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

Piano Quintet

Posted in Recordings by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 3, 2011





Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is a dark and heavy planet. Even in the midst of his bewilderingly prolific output, this extremely personal work commands a massive gravity; it seems to orient, arrange, and set in motion so many of Schnittke’s works, before and after. If one wants to find the founding trauma for such a consistently agonizing body of artistic work, it can be found in the Piano Quintet.

This centrality may owe much to the quintet’s function: conceived as a memorial to the composer’s mother, who died of a stroke in September 1972, here’s a composition whose substance was drawn from a real event, powerfully tangible and irrevocable. This kind of reality had not been Schnittke’s basis for previous works. His Symphony No. 1 (1972) and other contemporaneous works are brazenly extroverted stylistic carnivals, full of fantasy, denunciation, and dark humor, and are largely artistic statements on art or cultural critiques on culture itself.

In this light, the Piano Quintet was a radical departure into an entirely personal sphere. This shift caused the composer tremendous difficulty. After finishing the first movement very quickly, Schnittke was blocked, “unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from an imaginary space defined in terms of sound and put it into the psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance, consonance, and assonance.”

Hence the Piano Quintet was shelved, and Schnittke did not resume work on it for almost four years. When he did pick up the work again, his musical temperament had changed, becoming more distilled, tauter, and more unabashedly morbid. Schnittke had perfected a personal sound, a dense, claustrophobic web of chromatic clusters. This signatory sound, rich yet obscure, serves as the backdrop for much of his succeeding work, and is seamlessly crafted into this work. The second movement is a wraith-like slow waltz on the name of B-A-C-H (H in German notation is B, B is B flat). The waltz is the only “polystylistic” concession in the piece, and throughout the movement consistently descends back into tortuous clusters.

The next two movements form the heart of the work, pulling it increasingly inward. Schnittke explains that they “are real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature.” Both movements bind themselves in shells of stasis; each movement suffers its own shocked outburst and epiphany. Eventually the fourth movement ruptures the thick web of chromaticism that seems to paralyze the work.

After its crushing, cathartic crisis on a single, repeated note, the movement ebbs into the work’s final bars, based on a 14-measure theme repeated 14 times in the piano. Over this theme, Schubert-like in its studied rusticity, one hears blanched recollections of previous passages; everything liquefies as it materializes, swept along by the piano theme’s current. Eventually a faded reconciliation emerges and the strings are silenced; the work ends on the sonic outskirts as Schnittke instructs the pianist to play tonlos, “without tone.”

There is hyper-sentimentality in Schnittke’s quintet, a weird excess of morose emotion that exists in few other of his works. Somehow the sentimentality works here, perhaps because of the sincerity of the utterance, perhaps because, despite wearing his heart on his sleeve, Schnittke is not merely personal but also highly idiosyncratic. The work is an uncomfortable twentieth century classic, and a key to Schnittke’s music in general.

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.

Symphony No. 9

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 3, 2010

Steve Smith, The New York Times, 7 November 2007

A Little Composition and a Little Archaeology

The ability to read the score of a complex orchestral composition is by no means a common skill. But even to the untrained eye, the manuscript of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 9 would speak volumes. Notes are only approximately positioned on the staffs, and their stems are shaky squiggles. Bar lines veer off at a slant. The handwriting, at times nearly illegible, is clearly pained.

“It’s a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” the conductor Dennis Russell Davies said during a recent interview. “He was determined to finish this piece. You can see and feel this in his shaking hand.”

Mr. Davies, a conductor long associated with Schnittke’s music, will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in the American premiere of the work at Avery Fisher Hall tonight, in one of only a few appearances here since taking a year off for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Schnittke completed the three-movement symphony in short score before he died in August 1998. But a series of strokes had paralyzed his right side, including his writing hand, preventing him from orchestrating the work. He tried to have the piece completed by others — Mr. Davies would not say who they were — but was not satisfied with their results.

After Schnittke died, Irina Schnittke, his widow, engaged the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov to finish the work. The Dresden Philharmonic provided a partial commission and reached out to Mr. Davies, who conducted the world premiere there in June. Mr. Davies also enlisted the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, of which he is the chief conductor, and the Juilliard School as co-commissioners.

Joseph W. Polisi, the president of the Juilliard School, said the project had particular resonance for Juilliard because it related to an important collection of musical manuscripts the school acquired in March 2006, which included many sketches and manuscripts by Schnittke. “We have become sensitive to his work,” Mr. Polisi said, “and I thought this was a natural parallel.”

