Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Nagasaki – oratorio for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra (1958)

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on August 24, 2009

BBC Prom 52: Royal Albert Hall

Elena Zhidkova mezzo-soprano

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev conductor

The belated UK premiere of Schnittke’s early, Orff-influenced oratorio, an agonised expression of solidarity with the victims of the second atomic bomb, dropped on the city of Nagasaki the day before Japan’s surrender.

Heavily criticised by the Soviet Composers’ Union, it only received its 1959 broadcast premiere (on Moscow World Service Radio) after Shostakovich’s recommendation, and was not publicly performed until 2006.

1 Nagasaki, city of grief
2 The morning
3 On that fateful day
4 On the Ashes
5 The Sun of Peace

Schnittke’s oratorio Nagasaki was composed while he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Indeed, he successfully offered it as his graduation piece. The subject – the devastation visited upon the Japanese city of Nagasaki by the dropping of the second American atomic bomb at the end of the Pacific War – was not Schnittke’s own choice but was suggested by his composition professor Yevgeny Golubev. He directed the young composer’s attention to a poem on Nagasaki by the official Soviet propaganda poet Anatoly Sofronov. However, in movements 2 to 4 Schnittke set translations of poems by two Japanese poets, Eisaku Yoneda and Shimazaki Tōson. (Yoneda was himself a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, and wrote many poems about the event; Tōson, better known as a novelist, died during the Second World War.) The finale returns to Sofronov, but also uses lines specially written by Schnittke’s friend Georgy Fere when the movement was altered from its original form, as explained below.

After his graduation Schnittke submitted the full score for performance at a festival for young composers being organised by the Soviet Composers’ Union. Instead the 24-year-old composer was accused of succumbing to ‘Expressionism’ and ‘forgetting the principles of Realism in music’. His attempt to portray the explosion of the atomic bomb in the third movement clearly gave offence. Schnittke was persuaded to suppress one movement entirely and rewrote the finale, introducing sections that required the aforementioned additional text. In this final form, and with a letter of recommendation from Shostakovich, Nagasaki was performed in 1959 by the Moscow Radio Orchestra and relayed by Moscow World Service Radio to Japan. Apart from this studio broadcast there was no further performance in Schnittke’s lifetime; after considerable editorial work, Nagasaki received its first public performance in Cape Town in November 2006.

Nagasaki was stylistically the most ‘advanced’ and eclectic work Schnittke had so far attempted. It is also highly ambitious. The orchestra includes quadruple woodwind, eight horns, much percussion, celesta, piano, organ, two harps and an electronic instrument: a theremin. In addition to obvious Russian influences (Shostakovich, Prokofiev), the music appears to allude to J. S. Bach, Hindemith, Stravinsky and even to Carl Orff, whose Carmina burana had greatly impressed Schnittke when he heard its Soviet premiere in the mid-1950s.
The majestic opening of the first movement, with its imploring string melody, relentless bass and hushed choral entries, is clearly indebted to the Bach Passions; the continuation, with livelier word-setting and percussion interjections, is more reminiscent of the Stravinsky of Les noces, while the way Schnittke builds to the movement’s climax suggests the example of the symphonic Shostakovich. There is a climactic return of the opening music on the most angrily monumental scale. The apparently clear and joyful ‘morning’ music of the second movement, with its faintly oriental tunes, fanfares and unison choral writing, is progressively undercut by its irregular metres and widely contrasted dynamics.
The third movement, which follows without any break, is the most radical part of the oratorio, the most prophetic of Schnittke’s later work. Here, in the opening bars, he attempts to render in sound an impression of the nuclear explosion by a bold excursion into totally chromatic harmony, cluster-chords, and the deployment of a battery of unusual textural effects, including string and trombone glissandos and a wealth of tremolandos in percussion, strings and woodwind. Stravinskyan staccato chords and a furious, Hindemithian fugue on an urgently stabbing subject take over, driving to a climax with clear echoes of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The pulverising ‘nuclear explosion’ music returns, this time introducing the chorus, who after declaiming their short text add their moaning and howling
to the final catastrophic tutti outburst.
The fourth movement is an aria for mezzo-soprano (it has been compared to the after-the-battle aria from Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky). The sinister, quiet underpinning ostinato derives from the previous movement’s fugue; string tremolandos, vibraphone and pitched percussion edge the soloist’s lament around with a dream-like penumbra. The chorus joins in the lament at the climax with wailing cries.
The finale is the longest movement and the most conflicted. Schnittke’s original intention had been to end tragically, and this was one feature that the ‘experts’ of the Composers’ Union objected to, demanding a more positive conclusion. Schnittke’s revision of the movement was intended to satisfy their strictures, but an underlying tension can be felt. The Passion-like music of the first movement is extensively and hauntingly reprised, along with the more Shostakovich-like elements from that movement. Then the skies seem to clear and another busy fugue – an optimistic-sounding one, this time – starts up. The chorus re-enters in a declamatory, oratorical style, heavily doubled in the orchestra. These elements combine and jostle each other in a vigorous development. Trumpet fanfares introduce a purposeful march that leads to a big orchestral climax and the delivery of ‘People all over the world …’, involving the full forces at full strength. This forms the apotheosis – more grimly majestic than triumphant – of the whole oratorio.
Although the subject had not been Schnittke’s own choice, he was nevertheless thoroughly in sympathy with it and viewed the protest against mass destruction as an urgent contemporary imperative. In later life he commented that, though Nagasaki ‘might be fairly naive by modern standards’, it was ‘a very honest work … where I was absolutely sincere’. And, although it shows a wealth of outside influences, Schnittke indeed succeeded in binding them into a powerful emotional unity. By any standards Nagasaki is a remarkably assured and powerful achievement.

