Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Obituary: Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Obituaries by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 27, 2010

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.

(Martin Anderson)

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.

Obituary: Alfred Schnittke

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

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.

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.

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