Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Connoisseur of Chaos

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 18, 2010

Alex Ross, The New Republic, 28 September 1992

In November 1938, when a dark-hued and dissonant work by the late Ernst Krenek was performed in Boston, the audience responded more generously than might have been the norm in a less dark-hued and dissonant time. A Brahmin matriarch turned to her companion and observed: “Conditions in Europe must be dreadful.” That casual remark anticipated a mode of music appreciation that has become increasingly dominant in recent years. Twentieth-century scores have been reduced to bulletins from one crisis or another, soundtracks to history’s docudrama. Symphonies become invasions; string quartets turn into hidden diaries.

Music composed during the brief and spectacular lifetime of the Soviet Union is especially vulnerable to historically minded readings. Shostakovich is the most obvious target; he first advertised his works as affirmations of the regime, then privately advised us of alternative, subversive programs. Either way, he allowed his music to be relentlessly politicized. During the past twenty-five years, composers in what is now Russia and the other assorted republics have also spoken out in a certain “tone”, a voice now impersonating the Evil Empire’s interminable decadence. Anarchic and synthetic, nostalgic and visionary, cynical and serene, music in the Brezhnev era was an overflowing midnight harvest, a classic End-Zeit which might one day draw comparisons to Gustav Mahler’s Vienna or to Berlin and Paris between the wars. The government that once made Shostakovich’s life a living hell may have lost interest in the tendencies of its composers toward the end, but the composers did not lose interest in the tendencies of their society.

Of the numerous major figures to inhabit the Soviet fin-de-siècle, a man named Alfred Schnittke has rapidly become the most notorious. Born in 1934 of Russian and German-Jewish descent, Schnittke has achieved indisputable international stature, and his scores are being performed and recorded many times over. (The Swedish record-label BIS intends to record all of his music, and has already imprinted sixteen hours of it on glistening compact discs.) In this country, of course, Schnittke has become wildly trendy. He happens to sate a current American appetite for artists who brood at one moment and go wacky at the next. Audiences have also listened to him eager for clues to the Russian enigma, and in that respect they have not been disappointed.

All composers somehow reflect their times; some composers do little more. Schnittke is a separate case. Conditions in Russia are, indeed, dreadful, but that is the least surprising news that this composer brings. He represents not only a moment in the history of Russia, but also a moment in the history of music. To put it simply, he will not vanish when his times are up. The multiplicity of styles, of schools, of genres; the overbearing weight of an impressive past; the overshadowing brilliance and energy of present-day “popular” modes seemingly alien to the classical tradition; the possibilities of a future in which parochial barriers will crumble away – all this is acutely observed in Schnittke’s music, and at times epiphanically reconciled. He is nothing less than the composer of our climate.

The wellspring of Alfred Schnittke’s music is, inevitably, that archetypal twilight time, the twenty-five years before the outbreak of the First World War. A great many contemporary composers are beholden to the original and much-lamented fin-de-siècle, but Schnittke has overheard the paradoxes as well as the clichés of that era. As a devotee of Gustav Mahler, for example, Schnittke has not sought to replicate that composer’s luxurious immolation of Romanticism, but rather to expand upon his last-minute discovery (realized fully in the incomplete Symphony No. 10) that the conflict of dissonance and consonance is the forge of the most intense expression. An even more important legacy from Mahler is the recurrent juxtaposition of an elegiac tone and polystylistic satire – although that technique could have been derived as well from Mahler’s non-identical twin, Erik Satie.

Nor could any young Soviet composer escape the shadow of Dmitri Shostakovich. But again, Schnittke does not ape the standard profile enshrined in today’s concert-halls. In place of the monumental Fifth Symphony, it is the wilfully chaotic Fourth – hidden for decades in Shostakovich’s desk-drawer – that has fascinated Schnittke the theorist. Also paramount is the Bolshevik radicalism of Shostakovich’s sardonic ballets and film-scores of the early thirties, rather than the socialist-realist tragedy of the later symphonies. At the dawn of Lenin’s brave new world, Shostakovich began the fusion of Mahlerian expressionism and quasi-dadaist satire that Schnittke was later able to complete in the dusk of Brezhnev’s decrepit monolith.

The Shostakovich Fourth – often peripatetic in layout, at times a mere anthology of banal dances and aimless marches; passing from chillingly spare chamber music to near-anarchic fortissimi for full orchestra; in Schnittke’s vocabulary, a “polyphonic” work – came to light at the end of the nineteen-fifties. The composer had suppressed it after being declared an “enemy of the people” by Stalin in 1936. Other documents of the early Soviet era had been privately circulated: the refined atonal works of Roslavetz and Lourié, both of whom pioneered twelve-tone systems prior to Schoenberg; futuristic tone-poems like Mossolov’s The Iron Foundry; and hybrid experiments like Vladimir Deshevov’s The Red Hurricane, mingling ballet, opera, dramatic recitation, and vaudeville.