Mr. Davies laid a photocopy of Schnittke’s manuscript next to the finished score on a desk and pointed out several places where the original had raised issues. Some combinations of notes created dissonances that were unusual even in Schnittke’s work. Mr. Raskatov occasionally overruled instrumental voicings that Schnittke had indicated.

Mr. Raskatov, born in 1953, had a close personal relationship with Schnittke, Mr. Davies said. The younger composer’s cool, ritualistic music has little in common with the eclecticism and pastiche of Schnittke’s most familiar works. Still, Mr. Davies says the work is faithful to Schnittke’s intentions.

“It’s pretty direct, pretty formidable in its tonal components,” he said. “There’s not time for references to some of the religious and popular elements that he liked to bring into his music.” Some passages unfurl with a weighty Mahlerian melancholy; others echo the ascetic severity of late Shostakovich.

Mr. Raskatov composed an original epilogue, “Nunc Dimittis,” a stark 15-minute meditation based on verses by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and an Orthodox monk, Staretz Silouan. Alison Tupay, a mezzo-soprano, and the Hilliard Ensemble will sing the work tonight.

Mr. Davies plans to record both pieces with the Dresden Philharmonic for the ECM label in January and will conduct them in Linz, Austria, in April. Still, after taking the 2005-6 season off for chemotherapy and recovery, he has reduced his travel schedule.

Last month, he conducted Philip Glass’s new opera, “Appomattox,” in San Francisco, then went to Detroit for another premiere, William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 7. But he turned down offers for engagements that would have deviated from his gradual path back to Linz.

His own illness, Mr. Davies asserted, did not affect his approach to the Schnittke piece. “But during my treatment, I was around people who were much worse off than I was and saw how courageous they were,” he said. “Having seen that, then seeing this manuscript and recognizing how desperately the man wanted to write this music, it made my work that much more meaningful.”

Voices in the dark

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 30, 2010

Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 12 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke’s music, suppressed by the Soviets, was all about dark spaces, mystery and fleeting details. Adrian Searle celebrates the distinctive art of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

The music is sliding back into that low, constant background that we take for silence. I hear the noise of the guy in the flat upstairs pacing about and doing his morning callisthenics to Robbie Williams. Canned laughter is coming up through the floor. Then there’s the shouting and the sirens from the street. My own noise is just as pervasive. It buries the rest and papers over my empty moments.

There is never any real silence; I think it was John Cage who, when visiting a sound-proofed, anechoic chamber, heard two distinct sounds: the technician later told him that what he had heard were the sound of his blood going round and the electric hum of his own brain.

The general noise level here is unexceptional – less, I guess, than in the Moscow apartment buildings where composer Alfred Schnittke, whose work is celebrated this weekend at the Barbican, wrote much of his music. His father-in-law would slump in front of an ice-hockey game on TV in the same room; he worked next to a window above the street, with his adolescent son’s rock music bulging through the room. Schnittke, apparently, never unplugged the telephone when he worked, even when, in the 1980s, he was always in demand. No wonder so much of what he wrote was full of interruptions.

I imagine the harassed composer at work in the warrens of everyday Soviet life. So much music – scores for 66 films, eight symphonies, all those chamber pieces, choral works, solo piano compositions, an electronic work. Perhaps composers don’t need silence, in the same way that chess masters don’t need a board to run through their moves. It is all in the head. Artists, frequently, play music while they work: maybe it drowns out the doubt.

As a writer I find it hard to work to music. I need to hear the voice in my head, a voice I like to imagine is my own. It is not always the same voice, and a writer often needs the voices of others, whose cadences and tone shake you out of your own frightful monologue, or fill in when your own voice refuses to speak. Alfred Schnittke’s replay of old forms (the concerto grosso, Gregorian chants) and of other voices (Beethoven “mottos”, Mozart and Vivaldi licks, memories of Schoenberg and Shostakovich, tango fragments, the brass section that swerves unexpectedly into big-band mode for a few bars) go to demonstrate that for him the past wasn’t all used up.

Schnittke’s phrase, “the difference between the conceivable and the audible”, was his measure. There is a tension between what a composer can imagine and write, and what can be performed. He was at times happy to utilise what seemed like jazz improvisation – unscored tuning up as an integral part of a piece; or to ask performers to mime frenetic playing in performance while producing no sound at all – a “cadenza visuale”, which, in recordings, is marked by the performer’s exhausted sighs, sudden explosive “Oohs” and laboured breaths; or to orchestrate for an invisible piano (amplified, and hidden behind the stage).