Programme note © Calum MacDonald
Calum MacDonald is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and is Editor of ‘Tempo’. As Malcolm MacDonald he has written books on Brahms, John Foulds, Havergal Brian and Varèse, and a new expanded edition of his ‘Schoenberg’ was recently published (OUP).

Kronos Quartet: Complete String Quartets

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 11, 2008

A link to reviews on Amazon.

Symphony No. 2

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2008

A commentary by Jeffrey Scott Bernstein.

Moz-Art

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2008

Concerto Grosso No. 6

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 12, 2008

Symphony No. 9

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on December 18, 2007

Article by Steve Smith published 7 November 2007 in The New York Times

A Little Composition and a Little Archaeology

The ability to read the score of a complex orchestral composition is by no means a common skill. But even to the untrained eye, the manuscript of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 9 would speak volumes.

Notes are only approximately positioned on the staffs, and their stems are shaky squiggles. Bar lines veer off at a slant. The handwriting, at times nearly illegible, is clearly pained.

“It’s a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” the conductor Dennis Russell Davies said during a recent interview. “He was determined to finish this piece. You can see and feel this in his shaking hand.”

Mr. Davies, a conductor long associated with Schnittke’s music, will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in the American premiere of the work at Avery Fisher Hall tonight, in one of only a few appearances here since taking a year off for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Schnittke completed the three-movement symphony in short score before he died in August 1998. But a series of strokes had paralyzed his right side, including his writing hand, preventing him from orchestrating the work. He tried to have the piece completed by others — Mr. Davies would not say who they were — but was not satisfied with their results.

After Schnittke died, Irina Schnittke, his widow, engaged the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov to finish the work. The Dresden Philharmonic provided a partial commission and reached out to Mr. Davies, who conducted the world premiere there in June. Mr. Davies also enlisted the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, of which he is the chief conductor, and the Juilliard School as co-commissioners.

Joseph W. Polisi, the president of the Juilliard School, said the project had particular resonance for Juilliard because it related to an important collection of musical manuscripts the school acquired in March 2006, which included many sketches and manuscripts by Schnittke. “We have become sensitive to his work,” Mr. Polisi said, “and I thought this was a natural parallel.”

Mr. Davies laid a photocopy of Schnittke’s manuscript next to the finished score on a desk and pointed out several places where the original had raised issues. Some combinations of notes created dissonances that were unusual even in Schnittke’s work. Mr. Raskatov occasionally overruled instrumental voicings that Schnittke had indicated.

