Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is a dark and heavy planet. Even in the midst of his bewilderingly prolific output, this extremely personal work commands a massive gravity; it seems to orient, arrange, and set in motion so many of Schnittke’s works, before and after. If one wants to find the founding trauma for such a consistently agonizing body of artistic work, it can be found in the Piano Quintet.
This centrality may owe much to the quintet’s function: conceived as a memorial to the composer’s mother, who died of a stroke in September 1972, here’s a composition whose substance was drawn from a real event, powerfully tangible and irrevocable. This kind of reality had not been Schnittke’s basis for previous works. His Symphony No. 1 (1972) and other contemporaneous works are brazenly extroverted stylistic carnivals, full of fantasy, denunciation, and dark humor, and are largely artistic statements on art or cultural critiques on culture itself.
In this light, the Piano Quintet was a radical departure into an entirely personal sphere. This shift caused the composer tremendous difficulty. After finishing the first movement very quickly, Schnittke was blocked, “unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from an imaginary space defined in terms of sound and put it into the psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance, consonance, and assonance.”
Hence the Piano Quintet was shelved, and Schnittke did not resume work on it for almost four years. When he did pick up the work again, his musical temperament had changed, becoming more distilled, tauter, and more unabashedly morbid. Schnittke had perfected a personal sound, a dense, claustrophobic web of chromatic clusters. This signatory sound, rich yet obscure, serves as the backdrop for much of his succeeding work, and is seamlessly crafted into this work. The second movement is a wraith-like slow waltz on the name of B-A-C-H (H in German notation is B, B is B flat). The waltz is the only “polystylistic” concession in the piece, and throughout the movement consistently descends back into tortuous clusters.
The next two movements form the heart of the work, pulling it increasingly inward. Schnittke explains that they “are real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature.” Both movements bind themselves in shells of stasis; each movement suffers its own shocked outburst and epiphany. Eventually the fourth movement ruptures the thick web of chromaticism that seems to paralyze the work.
After its crushing, cathartic crisis on a single, repeated note, the movement ebbs into the work’s final bars, based on a 14-measure theme repeated 14 times in the piano. Over this theme, Schubert-like in its studied rusticity, one hears blanched recollections of previous passages; everything liquefies as it materializes, swept along by the piano theme’s current. Eventually a faded reconciliation emerges and the strings are silenced; the work ends on the sonic outskirts as Schnittke instructs the pianist to play tonlos, “without tone.”
There is hyper-sentimentality in Schnittke’s quintet, a weird excess of morose emotion that exists in few other of his works. Somehow the sentimentality works here, perhaps because of the sincerity of the utterance, perhaps because, despite wearing his heart on his sleeve, Schnittke is not merely personal but also highly idiosyncratic. The work is an uncomfortable twentieth century classic, and a key to Schnittke’s music in general.
Steve Smith, The New York Times, 7 November 2007
A Little Composition and a Little Archaeology
The ability to read the score of a complex orchestral composition is by no means a common skill. But even to the untrained eye, the manuscript of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 9 would speak volumes. Notes are only approximately positioned on the staffs, and their stems are shaky squiggles. Bar lines veer off at a slant. The handwriting, at times nearly illegible, is clearly pained.
“It’s a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” the conductor Dennis Russell Davies said during a recent interview. “He was determined to finish this piece. You can see and feel this in his shaking hand.”
Mr. Davies, a conductor long associated with Schnittke’s music, will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in the American premiere of the work at Avery Fisher Hall tonight, in one of only a few appearances here since taking a year off for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Schnittke completed the three-movement symphony in short score before he died in August 1998. But a series of strokes had paralyzed his right side, including his writing hand, preventing him from orchestrating the work. He tried to have the piece completed by others — Mr. Davies would not say who they were — but was not satisfied with their results.
After Schnittke died, Irina Schnittke, his widow, engaged the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov to finish the work. The Dresden Philharmonic provided a partial commission and reached out to Mr. Davies, who conducted the world premiere there in June. Mr. Davies also enlisted the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, of which he is the chief conductor, and the Juilliard School as co-commissioners.
