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.
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.
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.