The fevered and fantastical progressivism that had been cut short in the 1930s seemed to resume abruptly after the departure of Khrushchev in 1964. Brezhnev’s cultural authorities would never fully reassert their hold over what should and should not be composed; with the ascendancy of pop, they may not have cared. Still, there must have been some consternation over, say, the early works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt – music that lapsed centuries in time at a moment’s notice, plunging into Tchaikovsky or Handel or medieval chant. A group of Ukrainian composers wrote in minimalist and eclectic modes through the late sixties and seventies, well in advance of American trends. The current fad for Schnittke may soon give way to long-overdue enthusiasm for the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, who has pursued her own highly individual path through various movements and styles.

Schnittke kept a low profile through the disarray of the 1960s. His ventures into twelve-tone or “serial” composition resemble many works written in that manner, at least on the surface. The final movement of his Violin Sonata No. 1 (1963) is unobjectionable from the academic point of view, but at the same time it is rhythmically wry and engaging in a way that is alien to the whole Schoenberg/Boulez sensibility. It’s positively danceable, in fact. Other works from this period show similar peculiarities, but for the most part the composer was biding his time. In his own words:

My musical development took a course similar to that of some friends and colleagues, across piano concerto romanticism, neoclassic academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis … and took cognizance also of the unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial. Having arrived at the final station, I decided to get off the already overcrowded train. Since then I have tried to proceed on foot.

This walking journey is remarkable not for any new ground that it happens to cross, but instead for the startling vistas it creates among familiar landmarks. In this respect his resemblance to both Mahler and Shostakovich is conspicuous. No less remarkable, however, is the distinct and individual accent audible in every bar, even amid the prevalent carnival of styles. We always know who is speaking, even as he does the composers in different voices.

As it first became known in the West, the music of Alfred Schnittke admittedly did not make so strong an impression. A retiring man who does not enjoy speaking to the press, Schnittke has permitted others to speak for him. And his friends in the West have sometimes chosen lesser works to get his name before the public. Silent Night, for violin and piano, was composed as a holiday greeting for Gidon Kremer; the violinist took to performing it in public, and caused consternation on a national level in Austria where Gruber’s Yuletide anthem is considered sacred ground. With a breathtaking economy of means, Schnittke managed to turn the song into a miniature nightmare, Christmas at Anselm Kiefer’s. In a similar vein, his cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto rambles away from its core material and quotes strains of other famous concertos, while turning Beethoven’s introductory timpani motif into an obsessive rant. One short work is self-evidently titled Moz-Art (“Mozart/sort of”).

These acidic bonbons, while misrepresenting Schnittke as a facile ironist, give an approximate sense of his method. Nearly all of the major works are built around a moment where scraps of historical material are put under pressure from the present. According to violinist Oleh Krysa, Schnittke has described this moment as a sometimes involuntary epiphany: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper – and suddenly it rusts.” He has a particular fondness for metamorphosing the sediments of Vienna’s golden age, the Haydn-to-Schubert era. Veins of dissonance are marbled into a wistful turn of phrase, to the point where historical classifications become useless. The corrupting of source-material proceeds sometimes at a sinister and gradual pace, sometimes more abruptly – the pastiche-passage might break off with cluster chords and fisted dissonances, in the manner of a teenage pianist getting fed up with his assigned piece of sight-reading. These gestures of musical delinquency are at the core of Schnittke’s constructive self-doubt as a composer.

The “stylistic modulations” never give a sense of arbitrariness, of random rummaging; he is always telling a story through the juxtaposition of styles. One of his most startling interventions in past music comes in the second movement of a recent work, peculiarly titled Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Gustav Mahler’s teenage sketches for a Piano Quartet are amplified beyond recognition by a confused and angry orchestra; after a final gong-splattered climax of tension, the Mahler fragment is heard in its original form, beginning confidently but soon drifting off into isolated figures and hints of figures. The movement as a whole is structured so that Mahler’s boyish thoughts sound like the logical completion of a late twentieth-century symphonic span. What Schnittke begins, Mahler finishes.