Schnittke’s music is much more than accumulation, accretion, disruption and surprise. It may be filled with other voices and different styles, but he is never just a montage-mannerist; no more a ventriloquist than any other artist of our time. But inevitably no less of one, either. Doubts about the authenticity of a voice, are for him another level of play: what he called his “polystylistic” voice.

You can’t have Schnittke as background music. It demands too much attention. It isn’t just the dissonant patches, the eardrum-flexing notes, the changing pace of it, the chase-music losing its way in the weeds, the alternating currents of anxiety and grace. It is simply too arresting. A passage of lush strings is systematically prised apart just when you are getting into it. Not simply because of all the switches, turnstiles and reverses the music goes through, but because Schnittke continually reconfigures our emotions, changing the pattern as well as the material, and our response to it.

His music is not like Matisse’s comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. Nor is it bracing in that muscular, angular, tough-love way you think must be good for you, but makes you wish it would stop. Schnittke’s music is very carefully structured, paced, configured, for all its seismic faults. If his music is as much spatial as temporal – sculptural and filmic as much as it is atmospheric – then all those movie scores may have had their uses.

His music is big, complex, erudite and multiformed, but you never lose the details amid it all – he is very good at details, at what I think of as glimpses, an eye flickering from the larger forms to something left accidentally on the floor. Listening, then, becomes an experience of transitions. Of phases, figures passing in front and behind one another, things in transit.

Familiarity doesn’t dull it. The familiar is a necessary part of his repertoire, the almost subliminal sense of déjà vu that holds the shapes together. I don’t think Schnittke cared whether what he did sounded “modern” or “difficult”, high or low. He could be all these things, with enough space in hand to let things breathe, to keep them alive.

Certain of Schnittke’s spiritual preoccupations, such as his dabblings in the occult, in the I-Ching (like John Cage), in anthroposophy (though he said he could never trust a man with eyes like Rudolf Steiner’s), culminated in his indecision as to whether to join the Catholic or the Russian Orthodox churches. Schnittke, half Jewish, his parents and grandparents atheists, a German Russian who spent much of his post-war childhood in Vienna, was a polystylistic man. He was led to the spiritual. His music, therefore, makes appeals to dark spaces, to mysteries, to enduring things, certainties. He was no reductivist, and more, I think, a synthetic than an analytical composer.

He plays too, on our sense of perpetual expectation, our hunger for differences, for change and mutability. Where he leads is another matter. His unusual orchestrations (the piano, harpsichord and celesta opening to the Fourth Symphony, for example) keep us listening, and waiting, keep us wanting more. The mad plunges, the returns to a sober, almost sentimental lyricism, sounds creeping in like light under a door and the shadow of someone pacing about beyond: there is real suspense here. It has been said that Schnittke’s music is both ambivalent and pessimistic. This is its unavoidable condition. I can throw adjectives and claims at it all day, but they just slide off the surface. He is seductive, awkward, unhinging. Schnittke’s music knows it will be subsumed back into the world around it when it is done, back into what passes for silence.

Notes from a life in music

1934: Alfred Schnittke is born in Engels, Russia, to German parents.
1946-8: Studies composition in Vienna – a formative experience of Austrian culture.
1949-61 Studies at the October Revolution Music College, Moscow, and at the Moscow Conservatory.
1958 His oratorio Nagasaki is condemned by the Russian Union of Composers. A troubled relationship with the Soviet authorities begins.
1974: His First Symphony is effectively banned in the Soviet Union. Schnittke dubs his work of this period “polystylistic”.
Late 1970s: Works such as the First Sonata for Cello and Piano see him move to a personal language less reliant on musical quotation.
1982: Baptised a Catholic.
1985: Gorbachev comes to power; for the first time Schnittke is allowed to travel regularly outside the Soviet Union. At the same time, his health begins to fail.
1990: Moves to Hamburg.
1993-4: Schnittke’s eighth and last symphony is completed. His mature style is spare and refined, reminiscent of late Shostakovich and the work of the Italian Luigi Nono.
1998: He dies in Germany after a series of strokes.

Alfred Schnittke: Seeking the Soul

Posted in Events, Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 21, 2010

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 21 January 2001

(Schnittke actually said “The goal of my life is to unify “E” and “U” even if I break my neck in so doing!”, “E” being Ernste Musik, “U” being Unterhaltungsmusik.)