Joseph W. Polisi, the president of the Juilliard School, said the project had particular resonance for Juilliard because it related to an important collection of musical manuscripts the school acquired in March 2006, which included many sketches and manuscripts by Schnittke. “We have become sensitive to his work,” Mr. Polisi said, “and I thought this was a natural parallel.”
Mr. Davies laid a photocopy of Schnittke’s manuscript next to the finished score on a desk and pointed out several places where the original had raised issues. Some combinations of notes created dissonances that were unusual even in Schnittke’s work. Mr. Raskatov occasionally overruled instrumental voicings that Schnittke had indicated.
Mr. Raskatov, born in 1953, had a close personal relationship with Schnittke, Mr. Davies said. The younger composer’s cool, ritualistic music has little in common with the eclecticism and pastiche of Schnittke’s most familiar works. Still, Mr. Davies says the work is faithful to Schnittke’s intentions.
“It’s pretty direct, pretty formidable in its tonal components,” he said. “There’s not time for references to some of the religious and popular elements that he liked to bring into his music.” Some passages unfurl with a weighty Mahlerian melancholy; others echo the ascetic severity of late Shostakovich.
Mr. Raskatov composed an original epilogue, “Nunc Dimittis,” a stark 15-minute meditation based on verses by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and an Orthodox monk, Staretz Silouan. Alison Tupay, a mezzo-soprano, and the Hilliard Ensemble will sing the work tonight.
Mr. Davies plans to record both pieces with the Dresden Philharmonic for the ECM label in January and will conduct them in Linz, Austria, in April. Still, after taking the 2005-6 season off for chemotherapy and recovery, he has reduced his travel schedule.
Last month, he conducted Philip Glass’s new opera, “Appomattox,” in San Francisco, then went to Detroit for another premiere, William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 7. But he turned down offers for engagements that would have deviated from his gradual path back to Linz.
His own illness, Mr. Davies asserted, did not affect his approach to the Schnittke piece. “But during my treatment, I was around people who were much worse off than I was and saw how courageous they were,” he said. “Having seen that, then seeing this manuscript and recognizing how desperately the man wanted to write this music, it made my work that much more meaningful.”
Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 29 April 1999
There are two warring impulses in the music of Alfred Schnittke, the Russian composer who died last year. One is a sense of humor that takes the form of peculiar juxtapositions, allusions to other composers and styles, and thwarted expectations. The other is a seemingly implacable bleakness. Some works favor one of these qualities; in others, both fight for primacy.
“Remembering Alfred Schnittke”, a tribute on Monday evening at Alice Tully Hall, put these elements in high relief. The performers were billed as the Winnipesaukee Chamber Players and represented the Lake Winnipesaukee Music Festival, in New Hampshire.
Mostly it was a family affair: Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, was the pianist in an energetic, mercurial account of the Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1994). Her partner was Oleh Krysa, a violinist for whom Schnittke wrote several works. With Mr. Krysa’s son, Peter, also a violinist, and Peter’s wife, Rachel Lewis Krysa, a cellist, Mrs. Schnittke played the Piano Trio (1992), a work that has a Shostakovich-like pessimism, but also a recurring figure in which repeating arpeggios bring Philip Glass’s music to mind. In other works Tatiana Tchekina, the wife of Oleh Krysa, was the pianist. (Adrienne Sommerville, a violist, performed without apparent family ties.)
The concert began with a work by Mahler, a Piano Quartet movement, composed in 1876. Mahler, at 16, had not yet found his own voice; here he used Dvořák’s. The work was included as a preface to Schnittke’s Piano Quartet (1988), which uses Mahler’s sketches for a second movement as a springboard. The Schnittke piece begins as a work of dark consonance and grows increasingly dense and hazy before the Mahler fragment lightens the mood.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a work that showed Schnittke’s light-spirited and dark sides in equal measure, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, Prepared Piano and String Orchestra (1977). Ms. Tchekina brought an appealing vividness to the two keyboard parts (the prepared piano was made to sound like a Chinese percussion orchestra); Oleh and Peter Krysa played the violin lines with the flexibility necessary for its deft leaps between quasi-Baroque and searing modernist styles. And the Eastman Virtuosi, a student string orchestra, gave a polished, robust performance under the baton of Bradley Lubman.