A fairly considerable fraction of Schnittke’s output falls into the category of “anti-music”, aiming to demonstrate the seeming foolishness of composition this late in the twentieth century. Much of the confusion and controversy over his work probably emanates from an over-familiarity with these extrovert exercises in self-deconstruction. The Violin Sonata No. 2 (“Quasi una Sonata”), the first piece composed after Schnittke’s decisive break from twelve-tone writing in 1968, is perhaps his most strenuous exercise in futility. A “borderline case of sonata form”, it never seems to get past a confident opening chord of G minor; as a “report on the impossibility of the sonata”, it resembles many other works of the late-modernist era. The composer himself compares it to Fellini’s 8½, in which a film director is incapable of completing or even beginning his much-anticipated masterpiece.

Schnittke has also composed five symphonies, mostly out of a sense of duty: “I do not know whether or not the symphony will survive as a musical form. I very much hope that it will and I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless.” None of the series conforms to the traditional symphonic plot, although all exceed forty minutes in length. The most remarkable is the Symphony No. 1 (1974), perhaps the apex of unruliness in Schnittke’s output. Miraculously, the piece was performed in the Soviet Union soon after its composition – apparently even with the private blessing of Tikhon Khrennikov, long-time head of the Soviet composers’ union who helped instigate the musical purges of 1948. How it came to be praised for “civic-mindedness and patriotism” is a mystery best left to future scholarship. Although classical composition no longer received the deadly scrutiny of Stalinist henchmen, conditions persisted in which the setting to music of Brezhnev’s diaries (for example) was a potentially useful act of self-abasement.

Bedlam erupts in the very first bars of this symphony, and never really subsides. Jazz combos do not merely add flavor to the texture, as they do in many urbane twentieth-century scores, but actually take charge of the piece for considerable stretches. From time to time the full orchestra attempts to bring the madness to a halt, with a loud minor chord heavy on the interval of the third. This warning goes unheeded. The second movement opens with a lampoon of mindless Baroque music that falls quickly into disrepair. At the outset of the fourth, a trumpet plays the lilting second theme from the funeral-march movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, significant in the annals of musical satire for its refurbishment as kitsch in Erik Satie’s Embryons desséchés. The Chopin tune is the fanfare for an unrestrained five minutes of mayhem, in which Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (among other works) fights like a wounded animal against a fusillade of sound that recalls and exceeds the most anarchic moments in the music of Charles Ives.

The Symphony No. 1 makes an especially dramatic impact in live performance, with choreography supplied in the score for the musicians as they wander on and off the stage – the only possible precedent for this work in the symphonic repertoire is Haydn’s Farewell. Schnittke has followed to its logical extreme the creed once voiced by Mahler, that “the symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” Western musical history is re-created as a barrage of garbled transmissions, a radio receiving many stations on one channel. Despite its veneer of goofiness, this triumph of planned anarchy has a simple and serious effect. It produces the sound of music, rather than music itself – what is overheard by a society that no longer knows how to listen. The society in question need not be Soviet.

If Schnittke were only an imp of the perverse, the composer of quasi-sonatas and un-symphonies, he would be a beloved figure of the avant-garde, but by no means a candidate for the mantle of greatness recently offered him by various critics. Since the mid-seventies, however, he has approached the sacred genres of classical music more reverently: in the compact and emotionally intense Piano Quintet (1972/76); in the choral-orchestral Symphony No. 2 (1980), inspired by the St. Florian monastery where Anton Bruckner performed and composed; and in the staggering two-movement String Trio (1985), dedicated to and worthy of the memory of Alban Berg.

And in writing a series of concertos for soloist and orchestra between the years 1978 to 1985, Schnittke has achieved an unusually accessible balance of competing styles with his own unmistakable timbre – an extension of the technique of Berg’s Violin Concerto, in which a progressive style served as frame for a rich and haunting succession of recollections and recombinations. The philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who studied with Berg, called his teacher’s valedictory work a “concerto for composer and orchestra.” Schnittke’s concertos are seemingly a series of fantasies on this idea, with the soloist ventriloquizing the composer’s lonely voice as he negotiates his way across the minefield of tradition.

The Violin Concerto No. 3 (1978) opened Schnittke’s great concertante sequence. Its first movement tersely presents the various thematic materials from which the work will grow. A second movement interrogates that material to the point where it breaks down. In the finale, atonal argument is disrupted by the entrance of a straightforward and deliberately second-rate exercise in German Romanticism (“forest music”, the composer calls it). A slow re-opening of musical archives follows, ending in a chorale passage cast in the moody splendor of Russian Orthodoxy. The violin’s wailing trills at the outset are, in retrospect, the beseechings of a chanter whom the orchestra at first confounds and then eventually follows en masse. Opening unexpected depths in a customarily virtuoso genre, the score stands alongside Sofia Gubaidulina’s masterful Offertorium (1980) as one of the late twentieth-century’s premier violin concertos.

