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.
“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.”
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.