Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Symphony No. 1

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 29, 2010

Programme note by Susan Bradshaw

Royal Festival Hall, London, 17 December 1986 (UK Premiere)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, conductor
Rein Rannap, jazz piano
Paul Mägi, jazz violin

1. Senza tempo – Andante
2. Allegretto
3. Lento
4. Lento

According to the composer himself, the title “symphony” in this instance is to be understood as partly serious, partly ironical. Written at a time (1969-72) when the lure of new techniques had led only to the seeming impasse of avante-garde serialism, Schnittke’s First Symphony evidently represents an attempt to clear a path into the future – demolishing the musical landscape of the late 1960s as a prelude to reconstructing it from fragments of a remote as well as a more recent past. The symphonic structure arising from this sometimes brutal demolition process is likened to the architecture of a Warsaw church which, flattened by war-time bombing, was rebuilt by inserting such fragments as remained of the old within the walls of the new, “without concern for stylistic unity”.

Schnittke goes on to say that his symphony likewise reconstructs symphonic form “from left-over bits and pieces” – he lists Beethoven, Chopin, Strauss, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, the Dies Irae, Gregorian chant and Haydn – “the missing areas being filled in with new material”.

The resulting structural collage (the composer’s own word) seeks to question the very existence of the symphony as a meaningful contemporary form. Akin to a musical manifesto, it expresses Schnittke’s determination to disregard the stylistic anxieties that plague so many present-day composers and, while remaining true to himself, “freely to invoke contemporary tensions without attempting to arrive at false solutions”. Some of these tensions are expressed through stylistic argument, others in terms of the degree to which a composer may have control over his own material; this ranges from none at all (at the outset, just before the entry of the conductor), to some (as in the freely-outlined suggestions which may, but need not, be adhered to as a basis for improvisation), to almost total (most of the apparently improvised tutti passages are in fact notated in extraordinary detail).

It is not hard to imagine the political implications – whether by design or no – of such an anarchic musical statement; the 1974 premiere of the work was relegated to the remote city of Gorky, and the first Moscow performance took place only last year [1985].

The symphony is scored for huge orchestra: quadruple woodwind (plus three saxophones) and brass, forty-eight strings, piano, celesta, harpsichord, organ, two harps, electric guitar and a large amount of percussion – including a rhythm section. Very much the product of its time and physical surroundings, this is a work likely to arouse strong reactions. Impressively crafted, it is nonetheless full of contrasts that are often intentionally crude, emotionally (as well as musically) disturbing, even shocking. It is also nearly impossible to describe or to prepare for in any detail.

Nevertheless it is clear that the first and third movements are the mainly new walls of the symphonic edifice, with the second and fourth containing the patched-in fragments of the old. The work begins as the first player walks on stage and starts, as if casually, to warm up for his or her part in the ensuing proceedings; as the last to enter, the conductor eventually brings this increasingly improvised chaos to a stuttering halt.

The first movement proper gets under way as he then calls things to order on a unison C; thereafter, and despite the early intrusion of a group of alien ideas, it is as if a modern symphonic movement were seriously trying to emerge from a cloud of chromatic writing that is never allowed to acquire any too discernible features. Although underpinned by sporadic attempts to attach the music to tonal centres, the whole movement has a restless, searching feel – with numerous interruptive elements and with wind and percussion becoming ever more detached from the sobering influence of the material heard on the violins at the outset. Not until near the end is there a concerted tutti outburst as the first obvious quotation (here seeming like the inevitable outcome of the initial unison C) for a moment holds sway.

The following scherzo seems about to enter another world as the strings announce an elegantly classical theme which, rondo fashion, recurs throughout. Meanwhile, all sorts of Ives-like chaos intervene, gathering momentum to become a whirling fray in which the dance-band element gradually comes to the fore – eventually obliterating the rest in an improvised cadenza. During the sudden quiet of a brief coda, the wind players leave the platform, until only the flute remains to carry the thread of the music to its inconclusive end.

In many ways the philosophical heart of the work, the third movement is an extended and largely self-contained adagio for string orchestra; with no more than an occasional touch of colour from one or other of the percussive instruments left on stage, it has a grave and sometimes eerie beauty that sets it apart from the rest. From its pianissimo start on two solo violins, the tone gradually increases as the texture thickens to arrive at a midway climax on a C minor chord that is reinforced from afar by the wind.

The finale begins with the off-stage players returned to the fold – bringing with them a number of quotations that aptly reflect the elegiac vein of the movement just ended. But this mood of resignation is soon rudely shattered – to be recaptured only in the intensely moving circumstances of a penultimate peroration that is once again initiated by the unison C. Old memories are revived one last time as a distant echo of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony launches the work full circle to quote its own origins in the improvised turbulence from which it all began.

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