Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1968)

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 19, 2011

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Andante : Allegretto : Largo : Allegretto Scherzando

In 1962, in the same year that saw the premiere of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony and the height of ‘The Thaw’ following Khrushchev’s demythologising of Stalin, Luigi Nono became the first avant-garde composer to visit the Soviet Union. For Schnittke, who as a young composer at the Moscow Conservatoire had so far worked only in the approved nationalist style, as found in his oratorio Nagasaki of 1958, the visit became a stimulus for a serious study of Western contemporary music, assisted by scores and tapes smuggled in by Pousseur, Ligeti and Stockhausen, and a thorough exploration of the Second Viennese School and the possibilities of serial composition. One of the first major works to emerge from this period was the First Violin Sonata, premiered by the violinist Mark Lubotsky and the composer in 1964, and in 1968 transcribed in this present version for violin, harpsichord and string orchestra.

The serialism of the First Violin Sonata is unsophisticated – nothing else would have been acceptable in the Soviet Union at that time – and based on a row latent with tonal relations and triadic harmonies in its structure of alternating major and minor thirds. (Schnittke’s efforts to reconcile tonal and atonal elements might be compared to those of Shostakovich in a slightly later work, the Twelfth String Quartet of 1968.) The first movement acts as introduction to a substantial scherzo whose straightforward textures, although far removed from the complexity of contemporary works by Boulez or Stockhausen, are nevertheless indicative of Schnittke’s capacity to place simple elements in new contexts. The variations on an eight-bar harmonic scheme which form the third movement seem clearly modelled on the passacaglia from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio, an impression reinforced when this scheme of chords returns in the middle of the energetic finale.

Voices in the dark

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 30, 2010

Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 12 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke’s music, suppressed by the Soviets, was all about dark spaces, mystery and fleeting details. Adrian Searle celebrates the distinctive art of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

The music is sliding back into that low, constant background that we take for silence. I hear the noise of the guy in the flat upstairs pacing about and doing his morning callisthenics to Robbie Williams. Canned laughter is coming up through the floor. Then there’s the shouting and the sirens from the street. My own noise is just as pervasive. It buries the rest and papers over my empty moments.

There is never any real silence; I think it was John Cage who, when visiting a sound-proofed, anechoic chamber, heard two distinct sounds: the technician later told him that what he had heard were the sound of his blood going round and the electric hum of his own brain.

The general noise level here is unexceptional – less, I guess, than in the Moscow apartment buildings where composer Alfred Schnittke, whose work is celebrated this weekend at the Barbican, wrote much of his music. His father-in-law would slump in front of an ice-hockey game on TV in the same room; he worked next to a window above the street, with his adolescent son’s rock music bulging through the room. Schnittke, apparently, never unplugged the telephone when he worked, even when, in the 1980s, he was always in demand. No wonder so much of what he wrote was full of interruptions.

I imagine the harassed composer at work in the warrens of everyday Soviet life. So much music – scores for 66 films, eight symphonies, all those chamber pieces, choral works, solo piano compositions, an electronic work. Perhaps composers don’t need silence, in the same way that chess masters don’t need a board to run through their moves. It is all in the head. Artists, frequently, play music while they work: maybe it drowns out the doubt.

As a writer I find it hard to work to music. I need to hear the voice in my head, a voice I like to imagine is my own. It is not always the same voice, and a writer often needs the voices of others, whose cadences and tone shake you out of your own frightful monologue, or fill in when your own voice refuses to speak. Alfred Schnittke’s replay of old forms (the concerto grosso, Gregorian chants) and of other voices (Beethoven “mottos”, Mozart and Vivaldi licks, memories of Schoenberg and Shostakovich, tango fragments, the brass section that swerves unexpectedly into big-band mode for a few bars) go to demonstrate that for him the past wasn’t all used up.

Schnittke’s phrase, “the difference between the conceivable and the audible”, was his measure. There is a tension between what a composer can imagine and write, and what can be performed. He was at times happy to utilise what seemed like jazz improvisation – unscored tuning up as an integral part of a piece; or to ask performers to mime frenetic playing in performance while producing no sound at all – a “cadenza visuale”, which, in recordings, is marked by the performer’s exhausted sighs, sudden explosive “Oohs” and laboured breaths; or to orchestrate for an invisible piano (amplified, and hidden behind the stage).

Schnittke’s music is much more than accumulation, accretion, disruption and surprise. It may be filled with other voices and different styles, but he is never just a montage-mannerist; no more a ventriloquist than any other artist of our time. But inevitably no less of one, either. Doubts about the authenticity of a voice, are for him another level of play: what he called his “polystylistic” voice.

You can’t have Schnittke as background music. It demands too much attention. It isn’t just the dissonant patches, the eardrum-flexing notes, the changing pace of it, the chase-music losing its way in the weeds, the alternating currents of anxiety and grace. It is simply too arresting. A passage of lush strings is systematically prised apart just when you are getting into it. Not simply because of all the switches, turnstiles and reverses the music goes through, but because Schnittke continually reconfigures our emotions, changing the pattern as well as the material, and our response to it.

