Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Voices in the dark

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 30, 2010

Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 12 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke’s music, suppressed by the Soviets, was all about dark spaces, mystery and fleeting details. Adrian Searle celebrates the distinctive art of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

The music is sliding back into that low, constant background that we take for silence. I hear the noise of the guy in the flat upstairs pacing about and doing his morning callisthenics to Robbie Williams. Canned laughter is coming up through the floor. Then there’s the shouting and the sirens from the street. My own noise is just as pervasive. It buries the rest and papers over my empty moments.

There is never any real silence; I think it was John Cage who, when visiting a sound-proofed, anechoic chamber, heard two distinct sounds: the technician later told him that what he had heard were the sound of his blood going round and the electric hum of his own brain.

The general noise level here is unexceptional – less, I guess, than in the Moscow apartment buildings where composer Alfred Schnittke, whose work is celebrated this weekend at the Barbican, wrote much of his music. His father-in-law would slump in front of an ice-hockey game on TV in the same room; he worked next to a window above the street, with his adolescent son’s rock music bulging through the room. Schnittke, apparently, never unplugged the telephone when he worked, even when, in the 1980s, he was always in demand. No wonder so much of what he wrote was full of interruptions.

I imagine the harassed composer at work in the warrens of everyday Soviet life. So much music – scores for 66 films, eight symphonies, all those chamber pieces, choral works, solo piano compositions, an electronic work. Perhaps composers don’t need silence, in the same way that chess masters don’t need a board to run through their moves. It is all in the head. Artists, frequently, play music while they work: maybe it drowns out the doubt.

As a writer I find it hard to work to music. I need to hear the voice in my head, a voice I like to imagine is my own. It is not always the same voice, and a writer often needs the voices of others, whose cadences and tone shake you out of your own frightful monologue, or fill in when your own voice refuses to speak. Alfred Schnittke’s replay of old forms (the concerto grosso, Gregorian chants) and of other voices (Beethoven “mottos”, Mozart and Vivaldi licks, memories of Schoenberg and Shostakovich, tango fragments, the brass section that swerves unexpectedly into big-band mode for a few bars) go to demonstrate that for him the past wasn’t all used up.

Schnittke’s phrase, “the difference between the conceivable and the audible”, was his measure. There is a tension between what a composer can imagine and write, and what can be performed. He was at times happy to utilise what seemed like jazz improvisation – unscored tuning up as an integral part of a piece; or to ask performers to mime frenetic playing in performance while producing no sound at all – a “cadenza visuale”, which, in recordings, is marked by the performer’s exhausted sighs, sudden explosive “Oohs” and laboured breaths; or to orchestrate for an invisible piano (amplified, and hidden behind the stage).

Schnittke’s music is much more than accumulation, accretion, disruption and surprise. It may be filled with other voices and different styles, but he is never just a montage-mannerist; no more a ventriloquist than any other artist of our time. But inevitably no less of one, either. Doubts about the authenticity of a voice, are for him another level of play: what he called his “polystylistic” voice.

You can’t have Schnittke as background music. It demands too much attention. It isn’t just the dissonant patches, the eardrum-flexing notes, the changing pace of it, the chase-music losing its way in the weeds, the alternating currents of anxiety and grace. It is simply too arresting. A passage of lush strings is systematically prised apart just when you are getting into it. Not simply because of all the switches, turnstiles and reverses the music goes through, but because Schnittke continually reconfigures our emotions, changing the pattern as well as the material, and our response to it.

His music is not like Matisse’s comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. Nor is it bracing in that muscular, angular, tough-love way you think must be good for you, but makes you wish it would stop. Schnittke’s music is very carefully structured, paced, configured, for all its seismic faults. If his music is as much spatial as temporal – sculptural and filmic as much as it is atmospheric – then all those movie scores may have had their uses.

His music is big, complex, erudite and multiformed, but you never lose the details amid it all – he is very good at details, at what I think of as glimpses, an eye flickering from the larger forms to something left accidentally on the floor. Listening, then, becomes an experience of transitions. Of phases, figures passing in front and behind one another, things in transit.

Familiarity doesn’t dull it. The familiar is a necessary part of his repertoire, the almost subliminal sense of déjà vu that holds the shapes together. I don’t think Schnittke cared whether what he did sounded “modern” or “difficult”, high or low. He could be all these things, with enough space in hand to let things breathe, to keep them alive.