Unlike another “kindred soul”, Arvo Pärt, who abandoned exuberant polystylistic exercises in the 1960s for a uniform and deadly-serious regeneration of medieval modes, Schnittke cannot permit a clean escape. The Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979) again introduces a chorale in the old-Russian manner, but then catches it in a dissonant web of sound – noises from the twentieth-century street. In the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1984), the orchestra’s nostalgic forest murmurs are a “fatum banale”, an inescapable platitude which receives fatal wounds in the first movement but haunts the entire span of the work. Negotiations between soloist and orchestra break off completely in the second movement; the violin is reduced to performing a “cadenza visuale”, frantic motions of virtuosic showmanship that emit no sound.

But these exercises in an old-fashioned medium are more notable for their subtle fluidity of musical construction than for their spectacular attempts at self-detonation – particularly in the case of the Viola Concerto, composed in 1985 just before Schnittke suffered a near-fatal stroke. This work is notable first for its dazzling exploitation of the possibilities of the viola’s sound, combining the brilliance of the violin and the sonorousness of the cello. The ambivalence of the instrument is perfectly suited to the composer’s predilections. The three-movement structure recalls the Violin Concerto No. 3, although it is wider in scope. In the histrionic second movement, Schnittke accomplishes what may be his most impressive conjuring act to date: the gradual transformation of a blithe German-Romantic motif into a ruthless, hammering act of orchestral rage. Everything leads up to and then retreats from this enthralling gesture. Violist and dedicatee Yuri Bashmet conceives the solo part as a Barrymore-like dramatic role, and his brilliant performances have made the concerto one of the most publicly effective of Schnittke’s works.

Schnittke’s course since 1985 is difficult to trace. The composer has told his friends that a “series B” has commenced, in which everything must be different. Even before his near-death seven years ago, signs of a new direction were beginning to appear. The tremendously moving Concerto for Choir, based on medieval Armenian poetry, seemed to indicate a tendency toward simplicity, a whittling down of musical means – the sort of development that took place late in Shostakovich’s career. Several new works conform to this trend, and others do not. The recently premiered opera Life with an Idiot is reported to be another romp in the remorseless satiric line; but the Monologue for viola and orchestra is densely atonal in texture, with the exception of a painfully brief tonal epiphany at the end. The emergence of real-life glasnost in the Soviet Union – a decade after Schnittke’s own, rather spooky prophecy of it in the seventies – evidently has not moved him to celebration. He now lives in Hamburg, Germany.

The various tendencies exhibited by recent works pale before the possibilities suggested by Schnittke’s theoretical writings, which have not been translated in the West but might prove tremendously influential. In English and German interviews, he has meditated on the boundaries, past and future, of classical composition, and how an eventual synthesis might emerge in which genres will become obsolete. He reports that his own experience writing for the Soviet cinema (some thirty scores in all, including several for cartoons) has played an important role in the development of his montage-techniques, particularly in the Symphony No. 1. (One film with music by Schnittke is currently accessible on video – Elem Klimov’s Rasputin, somewhat mangled in the course of release and distribution but still displaying some virtuoso musical/cinematic cross-cutting.)

Addressing the “commercial abyss” separating classical composition from “so-called light music”, Schnittke has said: “Perhaps I am thinking in Utopian terms, but maybe there is a way to bridge this abyss – a way that may be the challenge for the next generation. Contemporary reality will make it necessary to experience all the music one has heard since childhood, including rock and jazz and classical and all other forms, [as] a synthesis. This has not happened in my generation.” He is an admirer of jazz fusion, and speaks of a “border-complex” of fused genres as a compositional ideal. Here we enter dangerous territory. The harrowing revelation in store for artists who have previously attempted to “cross over” the classical/popular barrier (witness such bathetic spectacles as Carl Davis and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio, or Michael Kamen’s orchestral back-up for an Aerosmith song on MTV, or even the violinists accompanying the Doors in “Touch Me”) is that burden of bathos falls not on the rock performer but on the classical musicians who sample his aura.

Schnittke’s ventures across the border have been cautious but effective. Jazz elements appear throughout his music, although he has apparently not been influenced by the fractal dissonances of free jazz. (A meeting of Alfred Schnittke and Cecil Taylor might change the world.) Here and there one finds fascinating intrusions of a rock aesthetic. Electric guitars flavor such works as the Symphony No. 2 and the highly peculiar Requiem (1975), whose “Credo” is also propelled by the syncopated stylings of a basement drum-set. And in the cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet of 1983, a setting of the 16th-century History of Dr. Johann Faust, the gruesome scene of Faust’s going-under is delivered by a Satanically amplified mezzo-soprano: in the BIS recording, Inger Blom presides over a hectic cabaret orchestra like some Ethel Merman of the apocalypse. It may not amount to “ordinary rock-music”, as the composer intended, but it manages to dumbfound listeners all the same. This cantata, one of Schnittke’s most viscerally thrilling pieces, will furnish material for an upcoming opera on Faust themes.