You knew they were die-hard Schnittke fans. Nobody coughed …

Alfred Schnittke said that his goal as a composer was to bridge the gap between serious music and music for entertainment, “even if I break my neck doing it”. Today that ambition may strike us as a less literal risk than would have been the case in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Schnittke’s compositional powers were at their height.

His relationship with the grim regime was always volatile, his music at turns the object of adulation and condemnation. Officialdom governed his every move (or, more often, failure to move, since for much of his life he was forbidden from travelling outside the Soviet Union, even to hear performances of his own music). If, for most of us today, that era of Soviet state control has faded to mere reported memory, its painful legacy was felt afresh at the Barbican’s Schnittke extravaganza last weekend. Every note of his music, even at its buoyant best, carries the ironic shadow of adversity. Wit becomes a weapon.

The BBC’s annual Composer Portraits have long been a pleasurable obligation in the January calendar. Judging by the surreal silence and absence of arbitrary bronchial display which attends each concert, these marathons attract only dedicated music lovers. The joy is that this species, supposedly threatened, is determinedly alive; many of the concerts were sold out.

All were well attended and hungrily received. To spend three evenings and two days in the Barbican, or communing with Radio 3 which broadcasts the entire proceedings, requires a certain staying power. Yet the prerequisite for enjoyment is curiosity, not expertise. A sense of shared discovery unites the audience. An excellent complementary programme of talks and films (Schnittke wrote some 66 film scores) exists to fill any gaps in our knowledge. No one should feel daunted.

“Seeking the Soul” was an appropriately ambiguous title for the weekend (who was doing the seeking – the composer or his audience?). Schnittke’s chameleon ability to change mode and mood has made his musical dialectic seem unfairly elusive or superficial. A German-born Russian, a Jew who embraced Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, throughout his life (1934-98) he sought a homeland, a place of acceptance.

His eclectic use of jazz, baroque, mainstream classical and Russian Orthodox chant, tossed together in a bubble-and-squeak of musical variety, might seem to dash any hope of finding the real Schnittke. The reverse is true. Immersion in his music, from expansive, collage-like symphonies to unadorned chamber or choral works, merely confirmed the singularity of his artistic vision. His mission, always, is to wrestle with the musical tradition he has inherited, both within Russia and beyond.

In his favoured form, the concerto grosso, he borrows from the Italian baroque, not to imitate as a neoclassicist ( à la Stravinsky) might, but to explore a type of music which Russia itself never possessed. The string quartets survey the Austro-German tradition, as if sampling Beethoven’s entire output and reconfiguring it, refining and redefining it in his own terms. The Keller Quartet gave haunting accounts of Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 in St Giles’s, Cripplegate, one of the weekend’s many highlights.

In similar vein, at the frenzied climax of the Violin Concerto No. 4, the soloist has to mime virtuosity, his bow sawing crazily above the strings, as if silenced grotesquely by his accompanists. Here, the violinist was the work’s dedicatee, the dazzling Gidon Kremer, who added spice and brilliance to several concerts during the weekend. He was accompanied by the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins, who in the same concert negotiated the mesmerically theatrical Symphony No. 1 with assurance and skill. In this raw, explosive work, scored for huge orchestra, the players walk on stage one by one, then off, then on again, tuning frantically in parody of symphony concert conventions.

At one point, the music is interrupted by a pianist and violinist (Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan) who come and start their own anarchic jazz improvisations while the conductor looks on, bewildered. When performed with the kind of conviction shown here, Schnittke’s anarchy achieves strange and compelling grandeur.

The BBC players, who valiantly mastered a formidable number of works for the occasion, were less secure in the late Symphony No. 8, written in 1994, four years before the composer’s death when he was already incapacitated by a series of strokes. Nevertheless, a few fluffs could not cloud the spare intensity and transparent textures of this remarkable work, here conducted by Eri Klas in its UK premiere. In the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the BBC Singers (who performed the inspiring Choir Concerto) and BBC Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta and a group of fine soloists, Schnittke had the best possible advocates.

Obituary: Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Obituaries by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 27, 2010

Martin Anderson, David Revill, The Independent, 5 August 1998

The “polystylism” that came to be characteristic of Alfred Schnittke’s music was a reflection of the man himself: he was a Russian composer, born in a once-German part of the Soviet Union, to parents of Latvian origin – his father Jewish and his mother German, who grew up a Catholic in a German community in an atheist state.

