Composer as Storyteller, Creating Order Out of Chaos
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 17 August 1998
“I’m sorry, but I’m loath to listen to my work,” the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke declared in 1981, preventing a scheduled performance of his Septet. “It’s a terrible composition.”
Earlier this month, when Schnittke died at the age of 63, he was almost totally unknown outside music circles. And though one hates to say it, that obscurity may be because it seems so easy to agree with that self-criticism and not just about the Septet. One could, a bit perversely, portray his career as one of crass vulgarity and crude effects.
Schnittke’s piece composed for his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory was called “Nagasaki” and included a musical evocation of an atomic bomb blast. Then came “The 11th Commandment”, an opera about the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After such melodramatic beginnings, Schnittke built a career in the Soviet Union by writing 66 film scores for cartoons, documentaries and features.
His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke’s First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.
This was not the exception. Schnittke’s Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It’s a post-modern playground.
I have indulged in this bit of mock criticism because it is almost impossible to describe Schnittke’s music without making it sound as if it really were awful, as if it were full of cliches. In his work, history is plundered; irony is rampant; pastiche becomes the only coherence; the beauties of art are seemingly beyond reach.
Schnittke once said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” But the remarkable thing is that even though this style – one for which I generally have very little sympathy or interest – really is Schnittke’s, any dismissal of his achievement is entirely wrong. Schnittke was a modern master. Or, better, a post-modern master.
He took a style that mocks the very idea of genius and turned it into an affirmation of genius. He applied techniques that are meant to undo notions of truth or beauty and used them in a life-and-death struggle to reassert those notions. He adopted an attitude usually associated with easy irony and facile posing and molded it into a profound expression of his inner life. In his music, even the classical-music tradition, which such mannerisms usually declare to be at an end, ends up taking on new life. Schnittke turned post-modernism on its head.
I first heard Schnittke’s music in 1981, when he was relatively unknown in the United States. When the contemporary ensemble Continuum gave one of the first New York concerts devoted to his work, I was unprepared for the shock. There was such a contrast between the eclectic, disjointed style and the incisive coherence of the results, that I could only think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes a traveler with his piercing gaze.
Schnittke’s is a storyteller’s art, able in the turns of a few phrases to leap across centuries, to adopt the most noble of attitudes, to inhabit the most vulgar of characters, to moan with despair and then burst out in laughter, to mock himself but command attention with his seriousness. One listens in disbelief but then realizes that one’s knuckles are white from gripping the chair.
Not every attempt was successful. The First Symphony really did seem to create a circus of sarcasm. The Sixth Symphony, performed a few years ago in New York, is weirdly fractured and despairing. But listen to any of the recordings of his most famous work, the 1977 Concerto Grosso, with its mixture of Vivaldi and cartoon music, elegiac melody and robust declamations. It is a universe of thwarted expression, everything is at risk; the result is maniacal, almost crazily daring.
But there is an odd kind of integrity in this music, a concentration that absorbs all contradiction, just as in the wrenching 1985 Viola Concerto, the soloist vigorously maneuvers about in a shape-shifting world of uncertain character.
Schnittke was akin to Mahler, not just in the way both used earlier musical styles and folk melodies to poke through a scrim of modern melancholy, but because both also found something profound in the midst of these musical recollections and meditations. A constant struggle is going on. And for both, irony was a temptation, not a solution. Yield to it, and everything dissolves into insignificance. It may be that for Schnittke, post-modernism itself had a kind of devilish character to which he was drawn and against which he had to struggle, sometimes turning to the comforts of religious faith. (He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.)
This may have been one reason why Schnittke was so preoccupied with the story of Faust. In 1959, he wanted to write a composition similar to “Lamentation of Doctor Faustus” that the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn writes in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. It would have been a drama not just about the soul but about the artist weaving his way through the temptations of easy sentiment and amusement. In 1983 Schnittke wrote the “Faust” Cantata. One of his last works was an opera, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten”.
One of Schnittke’s core dramas may have been a struggle between post-modernism, with its miscellany and mannerisms, and the far deeper desire to create coherence and comprehension. He once asserted that “everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful” is not external to the world, but an intrinsic part of its order. Disharmony and cacophony, which he called the world’s evil, is knit into what is “harmonious and beautiful”.
And Schnittke really did seem to keep that in mind. An astonishing number of his pieces use a motif created by the musical notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name in Germanic notation (B, A, C and B flat). That motif and Bach’s music are cited as if they were visitations from another world, at sea in a monstrous post-modern universe. But Bach is not dissolved in that universe. Instead, Schnittke treats him as his Virgil, leading him through the surrounding wilderness, helping him knit evil into the fabric of beauty.
Correction: August 19, 1998, Wednesday The Connections column on Monday about the works of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke misstated the order of the musical notes that spell out Bach’s name in Germanic notation. The notes, a motif Schnittke used in some of his compositions, are B flat, A, C, B (not B, A, C, B flat); B natural is H in Germanic notation.