There is a final border Schnittke has put into question. From beginning to end, his music has been haunted by a man who does not and never did exist – Adrian Leverkühn, the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus. Schnittke’s Faust cantata employs the same 1587 German text that was used in Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus. Schnittke’s methodology of parody, of polystylistics and playing with forms, also unmistakably recalls Leverkühn, whose works were a musical endpoint at which all possibilities were combined and then destroyed. A Soviet musicologist who has interviewed Schnittke extensively has gone so far as to state that the composer “internalized” Mann’s novel – “the book has been a program for him” (V. Cholopowa). There could be no better evocation of the atmosphere prevailing in Schnittke’s finest music than this description of a passage from Leverkühn’s Apocalypse oratorio:

Adrian’s capacity for mocking imitation, which was rooted deep in the melancholy of his being, became creative here in the parody of the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges: French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz – like a tilting-ring it goes round and round, gaily glittering, above the fundamental utterance of the main orchestra, which, grave, sombre, and complex, asserts with radical severity the intellectual level of the work as a whole.

Yet Schnittke does not fall prey to the “aristocratic nihilism” that shadows Leverkühn, the colossal aloofness and condescension. The “tilting-ring” that goes round and round in Schnittke’s works might be either the insipid wantonness of light music or the grave and serious classical tradition itself. One can almost guess that melancholy is what holds Schnittke to the tradition, and that his capacity for mocking imitation is a secret urge for the outside. Registering his discontent, he has chosen to pursue a career in music prefigured by a character in fiction.

A Faustian four-and-twenty years after his breakthrough into musical freedom, Schnittke still sounds the depth of that which he professes. His music lays itself out like a documentary record – not a transcript of the crises of any particular moment, but a confession of the unease that has gathered around the practice of classical composition. As the devil tells Leverkühn, twentieth-century music has an aspect of the “highbrow swindle” about it. Schnittke has dropped the pretence of the total, self-contained work of art, and the dreadful condition that he puts in its place has a ring of truth. His chaos clarifies; his drift is mastery.

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.

The radiant rowdiness of Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 9, 2010

Tom Service, The Guardian, 15 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke’s music is defined by diversity. His symphonies lurch from modernist violence to quotations from Beethoven; his concertos contain everything from baroque pastiche to jazz solos; and his chamber music is brutal then beguiling.

This BBC weekend was the first major retrospective of Schnittke’s work since his death in 1998; it included appearances from his closest friends, including violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Alexander Ivashkin, and the composer’s widow, the pianist Irina Schnittke.

There was no more telling contrast in the first two days of concerts than that between the riotous First Symphony, composed in 1969-72, and the Concerto for Mixed Choir, written in 1985. The symphony was played in the Barbican by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury performed the concerto in the haunting intimacy of St Giles, Cripplegate.

Schnittke’s First Symphony is one of the great showpieces of the recent orchestral repertoire, and the BBCSO’s performance was a major event. The 70-minute symphony began with every musician playing as they walked on stage, creating a ferocious dissonance. It goes on to parody genres of music from military marches to waltzes, and the niceties of concert-hall convention.

After one outburst, a violin and piano duo started a separate performance in front of the first violins – disregarded by the orchestra, which continued to play. Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan gave a hyperactive recital, mercilessly satirising the virtuoso tradition. At the end of the symphony, the players continued performing on the journey backstage, only to reappear exactly as they did at the start of the symphony, before Brabbins finally called a halt to proceedings.

Next to this extraordinary collage, the serene concentration and austere atmosphere of the Concerto for Mixed Choir, settings of sacred verses by the 9th century Armenian Grigori Narekatsi, could have been the work of another composer. Yet there is a profound connection between the archaic style of the concerto and the “polystylism”, as Schnittke described it, of the symphony.

Although the First Symphony is often hilarious, there is a tragic tension in the piece between its hidden architecture and the fragments of music Schnittke pastes over it. The funny stuff on the surface has a deadly serious meaning; it’s the modernist structure underneath that Schnittke is really parodying. So the timeless qualities of diatonic melody and plainchant in the choir concerto (and in other of Schnittke’s works of the 1980s performed over the weekend, such as the Fourth Symphony) are one way of bypassing the dilemma of the symphony. Yet the ultimate irony is that these languages are no less borrowed than any passage of the First Symphony.