Schnittke’s natural openness to this kaleidoscope of influences was characteristic of his generous intellectual curiosity: he likewise accepted all the rest of music as material to feed his own creative urge. He was also two ways a hero, although, in keeping with his personal modesty, an unemphatic one: at the beginning of his career he assiduously took on the Soviet cultural dictatorship on behalf of new music, and at the end of his life he showed extraordinary physical courage in continuing to compose despite a series of vicious strokes.

Schnittke’s musical ambitions manifested themselves early but the family’s limited means, and their geographical isolation in the Volga during the Second World War (Stalin deported the Volga Germans en masse; Schnittke’s father’s Jewishness allowed his family to escape the net), meant that systematic instruction was not available. The child none the less made crude attempts at composition, demonstrating a creative will that was to ignore formidable obstacles throughout his career.

In 1945 Schnittke’s father, now a journalist in the Soviet army, was posted to Vienna with the occupying forces, and the nine-year-old Alfred could at last study music theory and piano, also soaking himself in concerts and broadcast music (Stalin had banned the private possession of radios during the Second World War). The Viennese tradition he encountered at this formative age provided a vital underlay to his later stylistic explorations.

The Schnittke family returned to the Soviet Union in 1946, settling in the Moscow area, and Alfred began to teach himself harmony. At the age of 15 he was accepted as a student in the army music college, and began private theory lessons with Iosif Ryzhkin, who taught him to compose in a wide variety of styles to improve the fluency of his technique. In 1953, just as Stalin’s death gave way to Khrushchev’s brief “thaw”, Schnittke became a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where the students courted the disapproval of their orthodox teachers by listening privately to the “bourgeois” music of composers like Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók and Schoenberg, who were only now beginning to be heard in Russia.

Another massive influence on Schnittke at this time, as on virtually every young composer of note in the Soviet Union, was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto, premiered in 1955, had a very direct impact. Schnittke’s friend Alexander Ivashkin – whose excellent biographical study Alfred Schnittke (1996) is the only publication on the composer in English – points to the similarities between the concertos of the two composers: there is “the same feeling of drama, the same sharp, even exaggerated, contrasts between the movements, and the same freedom and space for the cadenza, a monologue of the soloist ‘hero’”. Ivashkin neatly characterises the difference in their styles: “Shostakovich, under the burden of Stalin’s dictatorship, was much more cautious, preferring to speak indirectly and symbolically. Schnittke’s generation grew up in a different situation and wanted to speak more openly and directly.”

Schnittke’s graduation piece, an oratorio called Nagasaki (1958) brought him his first brush with authority: his depiction of the explosion of the atomic bomb, using atonality, tonal clusters and howling trombones, was hardly calculated to appease the apparatchiks of the Composers’ Union. Schnittke was unable to make the compromises in his musical language to suit the political lines of the commission he was offered, and so in the early 1960s he was blacklisted, a covert ban that was to last 20 years.

That meant that travel abroad, even to other Communist countries, would be a rare privilege, despite his growing fame as one of the Soviet Union’s most individual voices and leading modernists. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s Schnittke was invited to around 20 premieres of his works abroad; permission to attend them was never granted.

In a search for a musical language that would synthesise past and present Schnittke was already beginning to unite a variety of elements in his music, in the beginnings of his “polystylism”, where reminiscences of Renaissance, Baroque and Classical composers sit alongside the most dramatic devices of modernism, in stark contrasts that produce music of considerable tension and power. Studies with the Moldova-born Webern pupil Philip Hershkovich, who pointed to the origins of much modern music in the classics of the past, now gave Schnittke’s search intellectual cohesion, and the music began to flow fast from his pen.

In 1962 Schnittke wrote the first of his film scores, a genre that was to afford him a relatively good living over the next two decades, accounting for no fewer than 66 of his 200 or so works. It also allowed him more room for experiment than works destined for the Communist-controlled concert halls: he could choose his techniques according to the film in question, commenting on the action rather than merely illustrating it. These scores provided a rich vein of material for later concert works.

One of those pieces was the First Symphony, first performed in 1974, an unabashed ragbag of music, discordantly, exultantly sewn together with some pointedly rough needlework, like some crazed Charles Ives on speed. The effect on Russian musical life was electric: it heralded the beginning of the end for the old, repressive order, which predictably reacted by putting an effective ban on its performance.

