Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 24, 2010

New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians

Alfred Schnittke first studied privately in Vienna (1946–8), where his father was working; this decisive experience was to have a decisive effect on his work as a composer since this exposure to the Austro-German cultural tradition fundamentally influenced his future tastes and approach to form and vocabulary throughout his career. On his return to Russia, Schnittke studied in the Choirmasters’ Department at the October Revolution Music College in Moscow (1949–53) as well as studying theory privately with Iosif Rïzhkin. He later enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory (1953–8, and as a postgraduate 1958–61), where his teachers were Yevgeny Golubev and Nikolay Rakov. Schnittke later observed that his ‘polystylism’ could be traced to the filling of gaps in his musical knowledge during these years. He himself taught instrumentation at the Conservatory for a decade from 1962, and from this time worked as a freelance composer, writing for the theatre and for film as well as concert works. Between 1962 and 1984 he wrote a total of 66 film scores for Mosfilm and other Soviet film companies: this aspect of his life was to have an important technical influence upon his career as a concert composer. During the course of his life he also wrote a large number of articles concerning various issues in contemporary music, and lectured extensively in Russia and Germany.

Though Schnittke’s growing reputation permitted him numerous journeys abroad from the 1980s onwards, before then his trips outside the Soviet Union had been restricted to one in 1967 to hear Dialogue in Warsaw and another in 1977 to Germany and Austria, as a keyboard player with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. His inevitably complicated relationship with the Soviet regime began with the condemnation of his oratorio Nagasaki by the Union of Composers in 1958. He was subsequently well-treated by the Union, and received commissions from the Ministry of Culture and from two opera companies, but when he was asked to conform to a less experimentalist ideal after completing his second opera – ‘African Ballad’ – he no longer enjoyed official approval. Due to the more liberal attitude of the Krushchyov era, Schnittke and other young composers saw formerly sanctioned scores by Western composers; he was thus able to analyze in great detail not only the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but also Stockhausen, Nono and Ligeti. These analyses led to his abandonment of serial techniques. At the same time, however, he was constantly attacked in official publications such as Sovetskaya muzïka. After its première in Gor’kiy in 1974, his First Symphony was to all intents and purposes banned from performance in the wake of Khrennikov’s blanket condemnation of it. This situation changed only when Gorbachyov came to power in 1985.

It was precisely from this time onwards, when, paradoxically, he was finally able to travel to attend performances of his works outside the Soviet Union, that Schnittke began to be plagued by health problems, beginning with a serious stroke in June that year. A second occurred in 1991, a year after he had moved to Hamburg, where he was teaching composition as the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, and from that point on Schnittke’s music became more austere and more obviously concerned with mortality. He suffered another stroke in 1994, but did not cease to compose; he died in 1998 in his adopted city of Hamburg.

Later in life Schnittke was the recipient of numerous international prizes and awards, including the Russian State Prize (twice, in 1986 and 1995) and awards from Austria, Germany and Japan. He was made a member of the Academies of Arts of Munich, Stockholm, Hamburg, Berlin and London, and given honorary membership of several others.

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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

Obituary: Alfred Schnittke

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

Susan Bradshaw, The Guardian, 4 August 1998

Of part German descent, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, always acknowledged the musically formative importance of the two years he spent in Vienna as a child. It was in the Austrian capital that he started to learn the piano at the age of 12 – incidentally becoming a fine exponent of keyboard chamber music, in which capacity he toured extensively as a young man. It was there too that he began to try his hand at composition, and to gain early insight into the nature of his wider European inheritance.

Schnittke’s early adult musical career was nevertheless very much a product of his Soviet training and environment. It was doubtless to his eventual advantage that, like others of his student generation in the USSR, he was almost totally protected from the supposedly evil influences of 20th century musical developments in Western Europe and, in particular, from those of the postwar avant-garde.

Schnittke was born in Engels, a town on the Volga river. His mother was of German descent, his father was German-Jewish, being born in Frankfurt. As a student of the Moscow Conservatory during the enforced isolation of what amounted to a musical time warp, Alfred Schnittke’s work was necessarily grounded in the Russian tradition with which he must initially have identified. It was certainly the security of this inherited identity that was later to give him the courage to maintain a childlike freshness of approach – an approach that was in turn to act as protection against the more defiant position-taking of many of his contemporaries. It could even be said that his own eventually unmistakable persona was achieved by means of a kind of musical hide-and-seek; often working from behind a neutral screen of borrowed – even purloined – stylistic fragments. It was as if he needed the safety of this emotional hiding place in order to be able to give free rein to the agony and the ecstasy that were seldom far beneath the surface of his work.