At the end of his life, Schnittke found a musical language that escaped the conflicts of his previous music. The London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of Fragment, part of a piece they had commissioned from Schnittke in 1994, but which he never finished. There is an amazing conviction and clarity about the work’s three existing movements. Even more striking was the British premiere of the radiant Eighth Symphony, given by the BBCSO under conductor Eri Klas. There, the earlier tussle between styles and structures is replaced by a music that is more unified but also more terrifying: a stillness and calm that seems to reflect Schnittke’s gaze upon death.

Schnittke, an iconoclast, becomes an icon

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 13, 2010

Matthias Kriesberg, The New York Times, 23 May 1999

In a just world, Alfred Schnittke would not have been condemned to the purgatory of the Soviet Union for the first 56 years of his life. He would not have suffered a series of increasingly debilitating strokes at the outset of his most productive years. Nor would he have been taken from us last August at 63.

Still, there is a plausible consolation: a just world would never have produced an Alfred Schnittke, and certainly would have no need of one.

It is hard to appreciate the extent of Schnittke’s musical triumph when the infinite horrors inflicted by the Soviet system on its own people are recalled in the United States as background images to sell competing cable television services. In less than 20 years, entirely on the strength of his extraordinary imagination, Schnittke has been transformed from an eclectic composer little known outside the Russian intelligentsia to one of the most widely performed composers of our time. Not only has most of his prolific output been recorded, but multiple versions of many works also appear on dozens of labels readily available in America, like Chandos, Bis, Deutsche Grammophon and Ondine.

Yet despite several recent Schnittke tributes by chamber groups in New York, including the beautifully proportioned Second String Quartet, with its violent energy and painful distortion, most major presentations of his works this season, in particular a recent performance of the Eighth Symphony here at the Concertgebouw, have taken place outside the United States.

The three composers who have emerged most triumphantly from the Soviet Union – Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina and Schnittke – have all described themselves as spiritually driven. Over the last dozen years, Mr. Pärt has turned increasingly to the depiction of divine spirituality, and Ms. Gubaidulina to the interaction between humanity and the divine. But Schnittke remained, as it were, among the people. He embraced the obvious truth that we live in a polystylistic environment, a world in which the sacred and the profane, the miraculous and the mundane, the rational and the absurd, coexist at every moment.

If you could survive it, there was perhaps no better laboratory in which to experience such twin realities than Moscow during Schnittke’s lifetime. And despite the mind-numbing hardships of daily life, it was a place of extraordinary intellectual ferment. Schnittke’s interests and influences extended from Russian literature to yoga; his friends and collaborators included choreographers, theater directors and filmmakers. (Schnittke also scored more than 60 films.)

Still, it remains difficult to account fully for the development of his imagination. One can conjecture that his polystylistic approach derived from a sense of crisscross identity: he was born to a German Jewish father and Christian mother in Engels, then an autonomous German Republic in the Soviet Union.

In our modern environment of an endless array of coexisting styles and ground rules, most composers determine their horizons prudently, in part for the sake of career development. But Schnittke went for broke. For one thing, as he made clear to me during a long afternoon at his Moscow apartment in 1978, a serious composer in the Soviet Union could hardly have a career to worry about. Sitting squarely in the path of artistic progress was Tikhon Khrennikov, the general secretary of the Soviet Composers Union.

It is hard to exaggerate the calamitous consequences a man of Khrennikov’s disposition could produce. Appointed in 1948 and improbably surviving in power until the end of the Soviet Union itself, he blocked performances, careers, travel and the flow of information. His personal tastes effectively became state policy. (Expatriates have suggested that had an individual with Khrennikov’s connections to political power had the opposite musical tastes, he might well have persuaded the political authorities to accept the very composers he sought to deter.)

If you couldn’t come to terms with those who ran the show, why limit your imagination? Bolstered by a philosophical faith that all periods of music coexist in the present, Schnittke simply chose to work from an enormous palette. The iconoclasm of his music, together with official efforts to block him at every turn, quickly attracted an enthusiastic audience, giving him confidence to persist in his individual vision. Essential to his ascent, too, was the relentless advocacy of compatriot performers like Gidon Kremer, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Natalia Gutman and Oleh Krysa as well as a growing pool of non-Soviet artists in other disciplines with whom Schnittke collaborated.