Mr. Raskatov, born in 1953, had a close personal relationship with Schnittke, Mr. Davies said. The younger composer’s cool, ritualistic music has little in common with the eclecticism and pastiche of Schnittke’s most familiar works. Still, Mr. Davies says the work is faithful to Schnittke’s intentions.

“It’s pretty direct, pretty formidable in its tonal components,” he said. “There’s not time for references to some of the religious and popular elements that he liked to bring into his music.” Some passages unfurl with a weighty Mahlerian melancholy; others echo the ascetic severity of late Shostakovich.

Mr. Raskatov composed an original epilogue, “Nunc Dimittis,” a stark 15-minute meditation based on verses by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and an Orthodox monk, Staretz Silouan. Alison Tupay, a mezzo-soprano, and the Hilliard Ensemble will sing the work tonight.

Mr. Davies plans to record both pieces with the Dresden Philharmonic for the ECM label in January and will conduct them in Linz, Austria, in April. Still, after taking the 2005-6 season off for chemotherapy and recovery, he has reduced his travel schedule.

Last month, he conducted Philip Glass’s new opera, “Appomattox,” in San Francisco, then went to Detroit for another premiere, William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 7. But he turned down offers for engagements that would have deviated from his gradual path back to Linz.

His own illness, Mr. Davies asserted, did not affect his approach to the Schnittke piece. “But during my treatment, I was around people who were much worse off than I was and saw how courageous they were,” he said. “Having seen that, then seeing this manuscript and recognizing how desperately the man wanted to write this music, it made my work that much more meaningful.”

The Twins of Modernism

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on October 2, 2007

Article by Alex Ross published 6 July 1995 in The New York Times

Some dwell in darkness and others dwell in light, goes the line in “The Threepenny Opera.” Shades of light and dark, anticipation and despair, divide the otherwise closely allied work of Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke, the dominant figures in contemporary Russian music. Unquestionably they belong together, having followed almost identical career paths. Both were born in the early 1930’s; both pursued an avant-garde program in the 60’s in defiance of the Soviet regime; both have drawn on a broad range of contemporary techniques without becoming beholden to any of them, and both have taken refuge in Hamburg, Germany, in the turbulent 90’s.

Yet the differences are substantial, even irreconcilable. Mr. Schnittke has placed himself in the main line of German tradition; he has passed the ultimate hurdle of Germanic art by writing his own “Faust.” At the same time his work is marked by devastating pessimism, a certainty that classical traditions have come to an end. Ms. Gubaidulina, by contrast, has sought freedom and escape; she has avoided standard genres, used non-Western instruments, inclined toward improvisation, and cultivated a complex form of religious mysticism.

So it seems appropriate that recent performances of these composers’ works have taken place in very different surroundings. Mr. Schnittke’s “Historia von D. Johann Fausten,” perhaps the most important premiere of the last decade, appeared late last month beneath the modern hulk of the Hamburg State Opera. This week, Ms. Gubaidulina’s music floats out over the quiet, otherworldly Austrian village of Lockenhaus, the home of Gidon Kremer’s engagingly informal Kremerata Musica Festival.

The increasing brightness of Mr. Schnittke’s music perhaps can be explained by his deteriorating physical situation. In recent years he has suffered a series of severe strokes; he has yet to recover from the last, in June 1994. Yet his productivity up to that time had been phenomenal. “Faust” was one of two operas that received almost simultaneous premieres: The other was “Gesualdo,” at the Vienna State Opera. Mr. Schnittke also completed his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, a ballet based on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” a Triple Concerto and various chamber, vocal and choral works.

Whether this recent music is at the same level as his exuberantly eclectic, all-mocking earlier scores remains to be seen. The Eighth Symphony and “Peer Gynt” occupy a spacious Mahlerian canvas; the other symphonies, heard last year in New York City, are almost intolerably fragmented and forlorn. “Faust,” based not on Goethe but on the anonymous original published in 1587, at first bears all the hallmarks of the composer’s desolate style: Grinding pedal points, fractured triads, creeping solos for the like of double bass, contrabassoon and tuba, pained silences in the rest of the orchestra, a few abrupt cluster chords.

