Introduction by Alexander Ivashkin to A Schnittke Reader
Alfred Schnittke died in Hamburg on 3 August 1998 following a fifth stroke; he had
been fighting this fatal illness since 1985. His funeral in Moscow on 10 August 1998,
attended by thousands of people, was a tribute of honor and admiration to the
greatest Russian composer since Shostakovich. “The last genius of the twentieth
century,” according to the Russian newspapers and, belatedly, Russian officialdom.
With Schnittke’s music we are possibly standing at the end of the great route
from Mahler to Shostakovich. Schnittke intensifies all their contrasts and articulates
the strong ambivalence of their music. He drives this powerful post-Romantic
tradition toward the very extremes of the late twentieth century, our fin de siècle.
Shostakovich gave unique expression to the thoughts and feelings of those generations
of Russians whose fate it was to live under the yoke of totalitarian power.
Schnittke is often called the “man in between.” A strong pulse of latent energy is
undoubtedly inherent in both their musics, and extreme pessimism is common to
both: many works by Shostakovich and especially Schnittke are “dying”, dissolving
in the world, fading into the distance of time. Indisputably, all of this has to do with
time. Those wishing to listen to Schnittke’s music in the future are by no means
bound to feel all these concrete, time-connected features. But they will undoubtedly
absorb the intense energy of the flow of the music, making it part of their being, part
of their thinking, and part of their language.
Schnittke is a “man in between” different traditions. “Although I don’t have any
Russian blood,” said Schnittke, “I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life here. On
the other hand, much of what I’ve written is somehow related to German music and
to the logic that comes out of being German, although I did not particularly want
this. . . . Like my German forebears, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far
better than German. But I am not Russian. . . . My Jewish half gives me no peace: I
know none of the Jewish languages, but I look like a typical Jew.”
Schnittke was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century.
His works are an established part of the standard repertoire for orchestras, chamber
groups, and soloists. In the 1970s and 1980s he enjoyed extraordinary popularity in
Russia. “His music used to be our language, more perfect than the verbal one,”
wrote one Russian critic. When Schnittke’s music was to be performed in Moscow,
Leningrad, or Novosibirsk, concert promoters used to warn the police in order to
prevent overcrowding and chaos. All performances of his music were important
events for Soviet listeners, for in it they found spiritual values that were absent from
everyday life during the endless years of “terror”, “thaw”, “cold war”, and “stagnation”.
In the West, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, his music was widely
performed, from Germany to the United States, from South America to New Zealand.
His works have also been recorded on more than one hundred CDs from many
During the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw” in the USSR of the early 1960s,
Schnittke became interested in absorbing new compositional techniques and in
finding new sound perspectives. By contrast, the 1970s was a time for retrospective
analysis of stylistically different idioms (exemplified in Schnittke’s well-known
polystylistic Symphony No. 1) and for trying to find new meanings for the old roots
(in, for example, the musical hermeneutics of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 or the Violin
Concerto No. 3). Finally, from the late 1970s, Schnittke began to expand the space of
his music. He wrote symphonies, concertos, and the so-called “Faust Cantata, seid
nuchtern und wachet. . . .” Later, between 1986 and 1994, he completed his major
works for stage: the ballet Peer Gynt (1986) and the operas Life with an Idiot (1991),
Gesualdo (1994), and Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1983–1994).
Schnittke’s nine symphonies reflect the various aspects of human history. The
first, third, fifth, and seventh are concerned with historical and cultural entities. The
second, fourth, sixth, and eighth symbolize religious or spiritual experience. Schnittke
tries to find a new shape, a new angle, but remains within the true symphonic
tradition. With him the tradition of the great European dramatic symphony comes to
some kind of conclusion, yet in many respects he still keeps the tradition alive, for one
may certainly detect the influence of German culture, German forms, and German
logic. But, at the same time, he virtually destroys the symphonic tradition by revealing
its erosion. In this respect, he is more the irrational Russian “destroyer” than the
precise German craftsman.
Many of his ideas came from his work as a film composer. (He composed
soundtracks for sixty-six films.) For Schnittke, “incidental” and “serious” music
coexisted and interpenetrated each other. Inside the “neoclassical” frame of the
Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977), one finds the transformation of a cheerful songchorale
of Soviet schoolchildren, a nostalgic atonal serenade, quasi-Corellian allusions,
and, finally, “my grandmother’s favorite tango which her great-grandmother
used to play on a harpsichord” (Schnittke’s own words). In the Concerto Grosso, as
in many of his other compositions, Schnittke uses fragments from his film scores.