Schnittke’s musical style arose from a quite singular ability to make the commonplace seem extraordinary, to combine consonance with dissonance in the most natural-sounding way possible. But this seemingly carefree expression was hard won. Far from the carelessness all too readily assumed by his detractors, Schnittke agonised over everything he wrote. The magical contrasts he was to derive from setting the old alongside the new had to be long tried before he was able to discover a context that would enable him freely to reintroduce major and minor chords without fear of classical consequences or expectations. And it is the originality and musically expressive purpose of this particular freedom (including freedom from fear of being thought naive) which not only forms the core of the Schnittke legacy but is his most personal contribution to the second half of the 20th century.

Schnittke wrote a large amount of music in all genres. Much of it was composed following a succession of severe strokes in the summer of 1985 that left him physically weakened and partly paralysed.

His mental energies seemed undiminished, enabling him both to complete his illness interrupted Viola Concerto and to compose the first of two cello concertos in less than a year thereafter. Showing extraordinary spirit and a determination to live the rest of his musical life to the full – forced to retire from freelance work as a composer of film music, his tally of completed film scores stands at a remarkbale 64 – his later music quickly came to suggest that physical adversity may even have had creativity-enhancing consequences of a more spiritual kind. Like that of his three great Russian compatriots, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Schnittke’s mature music seems inspired by a vivid sense of urgency that can even now be intensely moving – whether suggesting a quasi-religious severity or provoking a carefully controlled musical chaos that can veer from humour to violence as part of the terrifyingly passionate involvement of even so apparently light-hearted a work as (K)ein Sommernachtstraum.

Four outstanding string quartets, a string trio and a piano quintet are fine examples of a classical high-art seriousness within a chamber music repertoire where extremes range from the seriously experimental to the frankly hilarious. But it is perhaps less for his two recent operas, Life with an Idiot and Faust, or five symphonies than for his distinctive contribution to the repertoire of instrumental concertos – mostly for one or more strings, but including three for piano and one for piano-four-hands – that he may be best remembered.

Moving to Germany in the late 1980s with his second wife Irina, he spent some time in Berlin before settling in Hamburg where he taught at the Hochschule für Musik in between travelling the world to attend performances of his works. These invitations he continued to accept with alacrity and, despite the increasing physical effort involved, with all the touching enthusiasm of a previously fettered Soviet citizen. His first marriage was dissolved. He had one son.

Schnittke, an iconoclast, becomes an icon

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

Matthias Kriesberg, The New York Times, 23 May 1999

In a just world, Alfred Schnittke would not have been condemned to the purgatory of the Soviet Union for the first 56 years of his life. He would not have suffered a series of increasingly debilitating strokes at the outset of his most productive years. Nor would he have been taken from us last August at 63.

Still, there is a plausible consolation: a just world would never have produced an Alfred Schnittke, and certainly would have no need of one.

It is hard to appreciate the extent of Schnittke’s musical triumph when the infinite horrors inflicted by the Soviet system on its own people are recalled in the United States as background images to sell competing cable television services. In less than 20 years, entirely on the strength of his extraordinary imagination, Schnittke has been transformed from an eclectic composer little known outside the Russian intelligentsia to one of the most widely performed composers of our time. Not only has most of his prolific output been recorded, but multiple versions of many works also appear on dozens of labels readily available in America, like Chandos, Bis, Deutsche Grammophon and Ondine.

Yet despite several recent Schnittke tributes by chamber groups in New York, including the beautifully proportioned Second String Quartet, with its violent energy and painful distortion, most major presentations of his works this season, in particular a recent performance of the Eighth Symphony here at the Concertgebouw, have taken place outside the United States.

The three composers who have emerged most triumphantly from the Soviet Union – Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina and Schnittke – have all described themselves as spiritually driven. Over the last dozen years, Mr. Pärt has turned increasingly to the depiction of divine spirituality, and Ms. Gubaidulina to the interaction between humanity and the divine. But Schnittke remained, as it were, among the people. He embraced the obvious truth that we live in a polystylistic environment, a world in which the sacred and the profane, the miraculous and the mundane, the rational and the absurd, coexist at every moment.