Certain of Schnittke’s spiritual preoccupations, such as his dabblings in the occult, in the I-Ching (like John Cage), in anthroposophy (though he said he could never trust a man with eyes like Rudolf Steiner’s), culminated in his indecision as to whether to join the Catholic or the Russian Orthodox churches. Schnittke, half Jewish, his parents and grandparents atheists, a German Russian who spent much of his post-war childhood in Vienna, was a polystylistic man. He was led to the spiritual. His music, therefore, makes appeals to dark spaces, to mysteries, to enduring things, certainties. He was no reductivist, and more, I think, a synthetic than an analytical composer.

He plays too, on our sense of perpetual expectation, our hunger for differences, for change and mutability. Where he leads is another matter. His unusual orchestrations (the piano, harpsichord and celesta opening to the Fourth Symphony, for example) keep us listening, and waiting, keep us wanting more. The mad plunges, the returns to a sober, almost sentimental lyricism, sounds creeping in like light under a door and the shadow of someone pacing about beyond: there is real suspense here. It has been said that Schnittke’s music is both ambivalent and pessimistic. This is its unavoidable condition. I can throw adjectives and claims at it all day, but they just slide off the surface. He is seductive, awkward, unhinging. Schnittke’s music knows it will be subsumed back into the world around it when it is done, back into what passes for silence.

Notes from a life in music

1934: Alfred Schnittke is born in Engels, Russia, to German parents.
1946-8: Studies composition in Vienna – a formative experience of Austrian culture.
1949-61 Studies at the October Revolution Music College, Moscow, and at the Moscow Conservatory.
1958 His oratorio Nagasaki is condemned by the Russian Union of Composers. A troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities begins.
1974: His First Symphony is effectively banned in the Soviet Union. Schnittke dubs his work of this period “polystylistic”.
Late 1970s: Works such as the First Sonata for Cello and Piano see him move to a personal language less reliant on musical quotation.
1982: Baptised a Catholic.
1985: Gorbachev comes to power; for the first time Schnittke is allowed to travel regularly outside the Soviet Union. At the same time, his health begins to fail.
1990: Moves to Hamburg.
1993-4: Schnittke’s eighth and last symphony is completed. His mature style is spare and refined, reminiscent of late Shostakovich and the work of the Italian Luigi Nono.
1998: He dies in Germany after a series of strokes.

Alfred Schnittke: Seeking the Soul

Posted in Events, Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 21, 2010

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 21 January 2001

(Schnittke actually said “The goal of my life is to unify “E” and “U” even if I break my neck in so doing!”, “E” being Ernste Musik, “U” being Unterhaltungsmusik.)

You knew they were die-hard Schnittke fans. Nobody coughed …

Alfred Schnittke said that his goal as a composer was to bridge the gap between serious music and music for entertainment, “even if I break my neck doing it”. Today that ambition may strike us as a less literal risk than would have been the case in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Schnittke’s compositional powers were at their height.

His relationship with the grim regime was always volatile, his music at turns the object of adulation and condemnation. Officialdom governed his every move (or, more often, failure to move, since for much of his life he was forbidden from travelling outside the Soviet Union, even to hear performances of his own music). If, for most of us today, that era of Soviet state control has faded to mere reported memory, its painful legacy was felt afresh at the Barbican’s Schnittke extravaganza last weekend. Every note of his music, even at its buoyant best, carries the ironic shadow of adversity. Wit becomes a weapon.

The BBC’s annual Composer Portraits have long been a pleasurable obligation in the January calendar. Judging by the surreal silence and absence of arbitrary bronchial display which attends each concert, these marathons attract only dedicated music lovers. The joy is that this species, supposedly threatened, is determinedly alive; many of the concerts were sold out.

All were well attended and hungrily received. To spend three evenings and two days in the Barbican, or communing with Radio 3 which broadcasts the entire proceedings, requires a certain staying power. Yet the prerequisite for enjoyment is curiosity, not expertise. A sense of shared discovery unites the audience. An excellent complementary programme of talks and films (Schnittke wrote some 66 film scores) exists to fill any gaps in our knowledge. No one should feel daunted.