Speaking about this work, Schnittke said, “One of my life’s goals is to overcome the
gap between ‘E’ (Ernstmusik, serious music) and ‘U’ (Unterhaltung, music for entertainment),
even if I break my neck in doing so!”.
Schnittke’s late compositions are enigmatic. Their textures become very ascetic,
and the number of notes is reduced. However, the latent tension increases, and the
meaning of his last few compositions is to be found between the notes rather than in
the musical text itself. The actual musical language becomes “tough”, dissonant,
discordant. It is definitely not easy-listening music. At the first performance of the
Symphony No. 6 at Carnegie Hall, almost half the audience left before the end.
However, those who remained were enthusiastic.
In considering Schnittke’s output, one might recall Charles Ives’s saying: “Nature
creates valleys and hills, and people build fences and attach labels”. No one
knows how long it may take before Schnittke’s compositions are seen properly as an
integral part of musical history. However, it is clear that he did express the very
essence of the hectic and dramatic twentieth century, and that he pushed music out
of its “local” isolation by bravely demolishing all artificial fences.
It is hard to believe that Schnittke was writing articles on music all his life! His first
publication appeared in the main Russian musicological journal, Sovetskaia Muzyka,
in the late 1960s. He was continually analyzing the music of his fellow composers. It
is truly amazing that, although he was so busy with his own music, he always found
time to listen to the music of his contemporaries, to speak at conferences and
seminars, and to publish analytical articles. The very last speech he made was the
keynote address at the Prokofiev festival in Duisburg in 1990.
He had a tremendous number of social contacts and loved polemical arguments.
For instance he was always ready to get seriously involved in discussions on how to
teach harmony. He was also always prepared to defend those of his friends who were
accused of “modernism” or “formalism”. Schnittke’s archive is full of sketches for all
sorts of speeches, talks, lectures, and letters (including letters that were never sent).
When he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (1961–1974) he wrote
articles on Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s orchestration that were published in
Russia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some of Schnittke’s writings on music are, in fact, summaries of his own
analyses of Western music: he was constantly analyzing all sorts of music. In the
early 1970s he wrote eleven analytical essays for a collection on the subject of the
technique of modern composition. The purpose of this collection was to help
students and listeners to gain a better understanding of the music of Ligeti, Berio,
Stockhausen (at that time still very little known in the Soviet Union), as well as the
music of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Webern. This collection, however, was never
published. At the proof stage, officials at the Ministry of Culture decided to cancel
the publication, which seemed to them too “avant-garde”. Thus, these eleven essays
are published for the first time ever in this volume. Some of them Schnittke used
later for his research talks, in particular for his talks on Stockhausen and Berio at the
Moscow Conservatory and at the Composers’ Union in the 1970s.
One of his most important essays—on Stravinsky’s paradoxical logic—was
written for the collection I. F. Stravinskii: Stat’i i materialy [I. F. Stravinsky: Articles
and Materials], published in Moscow in 1973. After Stravinsky’s visit to Russia in
1962, a Russian translation of Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (written with Robert
Craft) was published in the Soviet Union in 1971, but only in extensive excerpts. It
was a time when Soviet officials were trying to change the official “image” of
Stravinsky in Soviet Russia. Instead of being referred to as a “hooligan” and
“composer with no musical talent whatsoever” (as he was frequently described in
official Soviet textbooks on music history published in the 1950s), Stravinsky started
to be called a truly Russian composer.
Schnittke was always interested in Stravinsky’s music. His comments on Stravinsky’s
latest compositions (The Flood, Threni, Cantata) are particularly interesting.
Schnittke was engaged in a search for a hidden tonality in Stravinsky’s serial works,
but he never published any results of this analysis. Fortunately, his essay on Stravinsky is published in the present volume. It shows not only Schnittke’s ideas on Stravinsky but also the “paradoxical” principles that we can clearly detect in his own music. Schnittke was a very good friend, with the ability to listen and to respond to other people’s needs. His essays on Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Giya
Kancheli, and on various performers, speak for themselves. They show Schnittke’s
special gift for listening to his friends’ works and finding the most essential features
in their compositions. Giya Kancheli often says that Schnittke understood his music
better that Kancheli himself.