But Mr. Schnittke has been preparing this “Faust” for many years, and the final act makes use of the score written in 1983, before his change of course and decline in health. This is the “Faust Cantata,” a tour de force narration of Faust’s descent into hell. In an inspired anachronism, Mr. Schnittke casts the climax in the form of a diabolically melodious tango, with a contralto croaking in Brechtian style into a microphone and an electric guitar thundering underneath. He then retreats to chilling medievalisms for the admonitory epilogue. No Goethean redemption here: Faust’s is a lurid life that ends badly.

Is this Mr. Schnittke’s long-awaited masterpiece? It was difficult to tell in Hamburg. John Dew’s production unleashed spectacular demonic imagery, mixing Durer, Leonardo, Cy Twombly and Ken Russell. (In one scene Mephistopheles plays a pink piano.) The staging had enormous cinematographic and choreographic energy, but it distractingly one-upped Mr. Schnittke’s densely allusive score. The conductor, Gerd Albrecht, chose to make a number of cuts, telescoping three acts into two parts and dissolving an extended ballet interlude into intermittent fragments.

The result, while grimly brilliant as pure theater, was not quite what Mr. Schnittke seemed to have in mind. One hopes the composer recovers to put his opera in final form; even if he does not, the torso heard in Hamburg stands as a major event in itself. Act III achieves a hurtling dramatic momentum that has not been seen in German opera since the death of Berg.

Mr. Schnittke did not attend the “Faust” premiere, an event heavily patronized by elements of high culture and big business. The contrast could not be more complete to the dressed-down concerts here in Lockenhaus, with its programs invented day by day. Ms. Gubaidulina has been very much in evidence; on Monday night she energetically whirled among an exotic array of Asian Russian folk instruments, leading an extraordinary performance by the improvisation group Astraea.

Alongside two like-minded colleagues, the composer Viktor Suslin and his son Alexander, Ms. Gubaidulina demonstrated that a carefully controlled improvisation can have an electricity unmatched by printed music. The two pieces on Monday moved from an anarchic free-jazz-like textures to steady ostinato beats or widely spaced lyric solos. They seemed no less fully argued than the notated works heard later in the evening, Ms. Gubaidulina’s savagely concise 10 Preludes for cello and Mr. Suslin’s softly chiming “Mitternachtsmusik.”

In her way, Ms. Gubaidulina is no less eclectic than Mr. Schnittke. At passing moments, her music alludes to Russian Orthodox chant, Russian and Tatar folk tradition, Bach, even Webern. But the citations are all part of a viscerally evolving fabric in which recognition of sources is secondary. She refuses the intellectualism common to 20th-century composers; her work is wholly devoted to fullness of sound and richness of story. Its deep intelligence becomes apparent only on later hearings.

This is not to give one composer precedence over the other. Although Mr. Schnittke offers no way out, his journey into the depths of musical history is immensely enthralling. His accomplishment in “Faust” is singular; no composer before him has come so close to the story’s primal terror. But Ms. Gubaidulina’s music offers hope, which is something no less rare and more precious.

Life With an Idiot

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 20, 2007

Review by John Rockwell published 15 April 1992 in The New York Times

What may have been the most important event in Russian operatic history since the first staged performance of Prokofiev’s “Story of a Real Man” in Moscow in 1960 took place Monday night. In Amsterdam.

The occasion was the world premiere of “Life With an Idiot”, the first opera by Alfred Schnittke, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany, but who counts as Russia’s most respected, best-known living composer. The performance at the Netherlands Music Theater of this surrealist, often grotesque and sexually explicit score took place in the presence of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus and was greeted with a fervent standing ovation.

Narrated by a character known simply as “I”, the libretto tells of a man guilty of some unidentified crime who is ordered by the party to bring an idiot into his home as punishment. But his idiot, Vova, soon starts disrupting his happy home. Eventually Vova seduces I’s wife and then I himself. Vova kills the wife, and I winds up in the asylum, an idiot himself.

The three Americans who took the principal roles – the baritone Dale Duesing as I, the soprano Teresa Ringholz as My Wife and the tenor Howard Haskin as Vova, the Idiot – won cheers, Mr. Duesing especially. But the greatest applause was for Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted, and for Mr. Schnittke. The sight of Mr. Rostropovich, who is the most fervent hugger and kisser since Leonard Bernstein, tugging the shy and back-pedaling Mr. Schnittke into the limelight created one of the sweeter curtain calls in recent operatic annals.

It was not Mr. Schnittke and Mr. Rostropovich alone who made this such a significant occasion. The librettist was Viktor Yerofeyev, who based his work on his short story of the same name; Mr. Yerofeyev, who lives in Moscow, has had his first novel, “Russian Beauty”, published in 25 countries. The stage director was the 82-year-old Boris Pokrovsky, who has been associated with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow since 1943 and was its chief stage director for 26 of those years. The decor was by Ilya Kabakov, a well-known avant-garde Russian artist.

All these talents came together because Pierre Audi, the innovative artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, “pounced” on the chance to commission the opera when he heard from the composer that he felt inspired by Mr. Yerofeyev’s story. Mr. Audi then brought Mr. Rostropovich on board and acceded to his wishes for the rest of the team. Mr. Rostropovich said he had been trying to collaborate with Mr. Pokrovsky for 18 years.

The premiere took place in Amsterdam, where it will play through April 30, for another reason as well. Russia long shunned Mr. Schnittke’s musical progressiveness and now, when it might wish to honor him, cannot afford to do so. There is even some thought, however, that Mr. Yerofeyev’s scabrous tale and Mr. Schnittke’s biting musical satire might still be too much for Russian conservatism. “I think this opera would shock people in Russia,” Mr. Yerofeyev said at the post-premiere reception. “When I wanted to do it at the Bolshoi, they told me they were too bolshoi for it.” In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand.

Mr. Yerofeyev has translated his story ingeniously to the stage, but the very act of expanding a highly literary tale into the broad gestures of opera has underscored the allegorical implications. The libretto does contain key phrases like I’s desire for “a blessed, holy-fool-type abnormality, national in form and content”. At the end – this is the last line of the story – he talks of “the swan song of my revolution”. Mr. Schnittke, for his part, satirizes everything in sight, including the “Internationale” in a version so dissonant that Mr. Rostropovich said it “smelled like Roquefort”. Soviet-style red is the dominant color of the production, the program book and the poster. Vova is even made up to look like Lenin.

Such hints point the viewer toward an interpretation of the opera as a critique of Communism, the ordinary Russian seduced and destroyed by mindless, systematic monomania. Marcel Proust wanders helplessly through the piece, and Mr. Yerofeyev said “he represents culture in this century, but Vova is stronger”. The Dutch press has labeled the opera “a requiem for the Soviet Union”.

In an interview, Mr. Rostropovich conceded with a wink that “of course” Vova was meant to look like Lenin, adding that “I always see the history of my country in this opera”. But all the participants also wished the opera to be perceived in more universal terms than mere political satire. “Vova is also Hitler or Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Rostropovich argued. “Any dictator with an idee fixe.”

Mordant skepticism has long been a part of Mr. Schnittke’s musical personality, and such tendencies dominate this opera. The often dissonant music ranges from the eerily atmospheric, to raucous ensembles, to singers and choral ensembles and instrumentalists spread about the theater, to a tango with Mr. Rostropovich at the piano, to a short but moving cello solo for the conductor, who also happens to be the world’s best-known cellist.

The Role of Humor

Mr. Rostropovich and Mr. Audi even suggested that there was something inherently Russian in finding serious art funny — such as the eerie a trio that ends the opera, the Wife singing addled bird song, Vova howling “Ech” (the only word he ever sings) and I meandering on, as mad as Tom Rakewell at the end of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”. Mr. Rostropovich said that while that passage moved him to tears, Mr. Schnittke found it hilarious.

Mr. Schnittke, however, insisted that his music encompassed serious, unambiguously emotional sentiments, too. An admiring Russian composer in a recent BBC documentary film said that what made any Schnittke premiere exciting was that one never knew what kind of music one might hear. Although his “poly stylistic” approach constantly threatens to lose focus, Mr. Rostropovich insisted that the composer had “so strong a personality” that coherence was maintained.

Although Mr. Schnittke has had two physically debilitating strokes, one four years ago and one last June, his mind is sharp and he is pressing forward with two new operatic projects. Both are for the West, one on the Faust theme for Frankfurt and another on the life of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo for Vienna. Neither, he said, would tap his skeptical vein in any way.

All this work, he added contentedly, will be composed in Hamburg, not Moscow. He was surrounded by Russian well-wishers at the premiere, but he has no intention of returning to Russia any time soon.

Born in 1934 to a father born in Germany and a German-Jewish mother, he said that “I have long suffered in Russia because I have not one drop of Russian blood”. Mr. Rostropovich suggested that Mr. Schnittke’s case was “like a dog: if you always beat a dog, he is not coming back to the place where he was beaten. In Moscow all of Schnittke’s life, they beat him.”

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2007

Article by Andrew Marr

It may be that Alfred Schnittke has portrayed the downfall of Western Civilization. Perhaps he has also portrayed the rebirth of a new civilization. With many of his works, I get the impression that Schnittke has picked up the scraps of a disintegrated tonal system and an equally disintegrated twelve-tone system and built a collage out of these scraps. The most common word in critical comment on Schnittke is “eclectic”. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Not every work of Schnittke’s is a patchwork quilt, but many of them are.

Alfred Schnittke has written some of the saddest music I have ever heard. The pathos seems to be due, not only to personal tragedies but also to the tragedy of his country, Russia, and to Western Civilization as a whole. It is hard to imagine as sensitive a person writing cheerful music during the Brezhnev years in Russia. The plight of Western Civilization does not seem to cause every composer to shroud his or her music in black, but something is passing away and it is fitting that someone should mourn that passing. However, since civilizations are finite and should not be objects of worship, the passing of an era need not be grounds for despair. Whether or not Schnittke’s music expresses faith in the midst of this passing is an open question. It may have been an open question to Schnittke himself. More often than not, I hear faith, or at least faith in the midst of doubt, in much of Schnittke’s music.

An element of the eclectic style in Schnittke is the use of scraps from earlier styles. Schnittke’s use of earlier styles is radically different from the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and some of his contemporaries early in the century. Schnittke does not give Baroque and Classical styles a new coat, he reveals their threadbare state. For example, in the Concerto Grosso No. 1, there is an allegro that starts out like any spritely Vivaldi allegro but then it suddenly disintegrates into incredibly dense tone clusters, aided by the microtonal capabilities of the strings. In contrast to this work, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 is much more a positive reworking of classical styles in Postmodern dress, including a few outbursts of electric guitar. As if to stress the fragmented state of our civilization, Schnittke took a fragment of Gustav Mahler’s, his unfinished piano quartet, and wrote a completion of the scherzo of which Mahler had written only about thirty bars. The result is a two-movement work dovetailing the late Romantic and Postmodern styles.

The First Symphony is perhaps the most extreme work of the scrapheap style. There are several stunts to the work, with the orchestra coming on stage after the works starts and leaving before it ends. For over an hour, the symphony tries to find a beginning that will keep it going, and when that doesn’t happen, it spends that last half trying to find a viable conclusion. That doesn’t happen either. In the course of all this, just about everything, including a jazz violin cadenza if not the kitchen sink, can be heard. For a stunt piece, it is ingenious, but it is not where I hear Schnittke’s greatness as a composer.