“Seeking the Soul” was an appropriately ambiguous title for the weekend (who was doing the seeking – the composer or his audience?). Schnittke’s chameleon ability to change mode and mood has made his musical dialectic seem unfairly elusive or superficial. A German-born Russian, a Jew who embraced Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, throughout his life (1934-98) he sought a homeland, a place of acceptance.

His eclectic use of jazz, baroque, mainstream classical and Russian Orthodox chant, tossed together in a bubble-and-squeak of musical variety, might seem to dash any hope of finding the real Schnittke. The reverse is true. Immersion in his music, from expansive, collage-like symphonies to unadorned chamber or choral works, merely confirmed the singularity of his artistic vision. His mission, always, is to wrestle with the musical tradition he has inherited, both within Russia and beyond.

In his favoured form, the concerto grosso, he borrows from the Italian baroque, not to imitate as a neoclassicist ( à la Stravinsky) might, but to explore a type of music which Russia itself never possessed. The string quartets survey the Austro-German tradition, as if sampling Beethoven’s entire output and reconfiguring it, refining and redefining it in his own terms. The Keller Quartet gave haunting accounts of Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 in St Giles’s, Cripplegate, one of the weekend’s many highlights.

In similar vein, at the frenzied climax of the Violin Concerto No. 4, the soloist has to mime virtuosity, his bow sawing crazily above the strings, as if silenced grotesquely by his accompanists. Here, the violinist was the work’s dedicatee, the dazzling Gidon Kremer, who added spice and brilliance to several concerts during the weekend. He was accompanied by the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins, who in the same concert negotiated the mesmerically theatrical Symphony No. 1 with assurance and skill. In this raw, explosive work, scored for huge orchestra, the players walk on stage one by one, then off, then on again, tuning frantically in parody of symphony concert conventions.

At one point, the music is interrupted by a pianist and violinist (Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan) who come and start their own anarchic jazz improvisations while the conductor looks on, bewildered. When performed with the kind of conviction shown here, Schnittke’s anarchy achieves strange and compelling grandeur.

The BBC players, who valiantly mastered a formidable number of works for the occasion, were less secure in the late Symphony No. 8, written in 1994, four years before the composer’s death when he was already incapacitated by a series of strokes. Nevertheless, a few fluffs could not cloud the spare intensity and transparent textures of this remarkable work, here conducted by Eri Klas in its UK premiere. In the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the BBC Singers (who performed the inspiring Choir Concerto) and BBC Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta and a group of fine soloists, Schnittke had the best possible advocates.

Alfred Schnittke: Between Two Worlds

Posted in Events, Interviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 8, 2010

Jonathan Lennie, Time Out, 13 November 2009

As Vladimir Jurowski curates a festival dedicated to Alfred Schnittke, Time Out talks to the conductor about the composer’s legacy.

By the time of his death in 1998, Alfred Schnittke had become regarded as one of the major composers of the late twentieth century. The reason? His unique position both culturally and musically, engendering an eclectic sound-world – combining the tonal language of earlier Western music with the idioms of his time (such as 12-tone serialism). This gained him a reputation for “polystylism”, which became a defining feature of his work.

His distinctive sound and technique may be traced to his background. He was born to German/Jewish parents, and lived in Vienna until he was 12, before his family returned to Soviet Russia. As much of his work was banned (as decadent Western formalism), it instigated an explosion of interest and mass programming of his music after perestroika in 1980s Russia, where he was regarded as the natural successor to Shostakovich. Yet, over here, despite a four-day Schnittke festival at the Barbican in 2001 (care of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and the odd appearance (his oratorio “Nagasaki” was presented by the LSO at this summer’s BBC Proms), he remains somewhat obscure. Someone who aims to put that right is Vladimir Jurowski, who has curated “Between Two Worlds”, a festival exploring Schnittke’s life and works. The mercurial principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (and director of Glyndebourne) is well suited to the task, having himself experienced the same dual cultures – he was born in Moscow in 1972, then moved to Germany in 1990, where he studied and still lives.

Why Schnittke?
“This is a very personal thing – you have to perform the music in which you believe. My whole philosophy on this series is that I am trying to set the composer in context. So Schnittke is never peformed on his own – there are works by his influences Haydn, Wagner, Webern and Berg. I hope it will give audiences the chance to see not just another twentieth-century composer, but an indispensable part – maybe the last link in the chain – of what we call the European tradition.”