Some of the texts published here were originally presented as talks. One of them,
“Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music” (given at the Moscow International
Music Congress in 1971), reflects Schnittke’s own experience, as he was engaged in
writing his “polystylistic” Symphony No. 1. Schnittke’s address on Prokofiev (at the
opening of the Prokofiev festival in Duisburg, Germany, 1990) was his last public
address. In it he summarized some of his ideas on the development and progress of
music (in which he did not believe!). Also included are personal recollections of
Prokofiev’s last public appearance at the première of his Sinfonia Concertante, and on
Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953 (which coincided with Stalin’s funeral).
This volume presents Schnittke’s most important articles and talks, together
with selections from conversations we had between 1985 and 1994.
(The complete book of these conversations was published in Russia in 1994, and in
Germany in 1998.) When Schnittke talked about music, what he said was so nearly
perfect that it could be published practically without any editing. He spoke as if he
were writing! I tried to preserve the “presence” of his own “voice” and “intonation”
in the text of our conversations.
I should like to express my sincere thanks to John Goodliffe for his wonderful
translation of the often complex and difficult texts. And a very special “hero” of this
publication is Professor Malcolm Hamrick Brown, founding editor of the series
Russian Music Studies. Together with Jeffrey Ankrom (formerly music editor at
Indiana University Press), Professor Brown has devoted an enormous amount of
time and energy to editing this book, going far beyond what one might expect of any
ordinary editor. Using his considerable skill, insight, and specialized musical knowledge,
he has helped to produce the clearest and most expressive English equivalent
of what Schnittke said or wrote. The editor would like to express deepest thanks to
The Leverhulme Trust (UK) for sponsoring his research work at the Alfred Schnittke
Archive, Goldsmiths College, University of London.
I hope that this book, the first to present Schnittke’s own ideas in English, will
help to promote a better understanding of his life and work, and that its readers will
thus be enabled to share his many original and brilliant ideas on the development of
London, December 2000
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.”
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.
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.
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 17 August 1998
“I’m sorry, but I’m loath to listen to my work,” the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke declared in 1981, preventing a scheduled performance of his Septet. “It’s a terrible composition.”
Earlier this month, when Schnittke died at the age of 63, he was almost totally unknown outside music circles. And though one hates to say it, that obscurity may be because it seems so easy to agree with that self-criticism and not just about the Septet. One could, a bit perversely, portray his career as one of crass vulgarity and crude effects.
Schnittke’s piece composed for his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory was called “Nagasaki” and included a musical evocation of an atomic bomb blast. Then came “The 11th Commandment”, an opera about the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After such melodramatic beginnings, Schnittke built a career in the Soviet Union by writing 66 film scores for cartoons, documentaries and features.
His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke’s First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.
This was not the exception. Schnittke’s Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It’s a post-modern playground.
I have indulged in this bit of mock criticism because it is almost impossible to describe Schnittke’s music without making it sound as if it really were awful, as if it were full of cliches. In his work, history is plundered; irony is rampant; pastiche becomes the only coherence; the beauties of art are seemingly beyond reach.
Schnittke once said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” But the remarkable thing is that even though this style – one for which I generally have very little sympathy or interest – really is Schnittke’s, any dismissal of his achievement is entirely wrong. Schnittke was a modern master. Or, better, a post-modern master.
He took a style that mocks the very idea of genius and turned it into an affirmation of genius. He applied techniques that are meant to undo notions of truth or beauty and used them in a life-and-death struggle to reassert those notions. He adopted an attitude usually associated with easy irony and facile posing and molded it into a profound expression of his inner life. In his music, even the classical-music tradition, which such mannerisms usually declare to be at an end, ends up taking on new life. Schnittke turned post-modernism on its head.
I first heard Schnittke’s music in 1981, when he was relatively unknown in the United States. When the contemporary ensemble Continuum gave one of the first New York concerts devoted to his work, I was unprepared for the shock. There was such a contrast between the eclectic, disjointed style and the incisive coherence of the results, that I could only think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes a traveler with his piercing gaze.
Schnittke’s is a storyteller’s art, able in the turns of a few phrases to leap across centuries, to adopt the most noble of attitudes, to inhabit the most vulgar of characters, to moan with despair and then burst out in laughter, to mock himself but command attention with his seriousness. One listens in disbelief but then realizes that one’s knuckles are white from gripping the chair.
Not every attempt was successful. The First Symphony really did seem to create a circus of sarcasm. The Sixth Symphony, performed a few years ago in New York, is weirdly fractured and despairing. But listen to any of the recordings of his most famous work, the 1977 Concerto Grosso, with its mixture of Vivaldi and cartoon music, elegiac melody and robust declamations. It is a universe of thwarted expression, everything is at risk; the result is maniacal, almost crazily daring.
But there is an odd kind of integrity in this music, a concentration that absorbs all contradiction, just as in the wrenching 1985 Viola Concerto, the soloist vigorously maneuvers about in a shape-shifting world of uncertain character.
Schnittke was akin to Mahler, not just in the way both used earlier musical styles and folk melodies to poke through a scrim of modern melancholy, but because both also found something profound in the midst of these musical recollections and meditations. A constant struggle is going on. And for both, irony was a temptation, not a solution. Yield to it, and everything dissolves into insignificance. It may be that for Schnittke, post-modernism itself had a kind of devilish character to which he was drawn and against which he had to struggle, sometimes turning to the comforts of religious faith. (He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.)
This may have been one reason why Schnittke was so preoccupied with the story of Faust. In 1959, he wanted to write a composition similar to “Lamentation of Doctor Faustus” that the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn writes in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. It would have been a drama not just about the soul but about the artist weaving his way through the temptations of easy sentiment and amusement. In 1983 Schnittke wrote the “Faust” Cantata. One of his last works was an opera, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten”.
One of Schnittke’s core dramas may have been a struggle between post-modernism, with its miscellany and mannerisms, and the far deeper desire to create coherence and comprehension. He once asserted that “everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful” is not external to the world, but an intrinsic part of its order. Disharmony and cacophony, which he called the world’s evil, is knit into what is “harmonious and beautiful”.
And Schnittke really did seem to keep that in mind. An astonishing number of his pieces use a motif created by the musical notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name in Germanic notation (B, A, C and B flat). That motif and Bach’s music are cited as if they were visitations from another world, at sea in a monstrous post-modern universe. But Bach is not dissolved in that universe. Instead, Schnittke treats him as his Virgil, leading him through the surrounding wilderness, helping him knit evil into the fabric of beauty.
Correction: August 19, 1998, Wednesday The Connections column on Monday about the works of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke misstated the order of the musical notes that spell out Bach’s name in Germanic notation. The notes, a motif Schnittke used in some of his compositions, are B flat, A, C, B (not B, A, C, B flat); B natural is H in Germanic notation.
Geoff Brown, The Times, 30 October 2009
In the cellist Alexander Ivashkin’s biography of Alfred Schnittke there’s a touching photo of the future composer, circa 1935, aged about 12 months. He’s grinning eagerly as babies do, clinging to the top bar of a battered crib in the family home in the drab Volga port of Engels, in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The future stretches before him.
But what future? The tot’s bright eyes know nothing of Stalin’s cruelties, of Hitler’s Holocaust, of atom bombs and the rest of the madness of the century conjured up so vividly in the expressive phantasmagoria of the adult Schnittke’s music.
By the 1980s he was labelled the natural successor to Shostakovich, but since Schnittke’s death in Hamburg in 1998, his reputation has been idling, if not taking a dip. Next month at the South Bank Centre Between Two Worlds, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Schnittke season – steered by Vladimir Jurowski, with help from Ivashkin and the Alfred Schnittke Archive – presents a chance to re-visit, re-evaluate or discover his tumultuous work.
He was born to reflect the century’s roar and chaos. Even his genes didn’t know which way to turn. His mother was German; his father German-Jewish. In the late 1940s his father’s newspaper work took the family to Vienna. In those two years Schnittke became saturated with Austro-German traditions. Reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus sparked a lifelong fascination with the Faust legend. The symphonies of Mahler took hold.
Culturally, he was almost a vagabond. “Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia,” he wrote. “But I am not Russian.” Nor could he feel completely Jewish: “My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew.”
No wonder, then, that Schnittke’s most individual gift to music was a collision of styles, high and low, crammed into a single piece. He called it “polystylism”. A simple example occurs in his first Concerto Grosso (featured on November 22), in which the strings’ baroque swirls suddenly cut off to reveal his grandmother’s favourite tango plonking away on a harpsichord. For complex examples, you can’t beat the First Symphony (missing, alas, from the season), where the stew includes jazz improvisation and transmuted morsels from classical music’s all-stars, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin and folks, jostling in madcap array.
Both are pieces from the 1970s, the years of the Brezhnev “stagnation”, of government by smoke and mirrors: a fitting context for Schnittke’s dysfunctional games, amply disliked by Moscow’s Establishment, especially Tikhon Khrennikov, the powerful head of the Composers’ Union.
Another influence on the music was more practical. Between 1962 and 1984 Schnittke earned a living writing cinema scores, some for adventurous animated films such as The Glass Umbrella, with music and sound effects usually worked in counterpoint with the images. He became used to montage and collage: art in slices.
Was he a dissident? The violinist Dimitry Sitvoketsky, featured in several concerts, thinks not. “It was just that the music he wrote wasn’t officially liked.” Yet it wasn’t merely the music that irked the Soviet bosses. There was also Schnittke’s public popularity. “By the 1980s the public treated him almost like a rock star,” Ivashkin recalls. “Crowds in Moscow beat down the doors to come to his concerts. Police had to be called.”
Khrennikov’s petty response to his fame was to obstruct the composer’s travel. Once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1984, the situation eased, only for Schnittke’s health to worsen. In 1985 he had the first of three strokes that reduced the quality of his life, furthering a musical shift towards the greater simplicity of means made fashionable by the “holy minimalists”, such as Arvo Pärt. He admired the ascetic beauty of Pärt’s music, but he told Ivashkin: “I can’t be a saint!” A revealing reply. Schnittke’s music is always formidably human.
For Jurowski, born in 1972, the season will be in part a voyage of discovery. “Learning about Schnittke and his time,” he says, “has a special meaning for me, since it was also the time of my parents’ youth and my own childhood.”
As for Ivashkin, he hopes the season will help bring the music to the same pitch of popularity in Britain as Shostakovich’s, and encourage opera companies to investigate The History of D. Johann Faustus (the season presents extracts) or another neglected item, Gesualdo. “Maybe the situation is healthier now. We can hear his music from a more realistic perspective, and judge him more like a composer of the world.”
Crazy world; crazy music. But so compelling.
Alex Ross, The New York Times, 10 February 1994
If you knew little of Alfred Schnittke or his music, you might say he is trendy, hip, in fashion. It is an understandable assumption, given the current spate of Schnittke performances: the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 tonight by the New York Philharmonic, the American premieres last week of his Piano Sonata No. 2 by Boris Berman and his Symphony No. 6 by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a forthcoming performance of his Faust Cantata by the American Symphony Orchestra. Other recent works are being rushed to recordings. Not since Britten has a living composer been given this kind of attention.
But the man who sat patiently through an interview at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning has nothing to do with the world of trends. Soft-spoken, shy and physically frail from two recent strokes, this Russian-born composer is incapable of self-promotion. Unlike many composers before him, he does not conduct, and he has written perplexingly little for his own instrument, the piano. He has gained recognition only through the substance of his music, with its anarchic conjuration of musical history and its underlying eloquence.
Mr. Schnittke talked about the new symphonies he has written for the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in typically muted and gnomic terms. “I prepared something that was not exactly perfect,” he said of the Sixth Symphony, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It seemed incomplete in a sense, and it’s not clear if we’ve really heard it. I already cut one episode, and I’m thinking about other ways to change it.” Mr. Schnittke’s printed discussions of his music regularly speak of attempts, reports, experiments and sometimes failures.
As it happens, these new works, particularly the severe and enigmatic Sixth, are atypical of the 59-year-old composer’s output as a whole. He first gained notice in the West with a style that seemed to match popular trends, so to speak, of the 1960s and 70s. It was not one style, but many: “polystylistics”, he called it, a rampant musical eclecticism drawing on Baroque arpeggios, the Viennese waltz, 12-tone modernism and avant-garde procedures. There was an exhilarating expressive vibrancy to the blend, and more than a touch of dark comedy.