One of the first works of Schnittke’s that I became familiar with, and which convinced me that he was among the most compelling voices in the late twentieth century, is the concerto for piano and string orchestra. This one-movement work is constructed on a dialectic between tonal and atonal elements, triadic and tone-cluster harmony. There are two main themes, one of them based on a twelve-tone row (but not strictly using serial techniques) and the other an Orthodox liturgical chant. These disparate elements fuse in the course of the work so that there is a sense of a new musical unity of styles. Other episodes along the way, including a “nightmare blues section” as Schnittke called it, also blend into the overall musical statement. As is often the case with Schnittke, this concerto is charged with strong emotion. There are dissonances which are enough to make a bald man’s hair stand on end. There are also passages of heart-breaking beauty. The music does not suggest that questions about life have been answered, but it affirms the possibility of making a musical statement out of elements that in earlier music had not spoken with each other.

The Third Symphony is one of Schnittke’s most powerful musical statements. The first movement is quite remarkable. It is marked as having no tempo. The movement is a swirl that swells and dies down again, but otherwise, nothing happens. A triadic theme weaves in and out of more nebulous material, creating a tapestry of sound that seems always to have existed and always will, even when the movement dies down. In contrast to this close union of musical materials, the second and third movements show advanced states of de-composition. The triadic theme from the first movement is cast in a Mozartian style, which soon is developed in a Romantic style and then the musical fabric falls apart. As if that were not enough, the third movement is a demonic scherzo that is frankly rather frightening. However, although it gives the feeling that all music and everything else is falling apart, I recently noticed that it was following the same tight Passacaglia design as the last sublime last movement and with the same theme. The sound of chaos, then, is still ordered and, after the horror has reached its climax, it is answered by the continuing development of the theme in a long slow meditation that conveys to me the sense of waiting in hope. The passacaglia opens up to a coda that concludes with a statement of the triadic theme of the first two movements played by a flute over a sustained bass. The movement of the symphony goes from a primordial sort of unity, through a progressive shredding of unity, and on to a long waiting period in hope for a new vision of contemplative unity.

By and large, in his late works, Schnittke tended to eschew mosaic eclecticism for a seamless tissue of interrelated themes. In the piano trio, for example (also incarnated as a string trio), there are two movements, both at moderate tempos, that develop the same thematic material, all closely related, in an extended funeral march. In the Eighth Symphony, which is among the greatest of Schnittke’s last works, there is a strong tendency to monothematic movements, much like the Eastern minimalists. The first and third movements are relentless in their repetition of their oppressive themes that suggest that humanity is caught in a vice-like grip of unfreedom. The long Adagio, however, soars with a subtle sense of cosmic freedom, as if the heavens are well within reach of the human heart. Although the third movement tries to dispel that sense of freedom, there is a short final movement that reasserts the gentle transcendent reach of the Adagio.

Perhaps the most comprehensive work, the magnum opus of Schnittke’s career, is the ballet score for Peer Gynt. Ibsen’s play, itself, is broad in its scope so that there is much to depict in supporting the plot, from the rustic dances of the early scenes to Peer Gynt’s career updated to that of a popular entertainer, to his insanity and to his cosmic journey after death. Not surprisingly, much of Schnittke’s earlier eclecticism enters in. The prelude to Act II is a brief tribute to Edvard Grieg. The following dance movements include ragtime played on an out-of-tune piano. The epilogue, however, where Peer Gynt continues to try to find his elusive self is another of Schnittke’s seamless structures where all the themes in this ballet float in and out, somehow reconciled in the mystery of Eternity and in the human questioning that still persists as we seek to live under the judgment of Eternity.

I admit that I have singled out works that are more positive than others. The third cello sonata, for example, his last completed work before he died, is very bitter. The Concerto Grosso No. 5 follows on a Four Seasons structure, ending with winter. It is an open question as to whether or not spring will come or if winter is all that there will be. On the other hand, both cello concertos end with intense expressions of overwhelming, even defiant, hope. This suggests to me that Alfred Schnittke spent his musical life waiting in hope, and that the hope with which he waited was stronger at some times than at others. That is true of many of us. It is not easy to see deeply into the fragmented state of our culture at the end of this Millennium. Schnittke did see deeply into it and he did not find that perception easy to live with. But he lived with it and he asked questions about the meaning of life. Although raised in the Soviet State with no religion (although his mother was Jewish) he was baptized at St. Florian’s Church, the Church that Anton Bruckner served. How easily he assimilated Anton Bruckner’s faith is another question. That Schnittke faced life honestly and with a deep heart is beyond dispute.

