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.

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Obituary: Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Obituaries by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 27, 2010

Martin Anderson, David Revill, The Independent, 5 August 1998

The “polystylism” that came to be characteristic of Alfred Schnittke’s music was a reflection of the man himself: he was a Russian composer, born in a once-German part of the Soviet Union, to parents of Latvian origin – his father Jewish and his mother German, who grew up a Catholic in a German community in an atheist state.

Schnittke’s natural openness to this kaleidoscope of influences was characteristic of his generous intellectual curiosity: he likewise accepted all the rest of music as material to feed his own creative urge. He was also two ways a hero, although, in keeping with his personal modesty, an unemphatic one: at the beginning of his career he assiduously took on the Soviet cultural dictatorship on behalf of new music, and at the end of his life he showed extraordinary physical courage in continuing to compose despite a series of vicious strokes.

Schnittke’s musical ambitions manifested themselves early but the family’s limited means, and their geographical isolation in the Volga during the Second World War (Stalin deported the Volga Germans en masse; Schnittke’s father’s Jewishness allowed his family to escape the net), meant that systematic instruction was not available. The child none the less made crude attempts at composition, demonstrating a creative will that was to ignore formidable obstacles throughout his career.

In 1945 Schnittke’s father, now a journalist in the Soviet army, was posted to Vienna with the occupying forces, and the nine-year-old Alfred could at last study music theory and piano, also soaking himself in concerts and broadcast music (Stalin had banned the private possession of radios during the Second World War). The Viennese tradition he encountered at this formative age provided a vital underlay to his later stylistic explorations.

The Schnittke family returned to the Soviet Union in 1946, settling in the Moscow area, and Alfred began to teach himself harmony. At the age of 15 he was accepted as a student in the army music college, and began private theory lessons with Iosif Ryzhkin, who taught him to compose in a wide variety of styles to improve the fluency of his technique. In 1953, just as Stalin’s death gave way to Khrushchev’s brief “thaw”, Schnittke became a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where the students courted the disapproval of their orthodox teachers by listening privately to the “bourgeois” music of composers like Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók and Schoenberg, who were only now beginning to be heard in Russia.

Another massive influence on Schnittke at this time, as on virtually every young composer of note in the Soviet Union, was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto, premiered in 1955, had a very direct impact. Schnittke’s friend Alexander Ivashkin – whose excellent biographical study Alfred Schnittke (1996) is the only publication on the composer in English – points to the similarities between the concertos of the two composers: there is “the same feeling of drama, the same sharp, even exaggerated, contrasts between the movements, and the same freedom and space for the cadenza, a monologue of the soloist ‘hero’”. Ivashkin neatly characterises the difference in their styles: “Shostakovich, under the burden of Stalin’s dictatorship, was much more cautious, preferring to speak indirectly and symbolically. Schnittke’s generation grew up in a different situation and wanted to speak more openly and directly.”

Schnittke’s graduation piece, an oratorio called Nagasaki (1958) brought him his first brush with authority: his depiction of the explosion of the atomic bomb, using atonality, tonal clusters and howling trombones, was hardly calculated to appease the apparatchiks of the Composers’ Union. Schnittke was unable to make the compromises in his musical language to suit the political lines of the commission he was offered, and so in the early 1960s he was blacklisted, a covert ban that was to last 20 years.

That meant that travel abroad, even to other Communist countries, would be a rare privilege, despite his growing fame as one of the Soviet Union’s most individual voices and leading modernists. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s Schnittke was invited to around 20 premieres of his works abroad; permission to attend them was never granted.

In a search for a musical language that would synthesise past and present Schnittke was already beginning to unite a variety of elements in his music, in the beginnings of his “polystylism”, where reminiscences of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical composers sit alongside the most dramatic devices of modernism, in stark contrasts that produce music of considerable tension and power. Studies with the Moldova-born Webern pupil Philip Hershkovich, who pointed to the origins of much modern music in the classics of the past, now gave Schnittke’s search intellectual cohesion, and the music began to flow fast from his pen.

In 1962 Schnittke wrote the first of his film scores, a genre that was to afford him a relatively good living over the next two decades, accounting for no fewer than 66 of his 200 or so works. It also allowed him more room for experiment than works destined for the Communist-controlled concert halls: he could choose his techniques according to the film in question, commenting on the action rather than merely illustrating it. These scores provided a rich vein of material for later concert works.

One of those pieces was the First Symphony, first performed in 1974, an unabashed ragbag of music, discordantly, exultantly sewn together with some pointedly rough needlework, like some crazed Charles Ives on speed. The effect on Russian musical life was electric: it heralded the beginning of the end for the old, repressive order, which predictably reacted by putting an effective ban on its performance.

