Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1968)

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 19, 2011

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Andante : Allegretto : Largo : Allegretto Scherzando

In 1962, in the same year that saw the premiere of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony and the height of ‘The Thaw’ following Khrushchev’s demythologising of Stalin, Luigi Nono became the first avant-garde composer to visit the Soviet Union. For Schnittke, who as a young composer at the Moscow Conservatoire had so far worked only in the approved nationalist style, as found in his oratorio Nagasaki of 1958, the visit became a stimulus for a serious study of Western contemporary music, assisted by scores and tapes smuggled in by Pousseur, Ligeti and Stockhausen, and a thorough exploration of the Second Viennese School and the possibilities of serial composition. One of the first major works to emerge from this period was the First Violin Sonata, premiered by the violinist Mark Lubotsky and the composer in 1964, and in 1968 transcribed in this present version for violin, harpsichord and string orchestra.

The serialism of the First Violin Sonata is unsophisticated – nothing else would have been acceptable in the Soviet Union at that time – and based on a row latent with tonal relations and triadic harmonies in its structure of alternating major and minor thirds. (Schnittke’s efforts to reconcile tonal and atonal elements might be compared to those of Shostakovich in a slightly later work, the Twelfth String Quartet of 1968.) The first movement acts as introduction to a substantial scherzo whose straightforward textures, although far removed from the complexity of contemporary works by Boulez or Stockhausen, are nevertheless indicative of Schnittke’s capacity to place simple elements in new contexts. The variations on an eight-bar harmonic scheme which form the third movement seem clearly modelled on the passacaglia from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio, an impression reinforced when this scheme of chords returns in the middle of the energetic finale.

Piano Quintet (1972-1976)

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 14, 2011

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Moderato : Tempo di Valse : Andante : Lento : Moderato pastorale

Composed between 1972 and 1976, and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is the most Russian in spirit of his mature works, with the exception of those employing native liturgical chant such as the Second String Quartet and the Concerto for mixed chorus. This Russianness is inevitably bound up with the choice of medium; for any Soviet composer writing for piano and string quartet must acknowledge the Piano Quintet of Shostakovich, a profoundly Russian work by a composer Schnittke profoundly admires. His influence can be heard not only in the sound of keening strings and dark-hued lugubrious string trills, but also in the shared emotional world of darkness and light (the work has also been scored for orchestra, and entitled ‘In Memoriam’). An important role is also played by Schnittke’s characteristic use of ‘polystylism’, an allusion technique which is all the richer for being at the second degree; Schnittke’s second movement waltz, for example, alludes not only to the nineteenth century form of Tchaikovsky, but also to the allusions to that form found in the chamber music of Shostakovich, including his own Piano Quintet and the Eighth String Quartet.

Whereas the five movements of the Shostakovich are each self-contained, however, those of the Schnittke attain a unity of conception through constant thematic transformation of the opening phrase (itself an allusion, being no more than a chromatic variant of a simple cadential changing note figure) and from the fundamental nature of the musical material. Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Ligeti, Schnittke has worked on the edges and extremes of sound, making the Piano Quintet a sustained conflict between musical opposites: between sound and silence; between the micro-intervals and chromatic polyphony of the strings, and the equal temperament and triadic harmony of the piano; between the relentless chiming of repeated notes at extremes of the keyboard register and dense quartet clusters built up from the intense overlapping of irrational rhythms. There is no compromise between these factors; they exist suspended in a condition of stasis, very Russian, which only resolves in the final Moderato pastorale as a gentle piano ostinato, simply the notes of the harmonic series, confronts the motto theme in chromatic and microtonal versions – and survives to have the final word.

String Quartet No. 3 (1983)

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 31, 2011

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Andante : Agitato : Pesante

The striking juxtapositions of disparate material to be found in the music of Alfred Schnittke frequently have a quality of bathos and irony, and the intention of incorporating past styles within a musical language of the present. But what is to be made of the particularly bold choice of quotations which open the Third String Quartet, including within the first eight bars a phrase from a Stabat Mater by Lassus, the theme of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, and the personal musical monogram of Dmitri Shostakovich, DSCH?

The reference to Shostakovich, and in particular the DSCH idea, provides a clue. In his Eighth Quartet, for example, it not only forms the motivic substance for much of the work, but can also be identified with themes from other works by the same composer. Similarly, Schnittke’s quotations, although in one sense symbolic of two past masters of the string quartet idiom, are carefully chosen for their motivic correlation – the DSCH motive being no more than a transposition of the first four notes of the Beethoven. From this kind of musical wit grows an opposition between the contemporary world they represent and the diatonic world of Lassus, then the consequent synthesis of the two, which is achieved in the third movement as the turn figure of the opening tonal cadence is progressively incorporated into the chromatic language of the former.

Once these basic themes have been identified, the overall structure explains itself on a descriptive level. Schnittke characteristically interrelates separate movements by shared material, and the saturation of the texture by these three elements makes the Third Quartet a model for this kind of activity. Within this thematic unity there are allusions to a number of different historical musics, from the points of canonic imitation in the first movement to the nineteenth century Waltz-Scherzo of the second. At the same time, the opening cadence by Lassus returns in its original form at important junctures throughout the piece, like a punctuation mark containing the overall diversity of style.

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.

%d bloggers like this: