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.
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.