Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Soul searching with Schnittke

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

Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 16 January 2001

The significance of Seeking the Soul, the title of the BBC’s Alfred Schnittke weekend, became increasingly apparent as the final day wore on. The culminating work was the Faust Cantata, a drama of perdition, of the irretrievable loss of the human soul into a void of silence.

“Faust is the theme of my whole life,” Schnittke is reported as saying, “and I am already afraid of it.”

A defining moment of his adolescence was his discovery of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the novel about a composer whose music issues from the gulf that is his own soullessness. Schnittke sets a Faust text used by Mann’s fictional character, filling the gulf with his own garish amalgam of memory, allusion and reminiscence. The chorus pontificate in Brahmsian fashion. Faust is damned to a tango – part Kurt Weill, part rock – sung here by Susan Bickley, her voice emerging from cavernous depths and rising to ribald shrieks of diablerie. At the end the music ticks away into percussive nothingness as the lights dim and performers and audience are dissolved into darkness.

Leonard Slatkin conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with a dreadful relish, prefacing the work with the Third Symphony, written for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1981 to celebrate 300 years of the Austro-German symphonic tradition. Once again, sound heaves itself out of a silence, gradually coalescing into a Brucknerian, architectonic structure. Yet, despite the grandeur, nihilism pervades as the allusions and reminiscences proliferate and shift. Mozartian piano swirls are suddenly fractured by the eruption of violent sonic hell. Symphonic tradition itself seems imperilled in Schnittke’s music, which fascinates and unnerves through its very lack of centredness and certainty.

The mordant bleakness of his vision was again emphasised in a lunchtime concert in the chill of St Giles’s Church, Cripplegate, when Gidon Kremer, Schnittke’s friend and advocate, led a series of works for string ensemble. Ula Ulijana on the viola and Marta Sudraba on the cello joined him for the String Trio. Commissioned to commemorate the centenary of Berg’s birth, it subjects a fragment of melody that is almost Happy Birthday To You to bleak chromatic contortions, as if warning an infant of the perils of existence. The same soloists played the Concerto for Three, which allows each player a moment of brief, magisterial assertion before everything is swept away in violence.

Yet there are moments of redemption in Schnittke that overturn the sombreness of it all. At a late afternoon concert, with the BBC Philharmonic and Vassily Sinaisky, we were allowed to hear what is probably Schnittke’s greatest score, his Second Cello Concerto, with the phenomenal Torlief Thedeen as soloist. The work culminates in an overwhelming passacaglia that echoes the finales of both Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Berg’s Violin Concerto. Despite some interruptions of coruscating terror, it progresses with ritual solemnity towards a genuine, numinous transcendence. Just for once, you feel that the terrible void has finally been filled.

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Alfred Schnittke: a crazy mixed-up kid

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on February 22, 2010

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.

A Shy, Frail Creator of the Wildest Music

Posted in Articles, Interviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 26, 2010

Alex Ross, The New York Times, 10 February 1994

If you knew little of Alfred Schnittke or his music, you might say he is trendy, hip, in fashion. It is an understandable assumption, given the current spate of Schnittke performances: the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 tonight by the New York Philharmonic, the American premieres last week of his Piano Sonata No. 2 by Boris Berman and his Symphony No. 6 by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a forthcoming performance of his Faust Cantata by the American Symphony Orchestra. Other recent works are being rushed to recordings. Not since Britten has a living composer been given this kind of attention.

But the man who sat patiently through an interview at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning has nothing to do with the world of trends. Soft-spoken, shy and physically frail from two recent strokes, this Russian-born composer is incapable of self-promotion. Unlike many composers before him, he does not conduct, and he has written perplexingly little for his own instrument, the piano. He has gained recognition only through the substance of his music, with its anarchic conjuration of musical history and its underlying eloquence.

Mr. Schnittke talked about the new symphonies he has written for the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in typically muted and gnomic terms. “I prepared something that was not exactly perfect,” he said of the Sixth Symphony, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It seemed incomplete in a sense, and it’s not clear if we’ve really heard it. I already cut one episode, and I’m thinking about other ways to change it.” Mr. Schnittke’s printed discussions of his music regularly speak of attempts, reports, experiments and sometimes failures.