Months after suffering a serious stroke in 1985, Schnittke recovered his intellectual capabilities and began the most productive and musically successful period of his life. Symphonies, concertos, operas and the ballet “Peer Gynt” followed one after another. Polystylism receded as the composer synthesized all that had come before into some of the most exuberant music of his life. The Concerto Grosso No. 5 (1991) may be heard in a live recording from Deutsche Grammophon, in which the seemingly effortless virtuosity of Mr. Kremer, as violin soloist, contributes to the work’s playfulness. The Cello Concerto No. 2 (1989), recorded by Sony Classical with Mr. Rostropovich and the London Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa, is less lighthearted but no less enthralled with life. It builds slowly over the course of four movements, with the real drama characteristically saved for the fifth.

Schnittke suffered another stroke in 1991, shortly after he had emigrated to Hamburg, Germany, and now his work turned sober. His Eighth Symphony, from 1994, is almost shockingly transparent. It awaits its American premiere but was performed here by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Mr. Rozhdestvensky, who has also recorded the work for Chandos with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

The bassoon player who at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” pronounced the opening solo unplayable would surely decline reincarnation as the horn player assigned the opening of Schnittke’s Eighth Symphony. The first horn plays a tortured eight-bar line with wild leaps covering the complete range of the instrument. The underlying chromaticism gives the listener little choice but to hear the line almost as a parody, as if the horn were struggling to maintain its dignity. The line is then restated by the first violins; by the third iteration it dawns on the listener that the theme is not going away.

But neither is this “Bolero”. Each change of orchestration projects an intensely different emotion. What had moments before been slightly ludicrous is now portentous. The horns return, sustaining triads at the top of their register, sounding like human voices. Protagonist against background is a constant texture, but as King Lear discovered about his fool, this background is no background. Intensity grows and dissipates and returns ever stronger.

The third movement is the emotional heart of the work. It opens with a theme reminiscent of a Mahler slow movement; without invoking similar orchestrational complexity, it attains comparable emotional drama. The fifth movement, little more than a sustained ascending scale that ends disproportionately soon, makes painfully clear that the work is obsessed with depicting mortality.

Shortly after the Eighth Symphony was completed, Schnittke suffered a third, far more devastating stroke. Yet in 1998 he managed to write a Ninth Symphony. Parts of the manuscript, which I saw at the home of his widow, Irina, are indecipherable: the composer, right-handed but now paralyzed on his right side, painstakingly wrote with his left hand. Like the Eighth Symphony, the Ninth is nearly devoid of articulation or phrasing indications, and sustained by simple rhythms and scale passages.

The Ninth was presented in Moscow last year, in a version by Mr. Rozhdestvensky that interpolated quotes from other composers’ works. But there is no indication in the manuscript of any intention other than a stylistically consistent, through-composed work. Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s rendering seems to turn Schnittke into a commodity: the composer is best known for mixing styles, so let’s give listeners what they expect.

Schnittke was too ill to attend the performance; those close to him report that when he heard a tape, he was livid at the corruption. Some 10 days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. The Ninth Symphony was originally scheduled for the same Concertgebouw concerts as the Eighth, but performances of this version are now forbidden by the estate.

Schnittke’s music is both welcomed and condemned for its accessibility. In the current lexicon, accessibility means easy listening: music that does not demand too much, because it conforms to what a listener already knows. But with Schnittke, accessibility is altogether different; he achieves it by design, on his own terms. A signature opening is a single line, a cell of a few notes immediately transformed by an obvious transposition or reordering. Guided in gently, we sign up for the ride. Then all hell breaks loose. But we don’t turn away; the motifs and their connections reside too strongly in our memory.

Such technique doubtless derived from Schnittke’s urgent sense of affinity with Classical form. What may mystify American listeners is the composer’s delight in playing with one’s emotions (typically, when things get too hot, the harpsichord or celesta is deployed like a splash of cold water), or in deconstructing our expectations of nontonal music: suddenly, the most forbidding techniques seem easily decipherable.

We may wonder, too, whether the fluency of connecting things that don’t quite belong together, the irreverent approaches to constructive techniques that shock us by their blatancy, may in fact have resulted from a kind of sensory deprivation that was inevitable for composers in the Soviet Union. It is breathtaking, after all, to consider how much they did not have available, with performances, recordings, scores and opportunities to teach, learn and travel severely restricted if not forbidden.

So characteristics of Schnittke’s music may strike American audiences as naive. Western composers routinely subdivide the beat to create rhythmic pulses or patterns that define a tempo in contrast to the prevailing one; Schnittke never goes further than subdividing a beat into equal parts. Accelerandos are crudely effected, with beats successively divided into smaller parts. The results should sound silly, but in Schnittke the technique is consistent with his vernacular approach.