His music is not like Matisse’s comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. Nor is it bracing in that muscular, angular, tough-love way you think must be good for you, but makes you wish it would stop. Schnittke’s music is very carefully structured, paced, configured, for all its seismic faults. If his music is as much spatial as temporal – sculptural and filmic as much as it is atmospheric – then all those movie scores may have had their uses.

His music is big, complex, erudite and multiformed, but you never lose the details amid it all – he is very good at details, at what I think of as glimpses, an eye flickering from the larger forms to something left accidentally on the floor. Listening, then, becomes an experience of transitions. Of phases, figures passing in front and behind one another, things in transit.

Familiarity doesn’t dull it. The familiar is a necessary part of his repertoire, the almost subliminal sense of déjà vu that holds the shapes together. I don’t think Schnittke cared whether what he did sounded “modern” or “difficult”, high or low. He could be all these things, with enough space in hand to let things breathe, to keep them alive.

Certain of Schnittke’s spiritual preoccupations, such as his dabblings in the occult, in the I-Ching (like John Cage), in anthroposophy (though he said he could never trust a man with eyes like Rudolf Steiner’s), culminated in his indecision as to whether to join the Catholic or the Russian Orthodox churches. Schnittke, half Jewish, his parents and grandparents atheists, a German Russian who spent much of his post-war childhood in Vienna, was a polystylistic man. He was led to the spiritual. His music, therefore, makes appeals to dark spaces, to mysteries, to enduring things, certainties. He was no reductivist, and more, I think, a synthetic than an analytical composer.

He plays too, on our sense of perpetual expectation, our hunger for differences, for change and mutability. Where he leads is another matter. His unusual orchestrations (the piano, harpsichord and celesta opening to the Fourth Symphony, for example) keep us listening, and waiting, keep us wanting more. The mad plunges, the returns to a sober, almost sentimental lyricism, sounds creeping in like light under a door and the shadow of someone pacing about beyond: there is real suspense here. It has been said that Schnittke’s music is both ambivalent and pessimistic. This is its unavoidable condition. I can throw adjectives and claims at it all day, but they just slide off the surface. He is seductive, awkward, unhinging. Schnittke’s music knows it will be subsumed back into the world around it when it is done, back into what passes for silence.

Notes from a life in music

1934: Alfred Schnittke is born in Engels, Russia, to German parents.
1946-8: Studies composition in Vienna – a formative experience of Austrian culture.
1949-61 Studies at the October Revolution Music College, Moscow, and at the Moscow Conservatory.
1958 His oratorio Nagasaki is condemned by the Russian Union of Composers. A troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities begins.
1974: His First Symphony is effectively banned in the Soviet Union. Schnittke dubs his work of this period “polystylistic”.
Late 1970s: Works such as the First Sonata for Cello and Piano see him move to a personal language less reliant on musical quotation.
1982: Baptised a Catholic.
1985: Gorbachev comes to power; for the first time Schnittke is allowed to travel regularly outside the Soviet Union. At the same time, his health begins to fail.
1990: Moves to Hamburg.
1993-4: Schnittke’s eighth and last symphony is completed. His mature style is spare and refined, reminiscent of late Shostakovich and the work of the Italian Luigi Nono.
1998: He dies in Germany after a series of strokes.

Obituary: Tikhon Khrennikov

Posted in Obituaries by R.A.D. Stainforth on February 23, 2010

Gerard McBurney, The Guardian, 19 September 2007

Tikhon Khrennikov: Philistine functionary who kept an iron grip on postwar Soviet music and persecuted dissident composers

The composer, pianist and emblematic Soviet functionary Tikhon Khrennikov, who has died aged 94, will be remembered outside Russia for his drearily dispiriting effect on postwar Soviet culture, his ponderous and largely unchallenged reign over musical life in the USSR from Stalin to the age of Gorbachev, and his dishonourable role in spearheading the attacks on Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other talented composers in the so-called Zhdanovshchina (or state-directed purging of musical life) of 1948.

In his native land, his reputation is more complicated. While most educated Russians would concur with this negative assessment of his career – and “career” is the word – there are some musicians even today who feel that Khrennikov was a more honourable man than he has been given credit for, that he protected his colleagues in difficult times, ensured some kind of stability in the day-to-day running of Soviet music – and that things could have been a lot worse had someone else been in charge.

His music, while it may appear to sophisticated listeners facile, badly orchestrated and comically derivative, still has a certain charm for older Russians with less demanding tastes. Perhaps this is because those lumbering, but sometimes catchy, patriotic tunes remind them of the hard times when such music provided a precious excuse for light-heartedness and celebration.

