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.
Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is a dark and heavy planet. Even in the midst of his bewilderingly prolific output, this extremely personal work commands a massive gravity; it seems to orient, arrange, and set in motion so many of Schnittke’s works, before and after. If one wants to find the founding trauma for such a consistently agonizing body of artistic work, it can be found in the Piano Quintet.
This centrality may owe much to the quintet’s function: conceived as a memorial to the composer’s mother, who died of a stroke in September 1972, here’s a composition whose substance was drawn from a real event, powerfully tangible and irrevocable. This kind of reality had not been Schnittke’s basis for previous works. His Symphony No. 1 (1972) and other contemporaneous works are brazenly extroverted stylistic carnivals, full of fantasy, denunciation, and dark humor, and are largely artistic statements on art or cultural critiques on culture itself.
In this light, the Piano Quintet was a radical departure into an entirely personal sphere. This shift caused the composer tremendous difficulty. After finishing the first movement very quickly, Schnittke was blocked, “unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from an imaginary space defined in terms of sound and put it into the psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance, consonance, and assonance.”
Hence the Piano Quintet was shelved, and Schnittke did not resume work on it for almost four years. When he did pick up the work again, his musical temperament had changed, becoming more distilled, tauter, and more unabashedly morbid. Schnittke had perfected a personal sound, a dense, claustrophobic web of chromatic clusters. This signatory sound, rich yet obscure, serves as the backdrop for much of his succeeding work, and is seamlessly crafted into this work. The second movement is a wraith-like slow waltz on the name of B-A-C-H (H in German notation is B, B is B flat). The waltz is the only “polystylistic” concession in the piece, and throughout the movement consistently descends back into tortuous clusters.
The next two movements form the heart of the work, pulling it increasingly inward. Schnittke explains that they “are real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature.” Both movements bind themselves in shells of stasis; each movement suffers its own shocked outburst and epiphany. Eventually the fourth movement ruptures the thick web of chromaticism that seems to paralyze the work.
After its crushing, cathartic crisis on a single, repeated note, the movement ebbs into the work’s final bars, based on a 14-measure theme repeated 14 times in the piano. Over this theme, Schubert-like in its studied rusticity, one hears blanched recollections of previous passages; everything liquefies as it materializes, swept along by the piano theme’s current. Eventually a faded reconciliation emerges and the strings are silenced; the work ends on the sonic outskirts as Schnittke instructs the pianist to play tonlos, “without tone.”
There is hyper-sentimentality in Schnittke’s quintet, a weird excess of morose emotion that exists in few other of his works. Somehow the sentimentality works here, perhaps because of the sincerity of the utterance, perhaps because, despite wearing his heart on his sleeve, Schnittke is not merely personal but also highly idiosyncratic. The work is an uncomfortable twentieth century classic, and a key to Schnittke’s music in general.