As it happens, these new works, particularly the severe and enigmatic Sixth, are atypical of the 59-year-old composer’s output as a whole. He first gained notice in the West with a style that seemed to match popular trends, so to speak, of the 1960s and 70s. It was not one style, but many: “polystylistics”, he called it, a rampant musical eclecticism drawing on Baroque arpeggios, the Viennese waltz, 12-tone modernism and avant-garde procedures. There was an exhilarating expressive vibrancy to the blend, and more than a touch of dark comedy.

Some commentators, and some imitative composers, have mistaken this approach for mere nostalgia. “That’s one of the major inaccuracies,” Mr. Schnittke said. “The style was never focused on the past, nor, for that matter, on the future.” The most remarkable aspect of his work is how a distinctive and recognizable voice emerges through an impossible variety of material. The composer of the present is emphatically, grippingly in control.

Mr. Schnittke’s relation to the past remains very complex. He derived his polystylistic method from Mahler, Ives, Berg and Shostakovich, all of whom stitched together a musical language from disparate sources. If there was a formative moment in his career, it was his encounter in the early 60s with Shostakovich’s monumentally chaotic Fourth Symphony, which had been hidden for three decades in the composer’s desk. “What was most important to me,” he said of the Fourth, “was not only the incredible technical accomplishments, but also the unexpected compositional choices, polyphony in the largest sense.”

The first major work of Mr. Schnittke’s mature period, his First Symphony of 1972, amplified the discoveries of the Shostakovich Fourth in every possible dimension. It is a good candidate for the wildest piece of music ever written. Gregorian chants, bits of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, motoric Baroque music and coffeehouse jazz collide in front of a dark and turbulent orchestral mass. It seems inconceivable that such a work was given a public performance in the Soviet Union of 1974, when other composers were setting Leonid Brezhnev’s diaries to music. But Rodion Shchedrin, then head of the Russian composers’ union, pushed the symphony past the bureaucracy.

“There was a great deal of tension and negative official reaction to the premiere,” Mr. Schnittke recalled. “But at the same time it was in an incredible moment, important and positive for me. The reaction of the public astonished me: people went not only to the performance but to rehearsals.” Mr. Schnittke was able to continue working without official support, although obstacles impeded him continually until 1985.

A tempting interpretation of this music is that it somehow represents or foreshadows the collapse of the Soviet state. Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, has indeed titled his Feb. 18 concert “The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror”. Mr. Schnittke’s reaction to this view was hesitant: “When I wrote, I wasn’t thinking about events, although some connection with events is of course possible. There is the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’.”

This last analogy is best interpreted as one of Mr. Schnittke’s characteristic ironical gestures. His music demands a deeper historical perspective. Just as strong as the connection to Shostakovich are the links to Mahler and Berg, whose music, Mr. Schnittke said, he “adores above everything else”. He is of German as well as Russian descent, and one of his favorite stylistic modes is a wistful German Romantic lyricism; the introduction and coda of the Seventh Symphony furnish a strong example. He now lives in Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms.

Another plausible reading of Mr. Schnittke is that he pessimistically mirrors the decline of the classical tradition itself, writing music for the end of music. He has encouraged this sort of thinking with some dire pronouncements of his own. “I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless,” reads the program note for the Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, in four traditional movements, is an altogether frightening vision of music stripped to the bone; at one performance in Washington, several distressed young children were led out after the first movement.

But even though his music has taken on an increasingly grim tone, the composer is not a doomsayer: “In what I do, there is definitely going to be an exit and there is definitely going to be an answer to these questions, but at the same time there is a lot of rightful doubt about the forms and a nervousness about what the future holds for music.” While he considers the possibility of a synthesis of classical and popular genres “pure utopia”, he has dabbled in rock and jazz instrumentation, and enjoyed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.

Might it be possible that Mr. Schnittke’s music has been inspired by the eclectic, parodistic, fundamentally grave and serious compositions of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus? “Yes, the book had an incredible influence on me,” said Mr. Schnittke, becoming slightly more passionate than he had been for most of the interrogation. “I read it in the 50s when I was still a young man. I thought about it my whole life, but unfortunately never wrote anything connected with it.”

There is, however, the Faust Cantata, based on the same 16th century source that the fictional Leverkühn employs for his valedictory work. It has been expanded into a three-act opera, with a libretto drawing from various Faust sources; the Hamburg Opera will give the premiere in 1995. “Faust was a man both good and bad,” Mr. Schnittke said of this 20-year-old project, “and that ambivalence draws me to the story.”

Ambivalence, in the end, is what draws us into Mr. Schnittke’s magic schemes; they match our best and worst imaginings. Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.

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