Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Alfred Schnittke: a crazy mixed-up kid

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on February 22, 2010

Geoff Brown, The Times, 30 October 2009

In the cellist Alexander Ivashkin’s biography of Alfred Schnittke there’s a touching photo of the future composer, circa 1935, aged about 12 months. He’s grinning eagerly as babies do, clinging to the top bar of a battered crib in the family home in the drab Volga port of Engels, in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The future stretches before him.

But what future? The tot’s bright eyes know nothing of Stalin’s cruelties, of Hitler’s Holocaust, of atom bombs and the rest of the madness of the century conjured up so vividly in the expressive phantasmagoria of the adult Schnittke’s music.

By the 1980s he was labelled the natural successor to Shostakovich, but since Schnittke’s death in Hamburg in 1998, his reputation has been idling, if not taking a dip. Next month at the South Bank Centre Between Two Worlds, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Schnittke season – steered by Vladimir Jurowski, with help from Ivashkin and the Alfred Schnittke Archive – presents a chance to re-visit, re-evaluate or discover his tumultuous work.

He was born to reflect the century’s roar and chaos. Even his genes didn’t know which way to turn. His mother was German; his father German-Jewish. In the late 1940s his father’s newspaper work took the family to Vienna. In those two years Schnittke became saturated with Austro-German traditions. Reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus sparked a lifelong fascination with the Faust legend. The symphonies of Mahler took hold.

Culturally, he was almost a vagabond. “Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia,” he wrote. “But I am not Russian.” Nor could he feel completely Jewish: “My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew.”

No wonder, then, that Schnittke’s most individual gift to music was a collision of styles, high and low, crammed into a single piece. He called it “polystylism”. A simple example occurs in his first Concerto Grosso (featured on November 22), in which the strings’ baroque swirls suddenly cut off to reveal his grandmother’s favourite tango plonking away on a harpsichord. For complex examples, you can’t beat the First Symphony (missing, alas, from the season), where the stew includes jazz improvisation and transmuted morsels from classical music’s all-stars, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin and folks, jostling in madcap array.

Both are pieces from the 1970s, the years of the Brezhnev “stagnation”, of government by smoke and mirrors: a fitting context for Schnittke’s dysfunctional games, amply disliked by Moscow’s Establishment, especially Tikhon Khrennikov, the powerful head of the Composers’ Union.

Another influence on the music was more practical. Between 1962 and 1984 Schnittke earned a living writing cinema scores, some for adventurous animated films such as The Glass Umbrella, with music and sound effects usually worked in counterpoint with the images. He became used to montage and collage: art in slices.

Was he a dissident? The violinist Dimitry Sitvoketsky, featured in several concerts, thinks not. “It was just that the music he wrote wasn’t officially liked.” Yet it wasn’t merely the music that irked the Soviet bosses. There was also Schnittke’s public popularity. “By the 1980s the public treated him almost like a rock star,” Ivashkin recalls. “Crowds in Moscow beat down the doors to come to his concerts. Police had to be called.”

Khrennikov’s petty response to his fame was to obstruct the composer’s travel. Once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1984, the situation eased, only for Schnittke’s health to worsen. In 1985 he had the first of three strokes that reduced the quality of his life, furthering a musical shift towards the greater simplicity of means made fashionable by the “holy minimalists”, such as Arvo Pärt. He admired the ascetic beauty of Pärt’s music, but he told Ivashkin: “I can’t be a saint!” A revealing reply. Schnittke’s music is always formidably human.

For Jurowski, born in 1972, the season will be in part a voyage of discovery. “Learning about Schnittke and his time,” he says, “has a special meaning for me, since it was also the time of my parents’ youth and my own childhood.”

As for Ivashkin, he hopes the season will help bring the music to the same pitch of popularity in Britain as Shostakovich’s, and encourage opera companies to investigate The History of D. Johann Faustus (the season presents extracts) or another neglected item, Gesualdo. “Maybe the situation is healthier now. We can hear his music from a more realistic perspective, and judge him more like a composer of the world.”

Crazy world; crazy music. But so compelling.

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