Viola Concerto

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2007

Programme Note by Gerard McBurney

One of the great advantages of being a composer in the Soviet Union – and there were many disadvantages – was that as long as you had something serious to say with your art, instead of being isolated as so many Western artists are, you were part of what Russians call the “intelligentsia”, the community of friends and kindred spirits who were as interested in your work as you were in theirs. One of the effects of this was that Soviet composers often had extremely close working links with some of the finest performers of their day. Prokofiev and Shostakovich famously worked with Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, while for the next generation of composers there was not only Rostropovich (who is still working with composers today), but a roster of such startlingly brilliant younger players as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Oleg Kagan, the violist Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Natalya Gutman.

Alfred Schnittke composed for all these great musicians and for many other wonderful performers too. His numerous concertos, in particular, are a panoramic record of a lifetime of such musical friendships and working relationships. For example, his Third Violin Concerto (1978) was written for Kagan, while the Fourth (1984) was for Kremer. His two cello concertos were for Gutman (1986) and Rostropovich (1990). Altogether, over a period of more than thirty years, Schnittke wrote around twenty such concertos, most of them for close friends who played stringed instruments.
One of the grandest and finest of these is his Viola Concerto, composed in the summer of 1985 for Yuri Bashmet. Especially in later years, it was Schnittke’s habit when writing music for his friends to encode their name in musical letters into the score. This Viola Concerto is no exception. Very near the beginning of the work we hear the viola soloist spelling out the letters of Bashmet’s name as a melody. That is, in a mixture of German and French notation: B – A – Es – C – H – Mi or, in more familiar Anglo-Saxon notation: B flat – A – E flat – C – B natural – E natural. From this tiny six note phrase, Schnittke builds almost the entire structure of this concerto, nearly forty minutes of music.

Schnittke’s Viola Concerto has three movements, each longer than the last. The slow first movement, which lasts just over five minutes, has the character of an introduction, launching the main images and melodies of the whole piece. After an agonized opening declamation for the viola, in which the orchestra functions like an echo chamber sustaining every note the violist plays, we hear the eerie “Bashmet” melody harmonized by the orchestral strings with simple old-fashioned chords almost like church music. This is followed by a second and longer version of the declamation which culminates in a terrifying chord from the full orchestra (also made of the same six notes from Bashmet’s name). Then a third idea appears, something like a delicate baroque cadence from a piece of eighteenth-century music by a composer like Bach.

The second movement – Allegro molto – begins with frantic arpeggiation from the soloist, like silent-movie music, almost as though the soloist were being hunted down by the orchestra. In the course of this very varied movement, Schnittke weaves in not only the three ideas from the first movement but a whole series of sometimes upsetting references to other quite different kinds of music: film-music, cheap dance-music, brass-band music, Soviet military marches and so on. Schnittke loved to do this kind of thing. He felt passionately that the musical rubbish of our lives needed to be drawn into serious works of art, that connections needed to be made between what he called the “high” and the “low”.

The final movement, at a little over a quarter of an hour, is almost as long as the previous two movements put together. It is a spacious and desolate lament, in the course of which music from both the previous two movements reappears, but ruined and destroyed. Through a dreadfully bleak musical landscape, the viola soloist wanders as though searching for some echo or answer from the orchestra. At the very end, the music once again settles on the six notes from Bashmet’s name, drawing from them the only traditional chord they contain – a simple triad of A minor – which the strings of the orchestra sustain and sustain, while around the chord the soloist gasps and whispers on a series of low dissonant pulsing notes, like the beating of a heart.

Shortly after he finished this concerto, Schnittke was staying in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda when, on 21 July, 1985, he had a severe stroke. Although he recovered partially, for the rest of his life his health was severely damaged. He later wrote movingly about the associations between this critical moment and the Viola Concerto:

“In a certain respect the piece has the character of a – temporary – farewell. For ten days after finishing work on it, I was placed in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life, a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).”

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