Schnittke’s music meantime was moving on, refining his magpie eclecticism in favour of a new depth of emotion; the occasion for this search for expressive power was the death of his mother, from a stroke, in 1972; the sense of mortality it brought Schnittke was supported by a growing sense of religious awareness.
The advent to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 loosened the grip of Tikhon Khrennikov, the Stalinist head of the Composers’ Union, on musical life in the Soviet Union. Schnittke was poised to reap the rewards of his intellectual and moral consistency. And that was when he had his first stroke, with a brain haemorrhage so severe that three times he was pronounced clinically dead.

His reaction was to tighten his grip on life: he began composing his First Cello Concerto within three months. Stage works, orchestral music, choral pieces, chamber music followed, one score after another with an almost frantic urgency. A second stroke hit him in 1991, after which Schnittke completed his opera Life with an Idiot. Two years later another opera, Gesualdo, was finished, as were the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

Schnittke’s doctor had advised him to take complete rest; when Schnittke found that the result was yet another stroke, he threw caution to the winds and, though he could barely speak and could write only with his left hand (he was right-handed), he managed to compose his Ninth Symphony, which was premiered in Moscow in June this year.

No composer as productive as Schnittke can expect to write a consistent string of masterpieces. But the best of Schnittke is, quite simply, great music: his Second Cello Concerto, for example, is one of the finest additions to the cello repertoire this century; and Ivashkin chronicles how the audience at his ballet Peer Gynt left the hall in tears.

Much of his work is touched with a sense of imminent loss, of some disaster about to break on the listener, in music of searing pain – which, indeed, is exactly how Schnittke lived much of the latter part of his life.

(Martin Anderson)

Alfred Schnittke was one of Russia’s most prolific and innovative composers and, in the last few years, became one of an elite of composers this century to achieve broad popularity, writes David Revill.

His interest in the European avant-garde was only awoken, however, by a visit to Russia from the Italian composer – and son-in-law of Schoenberg – Luigi Nono in the early Sixties. From then until the late Sixties Schnittke employed serial techniques himself. This brought him hostility from the Soviet authorities, whose criteria for good music were still basically political. Performances of works such as the First Symphony (1969-72) were delayed and often held in obscure parts of the Union (the Symphony premiered in Gorky on 9 February 1974). Other young Russian composers, on the other hand, increasingly admired his daring.

The authorities still let him teach at the Conservatoire and at the Experimental Studio for Electronic Music. From 1972 onwards, he began to make his living as a composer, thanks to such energetic work as writing music for stage productions of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, for films of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Eugene Onegin.

Starting with his Second Violin Concerto (1966), he returned to expressive music in a more broadly dramatic way. He fitted his interest in serialism into this, producing, for example, 12-note rows with implied tonal centres, so that he could build a contrast between tonal and atonal styles into a single piece. He tried this approach in pieces such as Quasi una Sonata (1968).

As early as the First Symphony, Schnittke had begun to combine earlier musical styles in pastiche – quotes from Beethoven symphonies, imitation Baroque music, stylised modern dances, and so on. This polystylism is one of his work’s most controversial features. Most offended are those who feel they own the music he has cited. When his arrangement of Stille Nacht was played near its composer’s birthplace, Schnittke recalled, “It made some people upset that I made some changes in his music, which gave it a much more mournful sense.”

Schnittke received little critical attention in the West before the end of the 1980s. After that, more and more attention was devoted to his music, though some critics derided him for crude structures, unsophisticated themes, and over-sentimentality. What was more significant was that at the same point there was an explosion of interest from a broader public – part of the biggest upsurge this century of enthusiasm for “serious” music, which also brought to prominence composers such as Henryk Górecki and John Tavener.

Popular interest brought wider opportunities for performances and recordings. Schnittke pieces were championed by, among others, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, the violinist Gidon Kremer, and new music stars, the Kronos Quartet. He was also the subject of a film by Donald Sturrock, The Unreal World of Alfred Schnittke.

Why the big explosion of public interest came when it did is a fascinating question. Partly it was because many people were ready for serious music they could actually understand. For decades composers had been pursuing their own musical agendas and scarcely thinking of an audience. A composer who could write dramatic, moving, humorous music, with references to recognisable syles, and who dared to call pieces by the kinds of title people could recognise, would have an enthusiastic welcome. Schnittke genially fitted the bill.

Alfred Schnittke, composer: born Engels, Soviet Republic of Volga Germans, 24 November 1934; married 1956 Galina Koltsina (marriage dissolved 1958), 1961 Irina Katayeva (one son); died Hamburg, Germany, 3 August 1998.

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.

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