If you could survive it, there was perhaps no better laboratory in which to experience such twin realities than Moscow during Schnittke’s lifetime. And despite the mind-numbing hardships of daily life, it was a place of extraordinary intellectual ferment. Schnittke’s interests and influences extended from Russian literature to yoga; his friends and collaborators included choreographers, theater directors and filmmakers. (Schnittke also scored more than 60 films.)

Still, it remains difficult to account fully for the development of his imagination. One can conjecture that his polystylistic approach derived from a sense of crisscross identity: he was born to a German Jewish father and Christian mother in Engels, then an autonomous German Republic in the Soviet Union.

In our modern environment of an endless array of coexisting styles and ground rules, most composers determine their horizons prudently, in part for the sake of career development. But Schnittke went for broke. For one thing, as he made clear to me during a long afternoon at his Moscow apartment in 1978, a serious composer in the Soviet Union could hardly have a career to worry about. Sitting squarely in the path of artistic progress was Tikhon Khrennikov, the general secretary of the Soviet Composers Union.

It is hard to exaggerate the calamitous consequences a man of Khrennikov’s disposition could produce. Appointed in 1948 and improbably surviving in power until the end of the Soviet Union itself, he blocked performances, careers, travel and the flow of information. His personal tastes effectively became state policy. (Expatriates have suggested that had an individual with Khrennikov’s connections to political power had the opposite musical tastes, he might well have persuaded the political authorities to accept the very composers he sought to deter.)

If you couldn’t come to terms with those who ran the show, why limit your imagination? Bolstered by a philosophical faith that all periods of music coexist in the present, Schnittke simply chose to work from an enormous palette. The iconoclasm of his music, together with official efforts to block him at every turn, quickly attracted an enthusiastic audience, giving him confidence to persist in his individual vision. Essential to his ascent, too, was the relentless advocacy of compatriot performers like Gidon Kremer, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Natalia Gutman and Oleh Krysa as well as a growing pool of non-Soviet artists in other disciplines with whom Schnittke collaborated.

Months after suffering a serious stroke in 1985, Schnittke recovered his intellectual capabilities and began the most productive and musically successful period of his life. Symphonies, concertos, operas and the ballet “Peer Gynt” followed one after another. Polystylism receded as the composer synthesized all that had come before into some of the most exuberant music of his life. The Concerto Grosso No. 5 (1991) may be heard in a live recording from Deutsche Grammophon, in which the seemingly effortless virtuosity of Mr. Kremer, as violin soloist, contributes to the work’s playfulness. The Cello Concerto No. 2 (1989), recorded by Sony Classical with Mr. Rostropovich and the London Symphony conducted by Seiji Ozawa, is less lighthearted but no less enthralled with life. It builds slowly over the course of four movements, with the real drama characteristically saved for the fifth.

Schnittke suffered another stroke in 1991, shortly after he had emigrated to Hamburg, Germany, and now his work turned sober. His Eighth Symphony, from 1994, is almost shockingly transparent. It awaits its American premiere but was performed here by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Mr. Rozhdestvensky, who has also recorded the work for Chandos with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

The bassoon player who at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” pronounced the opening solo unplayable would surely decline reincarnation as the horn player assigned the opening of Schnittke’s Eighth Symphony. The first horn plays a tortured eight-bar line with wild leaps covering the complete range of the instrument. The underlying chromaticism gives the listener little choice but to hear the line almost as a parody, as if the horn were struggling to maintain its dignity. The line is then restated by the first violins; by the third iteration it dawns on the listener that the theme is not going away.

But neither is this “Bolero”. Each change of orchestration projects an intensely different emotion. What had moments before been slightly ludicrous is now portentous. The horns return, sustaining triads at the top of their register, sounding like human voices. Protagonist against background is a constant texture, but as King Lear discovered about his fool, this background is no background. Intensity grows and dissipates and returns ever stronger.

The third movement is the emotional heart of the work. It opens with a theme reminiscent of a Mahler slow movement; without invoking similar orchestrational complexity, it attains comparable emotional drama. The fifth movement, little more than a sustained ascending scale that ends disproportionately soon, makes painfully clear that the work is obsessed with depicting mortality.