Schnittke’s music meantime was moving on, refining his magpie eclecticism in favour of a new depth of emotion; the occasion for this search for expressive power was the death of his mother, from a stroke, in 1972; the sense of mortality it brought Schnittke was supported by a growing sense of religious awareness.
The advent to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 loosened the grip of Tikhon Khrennikov, the Stalinist head of the Composers’ Union, on musical life in the Soviet Union. Schnittke was poised to reap the rewards of his intellectual and moral consistency. And that was when he had his first stroke, with a brain haemorrhage so severe that three times he was pronounced clinically dead.

His reaction was to tighten his grip on life: he began composing his First Cello Concerto within three months. Stage works, orchestral music, choral pieces, chamber music followed, one score after another with an almost frantic urgency. A second stroke hit him in 1991, after which Schnittke completed his opera Life with an Idiot. Two years later another opera, Gesualdo, was finished, as were the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

Schnittke’s doctor had advised him to take complete rest; when Schnittke found that the result was yet another stroke, he threw caution to the winds and, though he could barely speak and could write only with his left hand (he was right-handed), he managed to compose his Ninth Symphony, which was premiered in Moscow in June this year.

No composer as productive as Schnittke can expect to write a consistent string of masterpieces. But the best of Schnittke is, quite simply, great music: his Second Cello Concerto, for example, is one of the finest additions to the cello repertoire this century; and Ivashkin chronicles how the audience at his ballet Peer Gynt left the hall in tears.

Much of his work is touched with a sense of imminent loss, of some disaster about to break on the listener, in music of searing pain – which, indeed, is exactly how Schnittke lived much of the latter part of his life.

(Martin Anderson)

Alfred Schnittke was one of Russia’s most prolific and innovative composers and, in the last few years, became one of an elite of composers this century to achieve broad popularity, writes David Revill.

His interest in the European avant-garde was only awoken, however, by a visit to Russia from the Italian composer – and son-in-law of Schoenberg – Luigi Nono in the early Sixties. From then until the late Sixties Schnittke employed serial techniques himself. This brought him hostility from the Soviet authorities, whose criteria for good music were still basically political. Performances of works such as the First Symphony (1969-72) were delayed and often held in obscure parts of the Union (the Symphony premiered in Gorky on 9 February 1974). Other young Russian composers, on the other hand, increasingly admired his daring.

The authorities still let him teach at the Conservatoire and at the Experimental Studio for Electronic Music. From 1972 onwards, he began to make his living as a composer, thanks to such energetic work as writing music for stage productions of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, for films of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Eugene Onegin.

Starting with his Second Violin Concerto (1966), he returned to expressive music in a more broadly dramatic way. He fitted his interest in serialism into this, producing, for example, 12-note rows with implied tonal centres, so that he could build a contrast between tonal and atonal styles into a single piece. He tried this approach in pieces such as Quasi una Sonata (1968).

As early as the First Symphony, Schnittke had begun to combine earlier musical styles in pastiche – quotes from Beethoven symphonies, imitation Baroque music, stylised modern dances, and so on. This polystylism is one of his work’s most controversial features. Most offended are those who feel they own the music he has cited. When his arrangement of Stille Nacht was played near its composer’s birthplace, Schnittke recalled, “It made some people upset that I made some changes in his music, which gave it a much more mournful sense.”

Schnittke received little critical attention in the West before the end of the 1980s. After that, more and more attention was devoted to his music, though some critics derided him for crude structures, unsophisticated themes, and over-sentimentality. What was more significant was that at the same point there was an explosion of interest from a broader public – part of the biggest upsurge this century of enthusiasm for “serious” music, which also brought to prominence composers such as Henryk Górecki and John Tavener.

Popular interest brought wider opportunities for performances and recordings. Schnittke pieces were championed by, among others, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, the violinist Gidon Kremer, and new music stars, the Kronos Quartet. He was also the subject of a film by Donald Sturrock, The Unreal World of Alfred Schnittke.

Why the big explosion of public interest came when it did is a fascinating question. Partly it was because many people were ready for serious music they could actually understand. For decades composers had been pursuing their own musical agendas and scarcely thinking of an audience. A composer who could write dramatic, moving, humorous music, with references to recognisable syles, and who dared to call pieces by the kinds of title people could recognise, would have an enthusiastic welcome. Schnittke genially fitted the bill.

Alfred Schnittke, composer: born Engels, Soviet Republic of Volga Germans, 24 November 1934; married 1956 Galina Koltsina (marriage dissolved 1958), 1961 Irina Katayeva (one son); died Hamburg, Germany, 3 August 1998.

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