Some commentators, and some imitative composers, have mistaken this approach for mere nostalgia. “That’s one of the major inaccuracies,” Mr. Schnittke said. “The style was never focused on the past, nor, for that matter, on the future.” The most remarkable aspect of his work is how a distinctive and recognizable voice emerges through an impossible variety of material. The composer of the present is emphatically, grippingly in control.
Mr. Schnittke’s relation to the past remains very complex. He derived his polystylistic method from Mahler, Ives, Berg and Shostakovich, all of whom stitched together a musical language from disparate sources. If there was a formative moment in his career, it was his encounter in the early 60s with Shostakovich’s monumentally chaotic Fourth Symphony, which had been hidden for three decades in the composer’s desk. “What was most important to me,” he said of the Fourth, “was not only the incredible technical accomplishments, but also the unexpected compositional choices, polyphony in the largest sense.”
The first major work of Mr. Schnittke’s mature period, his First Symphony of 1972, amplified the discoveries of the Shostakovich Fourth in every possible dimension. It is a good candidate for the wildest piece of music ever written. Gregorian chants, bits of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, motoric Baroque music and coffeehouse jazz collide in front of a dark and turbulent orchestral mass. It seems inconceivable that such a work was given a public performance in the Soviet Union of 1974, when other composers were setting Leonid Brezhnev’s diaries to music. But Rodion Shchedrin, then head of the Russian composers’ union, pushed the symphony past the bureaucracy.
“There was a great deal of tension and negative official reaction to the premiere,” Mr. Schnittke recalled. “But at the same time it was in an incredible moment, important and positive for me. The reaction of the public astonished me: people went not only to the performance but to rehearsals.” Mr. Schnittke was able to continue working without official support, although obstacles impeded him continually until 1985.
A tempting interpretation of this music is that it somehow represents or foreshadows the collapse of the Soviet state. Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, has indeed titled his Feb. 18 concert “The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror”. Mr. Schnittke’s reaction to this view was hesitant: “When I wrote, I wasn’t thinking about events, although some connection with events is of course possible. There is the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’.”
This last analogy is best interpreted as one of Mr. Schnittke’s characteristic ironical gestures. His music demands a deeper historical perspective. Just as strong as the connection to Shostakovich are the links to Mahler and Berg, whose music, Mr. Schnittke said, he “adores above everything else”. He is of German as well as Russian descent, and one of his favorite stylistic modes is a wistful German Romantic lyricism; the introduction and coda of the Seventh Symphony furnish a strong example. He now lives in Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms.
Another plausible reading of Mr. Schnittke is that he pessimistically mirrors the decline of the classical tradition itself, writing music for the end of music. He has encouraged this sort of thinking with some dire pronouncements of his own. “I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless,” reads the program note for the Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, in four traditional movements, is an altogether frightening vision of music stripped to the bone; at one performance in Washington, several distressed young children were led out after the first movement.
But even though his music has taken on an increasingly grim tone, the composer is not a doomsayer: “In what I do, there is definitely going to be an exit and there is definitely going to be an answer to these questions, but at the same time there is a lot of rightful doubt about the forms and a nervousness about what the future holds for music.” While he considers the possibility of a synthesis of classical and popular genres “pure utopia”, he has dabbled in rock and jazz instrumentation, and enjoyed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.
Might it be possible that Mr. Schnittke’s music has been inspired by the eclectic, parodistic, fundamentally grave and serious compositions of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus? “Yes, the book had an incredible influence on me,” said Mr. Schnittke, becoming slightly more passionate than he had been for most of the interrogation. “I read it in the 50s when I was still a young man. I thought about it my whole life, but unfortunately never wrote anything connected with it.”
There is, however, the Faust Cantata, based on the same 16th century source that the fictional Leverkühn employs for his valedictory work. It has been expanded into a three-act opera, with a libretto drawing from various Faust sources; the Hamburg Opera will give the premiere in 1995. “Faust was a man both good and bad,” Mr. Schnittke said of this 20-year-old project, “and that ambivalence draws me to the story.”
Ambivalence, in the end, is what draws us into Mr. Schnittke’s magic schemes; they match our best and worst imaginings. Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.