Khrennikov was born into pre-revolutionary poverty, the youngest of a large family, in Yelets, 200 miles south of Moscow. A talent for composing and playing, first on the mandolin and guitar, then on the piano, enabled him to contact the composer and teacher Mikhail Gnesin, who in 1929 brought him to his musical school in Moscow, to study composition with Gnesin himself and piano with Efraim Gelman. In 1932, Khrennikov moved to the Moscow Conservatoire, to the class of Vissarion Shebalin, one of the most talented Soviet composers of his age. Later he joined the piano class of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, who taught Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, among others.

By the time he graduated in 1936, Khrennikov had made a reputation as a serious composer with his First Piano Concerto (1933), which he performed himself, and his First Symphony (1935). He followed these with an opera, Into the Storm (1939), based on a novel by Nikolai Virta, supposedly a favourite of Stalin’s. There is a story that Shostakovich wrote to Khrennikov with critical observations on this work: if true, it suggests an origin to the long history of difficult relations between the two men.

The great stage director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko encouraged Khrennikov to turn to opera, having been struck by his earlier theatrical efforts, among them a 1934 score for Natalia Sats’s famous Musical Theatre for Children and attractively fresh music for a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Vakhtangov theatre. Thereafter, theatre and theatricality, and later cinema, remained at the heart of Khrennikov’s work.

His popular songs were mostly composed for films and plays, and several of his larger works are developments of such pieces. Much Ado About Nothing, for example, was reworked several times, ending up as a full-scale opera Much Ado About Hearts (1972) and a ballet, Love for Love (1975).

Before the second world war, Khrennikov had already made a name for himself as a willing young political activist and busybody, and the success of his patriotic music in wartime ensured he was a useful man to have around. Towards the end of 1947, Andrei Zhdanov, who had already led the postwar cultural purges of literature, philosophy, film-making and various scientific and journalistic disciplines, turned his attention to music.

Why should the dictatorship of the world’s largest country have bothered at all with composers? This was the age of radio, cinema and the gramophone record, and through these mass media music was a powerful influence on the daily life of the nation and (crucially) its loyalties. The Union of Soviet Composers, which was largely reformed by Zhdanov in 1948, was a means for the state to control in minute detail what millions of people listened to from the cradle to the grave. And Khrennikov was the man to make sure this happened.

Anyone who met Khrennikov realised that he loved power. From the crowing Stalinist vulgarity and crude threats of his 1948 onslaughts on Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and his own teacher Shebalin, through his philistine enthusiasm for keeping knowledge of the outside world at bay in the 1960s and 70s, and his amazing influence over Soviet broadcasting, publishing, recording and concert life, he was a figure of historical and political significance. He made and broke the careers of hundreds of musical figures, and was dauntless in his opposition to any trend that threatened the hold of socialist-realist music and the stridently patriotic and à la russe manner he considered the true path in music (and the style in which his own talents were heard to best effect).

When modernism began to penetrate the Soviet Union as a result of the Khrushchev thaw, Khrennikov and his henchmen stamped on the “outrageous disgraces” being perpetrated by composers such as Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov. Later, he turned his aggressive attentions to even younger figures like Dmitri Smirnov, Elena Firsova and Alexander Knaifel.

In the early 1960s, the brilliant Italian modernist Luigi Nono was invited to the Soviet Union, on the unmusical grounds that he was a leading light of the Italian Communist party. When a young Moscow modernist, Nikolai Karetnikov, met Nono and exchanged scores and ideas about 12-note rows, he was promptly summoned to Khrennikov’s office and carpeted with the words: “You hobnob with foreigners! You give them your music! How dare you? There is such a thing as discipline!” Khrennikov was equally unrelenting in his hostility to western popular music – smuggled Beatles tapes conquered Soviet youth with astonishing speed – and jazz.

At the same time, like so much of Soviet power, Khrennikov’s rule functioned with carrot as well as stick. He helped many composers when they fell on hard times: he issued orders for families to be housed, for children to be given clothes, for food to be made available, for pieces to be allowed to be performed. Among those he protected were several talented composers who made a quiet but profitable living composing his later works from the somewhat exiguous sketches that were all he himself had time to write.

Naturally, with the Yeltsin revolution of 1991, Khrennikov finally fell from power and grace. But he never left the stage. In 1993, the newspaper Kultura published a celebration of his 80th birthday, complete with an astonishing picture of the composer on his knees in Yelets cathedral being blessed by the local bishop (after years of opposition to any composer interested in religion). He continued to compose (a ballet entitled Napoleon caused much mirth) and published two self-justifying memoirs.

The first of these, That’s the Way It Was (1994), is a surprisingly good read, with recollections of Stalin that show Khrennikov still in awe of the tyrant he served. More recently, he was decorated by Vladimir Putin. Khrennikov’s wife, Klara Vaks, is widely believed to have been a formidable influence on his success. She predeceased him; the couple had one daughter.

Tikhon Nikolaevich Khrennikov, composer and administrator, born June 10 1913; died August 14 2007

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