True, not all of Schnittke’s music is at the same level of achievement. His grasp of instrumental possibilities seems uneven. His string writing is sublime, yet he often approaches the piano with as much subtlety and insight into its expressive potential as a 5-year-old boy whose favorite occupation is squashing bugs.

But for Schnittke, simplicity was the path to the profound. The stylistic diversity that devolved to his particular language is supported by harmonic structures of clarity and consistency. And between the dazzling stylistic virtuosity and the harmonic underpinnings typically lies a logic in the handling of motifs that is sometimes even easier to follow than that of composers writing 200 years ago.

A winnowing inevitably takes place after the death of a composer. It seems reasonable to surmise that the polystylistic works of Schnittke’s earlier years will fade in comparison with the later, more rarefied compositions. These works belong front and center in the new-music repertory of American institutions. The operas “Gesualdo” and “Life with an Idiot” should be produced by major companies, the late symphonies performed by major orchestras. The evening-length ballet “Peer Gynt” deserves especially to appear in America, for it represents Schnittke at his theatrical best, with lush, intricate orchestration and powerful sonorities.

Alfred Schnittke was a master at playing the hand he was dealt. When the enemy was Soviet totalitarianism, he wrote music that integrated the profound and the absurd. When the enemy was his failing health, he wrote with increasing fervor. Against the threat of his growing fame, he enforced on himself a modesty that kept him focused on the task of writing music that confounded expectation.

What is irresistible about his music is the tangible personal struggle that appears to be embedded in each piece, to a degree one hardly feels apart from the music of Beethoven or Schoenberg. We may grieve that fate was so unkind as to deprive him of a fair measure of life and health and circumstances, yet fate was also merciful to us in giving him the inner strength to resist and fight back to a point of unqualified victory.

Alfred Schnittke: Signs of Life

Posted in Recordings, Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 12, 2010

Lloyd Schwartz, The Boston Phoenix, 20 August 1998

Alfred Schnittke, who died August 3 in Hamburg at the age of 64 after years of poor health, was the most celebrated Russian composer of our time. I first heard about him as the composer of a notorious atonal cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto that he wrote for the Russian virtuoso Gidon Kremer. Then Peter Sellars, who is often the first kid on the musical block, incorporated Schnittke’s powerful First String Quartet into the action of his production of The Count of Monte Cristo, at the Kennedy Center in 1985, with the musicians on stage with the actors. Ten years ago, Sarah Caldwell brought Schnittke to Boston as part of “Making Music Together”, her Russian festival, and we got our first real taste of his variety and inventiveness.

No composer could be more serious, as the somber but beautiful 12-tone First Quartet suggests. But no serious composer could write zanier music, either. The difficulty with Schnittke is not that some of his pieces are long, serious, and spiritually probing whereas others are full of parodies and jokes – it’s that many are both. Who else would include an electric guitar in a multi-denominational Soviet Requiem Mass? Maybe that’s what happens when your father’s a Russian Jewish atheist and your mother’s German-Russian and Catholic.

The Kronos Quartet recorded Schnittke’s Third String Quartet, with its echoes of Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Grosse Fuge, and Shostakovich, back in 1987 (on its Winter Was Hard album). That performance is now part of a new two-disc set, Alfred Schnittke: The Complete String Quartets (Nonesuch), along with more recent performances of the First, the elegiac and agitated Second, and the melancholy Fourth. There’s also the brief In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, from 1971, and the Kronos’s arrangement of the second movement of Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Choir – a section called “Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled with Grief”.

I’m glad the Kronos has come back to Schnittke. Too much of what this group has recorded I’d call Contemporary Lite – the new-music version of easy listening. I want music to be appealing but I don’t want it to be thin. Schnittke’s has backbone. And a face. Look at his huge, cadaverous eyes on the cover of the liner notes. Having suffered multiple strokes, he lived in the shadow of the valley of death – though I suspect his sense of grief, and cheeky laughter in the face of it, was temperamental, not merely medical. The heavier the demands on the Kronos Quartet, the better it plays, so this is one of the group’s very best recordings.

There are also wonderful new recordings of the Second and Third Quartets by the Lark Quartet (on Arabesque) that tend to be more spacious in tempo than the Kronos, less electric, but perhaps warmer. Rounding out the disc is one of Schnittke’s greatest chamber works, the ghostly Piano Quintet, which he composed in memory of his mother. At the keyboard is no less than Gary Graffman (playing with both hands). The Quintet’s remarkable Andante is a weird waltz, with the strings wailing in semitones while the piano bounces away. It’s terrifying. And hilarious – the most moving and extreme example of the way Schnittke chose to confront life and death in all his music.

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