Are Schnittke’s roots in German music rather than Russian?
“What simply springs out of his music is that this is a German composer at work, but also someone who has been very influenced by his life in Russia. I think Schnittke’s position is unique – until he was12, he studied piano with a private teacher in Vienna, so his roots are Schubert, Mozart and Haydn, not Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Borodin – something he added later.”

Schnittke said: “Faust is the theme of my whole life.” Why?
“Faust is an archetype of European culture and a problem of the European intellectual, and Schnittke certainly felt himself part of this intellectual and spiritual tradition … he was someone growing up in a cultural vacuum.”

Are all his works polystylistic?
“No, polystylism is something that he has developed as an idea in the middle period of his life. Basically it came from his very active involvement with the writing of film scores, which was the only secure way of making a living in Russia at the time as a composer. He realised about the mid-1970s that his affinity with music for entertainment was as strong as his affinity with more radical, experimental stuff. Either he would waste the rest of his life trying to reconcile them, or hiding one from another, or find a way of bringing them together under the same roof.”

Why is he a great composer?
“Schnittke has been through various phases – he has written strictly serialist works and strictly tonal works and so-called “polystylistic” pieces, but I find in his best works, and even at his worst, he remains absolutely recognisable Schnittke, and that is a rare gift.”

The radiant rowdiness of Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 9, 2010

Tom Service, The Guardian, 15 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke’s music is defined by diversity. His symphonies lurch from modernist violence to quotations from Beethoven; his concertos contain everything from baroque pastiche to jazz solos; and his chamber music is brutal then beguiling.

This BBC weekend was the first major retrospective of Schnittke’s work since his death in 1998; it included appearances from his closest friends, including violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Alexander Ivashkin, and the composer’s widow, the pianist Irina Schnittke.

There was no more telling contrast in the first two days of concerts than that between the riotous First Symphony, composed in 1969-72, and the Concerto for Mixed Choir, written in 1985. The symphony was played in the Barbican by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury performed the concerto in the haunting intimacy of St Giles, Cripplegate.

Schnittke’s First Symphony is one of the great showpieces of the recent orchestral repertoire, and the BBCSO’s performance was a major event. The 70-minute symphony began with every musician playing as they walked on stage, creating a ferocious dissonance. It goes on to parody genres of music from military marches to waltzes, and the niceties of concert-hall convention.

After one outburst, a violin and piano duo started a separate performance in front of the first violins – disregarded by the orchestra, which continued to play. Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan gave a hyperactive recital, mercilessly satirising the virtuoso tradition. At the end of the symphony, the players continued performing on the journey backstage, only to reappear exactly as they did at the start of the symphony, before Brabbins finally called a halt to proceedings.

Next to this extraordinary collage, the serene concentration and austere atmosphere of the Concerto for Mixed Choir, settings of sacred verses by the 9th century Armenian Grigori Narekatsi, could have been the work of another composer. Yet there is a profound connection between the archaic style of the concerto and the “polystylism”, as Schnittke described it, of the symphony.

Although the First Symphony is often hilarious, there is a tragic tension in the piece between its hidden architecture and the fragments of music Schnittke pastes over it. The funny stuff on the surface has a deadly serious meaning; it’s the modernist structure underneath that Schnittke is really parodying. So the timeless qualities of diatonic melody and plainchant in the choir concerto (and in other of Schnittke’s works of the 1980s performed over the weekend, such as the Fourth Symphony) are one way of bypassing the dilemma of the symphony. Yet the ultimate irony is that these languages are no less borrowed than any passage of the First Symphony.

At the end of his life, Schnittke found a musical language that escaped the conflicts of his previous music. The London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of Fragment, part of a piece they had commissioned from Schnittke in 1994, but which he never finished. There is an amazing conviction and clarity about the work’s three existing movements. Even more striking was the British premiere of the radiant Eighth Symphony, given by the BBCSO under conductor Eri Klas. There, the earlier tussle between styles and structures is replaced by a music that is more unified but also more terrifying: a stillness and calm that seems to reflect Schnittke’s gaze upon death.

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