Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

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.

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Composer as Storyteller, Creating Order Out of Chaos

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 2, 2010

Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 17 August 1998

“I’m sorry, but I’m loath to listen to my work,” the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke declared in 1981, preventing a scheduled performance of his Septet. “It’s a terrible composition.”

Earlier this month, when Schnittke died at the age of 63, he was almost totally unknown outside music circles. And though one hates to say it, that obscurity may be because it seems so easy to agree with that self-criticism and not just about the Septet. One could, a bit perversely, portray his career as one of crass vulgarity and crude effects.

Schnittke’s piece composed for his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory was called “Nagasaki” and included a musical evocation of an atomic bomb blast. Then came “The 11th Commandment”, an opera about the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After such melodramatic beginnings, Schnittke built a career in the Soviet Union by writing 66 film scores for cartoons, documentaries and features.

His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke’s First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.

This was not the exception. Schnittke’s Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It’s a post-modern playground.

Enough.

I have indulged in this bit of mock criticism because it is almost impossible to describe Schnittke’s music without making it sound as if it really were awful, as if it were full of cliches. In his work, history is plundered; irony is rampant; pastiche becomes the only coherence; the beauties of art are seemingly beyond reach.

Schnittke once said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” But the remarkable thing is that even though this style – one for which I generally have very little sympathy or interest – really is Schnittke’s, any dismissal of his achievement is entirely wrong. Schnittke was a modern master. Or, better, a post-modern master.

He took a style that mocks the very idea of genius and turned it into an affirmation of genius. He applied techniques that are meant to undo notions of truth or beauty and used them in a life-and-death struggle to reassert those notions. He adopted an attitude usually associated with easy irony and facile posing and molded it into a profound expression of his inner life. In his music, even the classical-music tradition, which such mannerisms usually declare to be at an end, ends up taking on new life. Schnittke turned post-modernism on its head.

I first heard Schnittke’s music in 1981, when he was relatively unknown in the United States. When the contemporary ensemble Continuum gave one of the first New York concerts devoted to his work, I was unprepared for the shock. There was such a contrast between the eclectic, disjointed style and the incisive coherence of the results, that I could only think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes a traveler with his piercing gaze.

Schnittke’s is a storyteller’s art, able in the turns of a few phrases to leap across centuries, to adopt the most noble of attitudes, to inhabit the most vulgar of characters, to moan with despair and then burst out in laughter, to mock himself but command attention with his seriousness. One listens in disbelief but then realizes that one’s knuckles are white from gripping the chair.

Not every attempt was successful. The First Symphony really did seem to create a circus of sarcasm. The Sixth Symphony, performed a few years ago in New York, is weirdly fractured and despairing. But listen to any of the recordings of his most famous work, the 1977 Concerto Grosso, with its mixture of Vivaldi and cartoon music, elegiac melody and robust declamations. It is a universe of thwarted expression, everything is at risk; the result is maniacal, almost crazily daring.

But there is an odd kind of integrity in this music, a concentration that absorbs all contradiction, just as in the wrenching 1985 Viola Concerto, the soloist vigorously maneuvers about in a shape-shifting world of uncertain character.

Schnittke was akin to Mahler, not just in the way both used earlier musical styles and folk melodies to poke through a scrim of modern melancholy, but because both also found something profound in the midst of these musical recollections and meditations. A constant struggle is going on. And for both, irony was a temptation, not a solution. Yield to it, and everything dissolves into insignificance. It may be that for Schnittke, post-modernism itself had a kind of devilish character to which he was drawn and against which he had to struggle, sometimes turning to the comforts of religious faith. (He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.)

This may have been one reason why Schnittke was so preoccupied with the story of Faust. In 1959, he wanted to write a composition similar to “Lamentation of Doctor Faustus” that the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn writes in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. It would have been a drama not just about the soul but about the artist weaving his way through the temptations of easy sentiment and amusement. In 1983 Schnittke wrote the “Faust” Cantata. One of his last works was an opera, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten”.

One of Schnittke’s core dramas may have been a struggle between post-modernism, with its miscellany and mannerisms, and the far deeper desire to create coherence and comprehension. He once asserted that “everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful” is not external to the world, but an intrinsic part of its order. Disharmony and cacophony, which he called the world’s evil, is knit into what is “harmonious and beautiful”.

And Schnittke really did seem to keep that in mind. An astonishing number of his pieces use a motif created by the musical notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name in Germanic notation (B, A, C and B flat). That motif and Bach’s music are cited as if they were visitations from another world, at sea in a monstrous post-modern universe. But Bach is not dissolved in that universe. Instead, Schnittke treats him as his Virgil, leading him through the surrounding wilderness, helping him knit evil into the fabric of beauty.

Correction: August 19, 1998, Wednesday The Connections column on Monday about the works of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke misstated the order of the musical notes that spell out Bach’s name in Germanic notation. The notes, a motif Schnittke used in some of his compositions, are B flat, A, C, B (not B, A, C, B flat); B natural is H in Germanic notation.

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