Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Alfred Schnittke: A Man in Between

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 14, 2011

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
different companies.

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.

Schnittke—The Writer

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
culture.

Alexander Ivashkin
London, December 2000

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Connoisseur of Chaos

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 18, 2010

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.

Obituary: Tikhon Khrennikov

Posted in Obituaries by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 11, 2010

Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 15 August 2007

Tikhon Khrennikov, a prolific Russian composer and pianist best known in the West as an official Soviet antagonist of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, died yesterday in Moscow. He was 94.

His death was widely reported in the Russian media. The English-language Web site Russia-InfoCentre (russia-ic.com) said his farewell ceremony would take place in Moscow tomorrow.

Mr. Khrennikov, regarded as a promising young composer in the 1930s, was able to survive in the perilous currents of Soviet politics from the Stalin era on. In 1948 Josef Stalin personally selected him to be the secretary of the composers’ union. He was the only head of a creative union to retain his post until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Khrennikov saw the value of ingratiating himself with Soviet leaders early in his career, when he adopted the optimistic, dramatic and unabashedly lyrical style favored by Soviet leaders. He based his first opera, “Into the Storm” (1939), on “Loneliness,” a novel by Nikolai Virta that Stalin was known to have liked.

By the mid-1940s, his star was rising on the strength of works like his broad-shouldered, blustery Symphony No. 2, as well as his First Piano Concerto (1933), his incidental music for Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1936) and many wartime patriotic songs.

In the late 1940s he endeared himself to both Stalin and the cultural ideologue Andrei Zhdanov by endorsing Zhdanov’s decree that music must embody nationalistic Soviet values and by criticizing composers who seemed to be abandoning those values in favor of modernist experiments.

Whether or not he was behind Zhdanov’s public denunciation of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and others for “formalism” in 1948 (he insisted, in his 1994 memoir, “That’s How It Was,” that he was buffeted by the same winds as everyone else), he threw his weight behind it. At the first Congress of Composers, two months after Zhdanov’s attack, he took up the cudgel himself, declaring: “Enough of these symphonic diaries, these pseudo-philosophic symphonies hiding behind their allegedly profound thoughts and tedious self-analysis. Armed with clear party directives, we will stop all manifestations of formalism and popular decadence.”

In “Testimony,” the supposed and still hotly disputed posthumous memoirs of Shostakovich, published by Solomon Volkov in 1979, Shostakovich is quoted as saying that his problems with Mr. Khrennikov began when he sent him a long, friendly letter discussing what he saw as problems with “Into the Storm.” Until then, Shostakovich said, Mr. Khrennikov kept a portrait of Shostakovich on his desk. But he took the criticism amiss and became Shostakovich’s mortal enemy.

In a 1979 speech, Mr. Khrennikov denounced “Testimony” as a “vile falsification concocted by one of the renegades who left our country.” But Shostakovich did leave an unassailably authentic comment about Mr. Khrennikov, a lampoon in the form of a cantata, “Rayok,” which remained hidden until after his death in, 1975, but was performed privately in his home (and has been performed publicly since 1989).

Mr. Khrennikov was able to play both sides of the political fence, however, particularly when prodded by other musicians. After the 1948 denunciation of Prokoviev, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich persuaded Mr. Khrennikov to provide money quietly to buy Prokofiev food. Harlow Robinson, the Prokofiev biographer and expert on Russian music, has said that Prokofiev’s widow, Lina, told him that Mr. Khrennikov had been kind and supportive to her in the late 1950s, after her husband’s death. Mr. Khrennikov did occasionally support composers who were in danger of official attack, even supporting the Sinfonietta by Moshe Vaynberg during the anti-Semitic purges of 1948-49.

Mostly, though, he is known for the composers he opposed. Although he reportedly helped Alfred Schnittke get his First Symphony performed, in 1974, he denounced him soon thereafter, and never relented. In 1979 he criticized seven Russian composers — Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov, Alexander Knayfel, Viktor Suslin, Vyacheslav Artyomov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov — for allowing their works to be performed outside the Soviet Union. He declared an official ban on their works.

Tikhon Nikolayevich Khrennikov was born in Yelets, in central Russia, on June 10, 1913. He began his musical studies as a pianist but was composing as well by the time he was 13. He enrolled at the Gnessin School in Moscow in 1929 and at the Moscow Conservatory in 1932. He completed his First Symphony (1935) as his graduation work and began to win attention with his music for a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow.

In the 1960s he returned to the concert stage to perform his three piano concertos. He also wrote a cello concerto, which was given its premiere by Rostropovich in 1964, and two violin concertos, both given their premieres by Leonid Kogan, in 1959 and 1975. His catalog also includes 10 operas, 3 symphonies, 6 ballets, 2 musical theater works (“Wonders, Oh Wonders,” for children, from 2001, and “At 6 P.M. After the War,” from 2003) and many chamber works and songs.

“I was a person of my times,” Mr. Robinson, the Prokofiev biographer, quoted Mr. Khrennikov as repeatedly telling him about his history under the Soviets. “It’s very hard for anyone who did not live here through those times to understand them and the way we lived.”

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

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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