, but unfortunately never wrote anything connected with it.”

There is, however, the Faust Cantata, based on the same 16th century source that the fictional Leverkühn employs for his valedictory work. It has been expanded into a three-act opera, with a libretto drawing from various Faust sources; the Hamburg Opera will give the premiere in 1995. “Faust was a man both good and bad,” Mr. Schnittke said of this 20-year-old project, “and that ambivalence draws me to the story.”

Ambivalence, in the end, is what draws us into Mr. Schnittke’s magic schemes; they match our best and worst imaginings. Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.

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