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.
Susan Bradshaw, The Guardian, 4 August 1998
Of part German descent, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, always acknowledged the musically formative importance of the two years he spent in Vienna as a child. It was in the Austrian capital that he started to learn the piano at the age of 12 – incidentally becoming a fine exponent of keyboard chamber music, in which capacity he toured extensively as a young man. It was there too that he began to try his hand at composition, and to gain early insight into the nature of his wider European inheritance.
Schnittke’s early adult musical career was nevertheless very much a product of his Soviet training and environment. It was doubtless to his eventual advantage that, like others of his student generation in the USSR, he was almost totally protected from the supposedly evil influences of 20th century musical developments in Western Europe and, in particular, from those of the postwar avant-garde.
Schnittke was born in Engels, a town on the Volga river. His mother was of German descent, his father was German-Jewish, being born in Frankfurt. As a student of the Moscow Conservatory during the enforced isolation of what amounted to a musical time warp, Alfred Schnittke’s work was necessarily grounded in the Russian tradition with which he must initially have identified. It was certainly the security of this inherited identity that was later to give him the courage to maintain a childlike freshness of approach – an approach that was in turn to act as protection against the more defiant position-taking of many of his contemporaries. It could even be said that his own eventually unmistakable persona was achieved by means of a kind of musical hide-and-seek; often working from behind a neutral screen of borrowed – even purloined – stylistic fragments. It was as if he needed the safety of this emotional hiding place in order to be able to give free rein to the agony and the ecstasy that were seldom far beneath the surface of his work.
Schnittke’s musical style arose from a quite singular ability to make the commonplace seem extraordinary, to combine consonance with dissonance in the most natural-sounding way possible. But this seemingly carefree expression was hard won. Far from the carelessness all too readily assumed by his detractors, Schnittke agonised over everything he wrote. The magical contrasts he was to derive from setting the old alongside the new had to be long tried before he was able to discover a context that would enable him freely to reintroduce major and minor chords without fear of classical consequences or expectations. And it is the originality and musically expressive purpose of this particular freedom (including freedom from fear of being thought naive) which not only forms the core of the Schnittke legacy but is his most personal contribution to the second half of the 20th century.
Schnittke wrote a large amount of music in all genres. Much of it was composed following a succession of severe strokes in the summer of 1985 that left him physically weakened and partly paralysed.
His mental energies seemed undiminished, enabling him both to complete his illness interrupted Viola Concerto and to compose the first of two cello concertos in less than a year thereafter. Showing extraordinary spirit and a determination to live the rest of his musical life to the full – forced to retire from freelance work as a composer of film music, his tally of completed film scores stands at a remarkbale 64 – his later music quickly came to suggest that physical adversity may even have had creativity-enhancing consequences of a more spiritual kind. Like that of his three great Russian compatriots, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Schnittke’s mature music seems inspired by a vivid sense of urgency that can even now be intensely moving – whether suggesting a quasi-religious severity or provoking a carefully controlled musical chaos that can veer from humour to violence as part of the terrifyingly passionate involvement of even so apparently light-hearted a work as (K)ein Sommernachtstraum.
Four outstanding string quartets, a string trio and a piano quintet are fine examples of a classical high-art seriousness within a chamber music repertoire where extremes range from the seriously experimental to the frankly hilarious. But it is perhaps less for his two recent operas, Life with an Idiot and Faust, or five symphonies than for his distinctive contribution to the repertoire of instrumental concertos – mostly for one or more strings, but including three for piano and one for piano-four-hands – that he may be best remembered.
Moving to Germany in the late 1980s with his second wife Irina, he spent some time in Berlin before settling in Hamburg where he taught at the Hochschule für Musik in between travelling the world to attend performances of his works. These invitations he continued to accept with alacrity and, despite the increasing physical effort involved, with all the touching enthusiasm of a previously fettered Soviet citizen. His first marriage was dissolved. He had one son.