Shortly after the Eighth Symphony was completed, Schnittke suffered a third, far more devastating stroke. Yet in 1998 he managed to write a Ninth Symphony. Parts of the manuscript, which I saw at the home of his widow, Irina, are indecipherable: the composer, right-handed but now paralyzed on his right side, painstakingly wrote with his left hand. Like the Eighth Symphony, the Ninth is nearly devoid of articulation or phrasing indications, and sustained by simple rhythms and scale passages.

The Ninth was presented in Moscow last year, in a version by Mr. Rozhdestvensky that interpolated quotes from other composers’ works. But there is no indication in the manuscript of any intention other than a stylistically consistent, through-composed work. Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s rendering seems to turn Schnittke into a commodity: the composer is best known for mixing styles, so let’s give listeners what they expect.

Schnittke was too ill to attend the performance; those close to him report that when he heard a tape, he was livid at the corruption. Some 10 days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. The Ninth Symphony was originally scheduled for the same Concertgebouw concerts as the Eighth, but performances of this version are now forbidden by the estate.

Schnittke’s music is both welcomed and condemned for its accessibility. In the current lexicon, accessibility means easy listening: music that does not demand too much, because it conforms to what a listener already knows. But with Schnittke, accessibility is altogether different; he achieves it by design, on his own terms. A signature opening is a single line, a cell of a few notes immediately transformed by an obvious transposition or reordering. Guided in gently, we sign up for the ride. Then all hell breaks loose. But we don’t turn away; the motifs and their connections reside too strongly in our memory.

Such technique doubtless derived from Schnittke’s urgent sense of affinity with Classical form. What may mystify American listeners is the composer’s delight in playing with one’s emotions (typically, when things get too hot, the harpsichord or celesta is deployed like a splash of cold water), or in deconstructing our expectations of nontonal music: suddenly, the most forbidding techniques seem easily decipherable.

We may wonder, too, whether the fluency of connecting things that don’t quite belong together, the irreverent approaches to constructive techniques that shock us by their blatancy, may in fact have resulted from a kind of sensory deprivation that was inevitable for composers in the Soviet Union. It is breathtaking, after all, to consider how much they did not have available, with performances, recordings, scores and opportunities to teach, learn and travel severely restricted if not forbidden.

So characteristics of Schnittke’s music may strike American audiences as naive. Western composers routinely subdivide the beat to create rhythmic pulses or patterns that define a tempo in contrast to the prevailing one; Schnittke never goes further than subdividing a beat into equal parts. Accelerandos are crudely effected, with beats successively divided into smaller parts. The results should sound silly, but in Schnittke the technique is consistent with his vernacular approach.

True, not all of Schnittke’s music is at the same level of achievement. His grasp of instrumental possibilities seems uneven. His string writing is sublime, yet he often approaches the piano with as much subtlety and insight into its expressive potential as a 5-year-old boy whose favorite occupation is squashing bugs.

But for Schnittke, simplicity was the path to the profound. The stylistic diversity that devolved to his particular language is supported by harmonic structures of clarity and consistency. And between the dazzling stylistic virtuosity and the harmonic underpinnings typically lies a logic in the handling of motifs that is sometimes even easier to follow than that of composers writing 200 years ago.

A winnowing inevitably takes place after the death of a composer. It seems reasonable to surmise that the polystylistic works of Schnittke’s earlier years will fade in comparison with the later, more rarefied compositions. These works belong front and center in the new-music repertory of American institutions. The operas “Gesualdo” and “Life with an Idiot” should be produced by major companies, the late symphonies performed by major orchestras. The evening-length ballet “Peer Gynt” deserves especially to appear in America, for it represents Schnittke at his theatrical best, with lush, intricate orchestration and powerful sonorities.

Alfred Schnittke was a master at playing the hand he was dealt. When the enemy was Soviet totalitarianism, he wrote music that integrated the profound and the absurd. When the enemy was his failing health, he wrote with increasing fervor. Against the threat of his growing fame, he enforced on himself a modesty that kept him focused on the task of writing music that confounded expectation.

What is irresistible about his music is the tangible personal struggle that appears to be embedded in each piece, to a degree one hardly feels apart from the music of Beethoven or Schoenberg. We may grieve that fate was so unkind as to deprive him of a fair measure of life and health and circumstances, yet fate was also merciful to us in giving him the inner strength to resist and fight back to a point of unqualified victory.

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