I. Allegro moderato
IV. Allegro vivace
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.
Introduction by Alexander Ivashkin to A Schnittke Reader
Alfred Schnittke died in Hamburg on 3 August 1998 following a fifth stroke; he had
been fighting this fatal illness since 1985. His funeral in Moscow on 10 August 1998,
attended by thousands of people, was a tribute of honor and admiration to the
greatest Russian composer since Shostakovich. “The last genius of the twentieth
century,” according to the Russian newspapers and, belatedly, Russian officialdom.
With Schnittke’s music we are possibly standing at the end of the great route
from Mahler to Shostakovich. Schnittke intensifies all their contrasts and articulates
the strong ambivalence of their music. He drives this powerful post-Romantic
tradition toward the very extremes of the late twentieth century, our fin de siècle.
Shostakovich gave unique expression to the thoughts and feelings of those generations
of Russians whose fate it was to live under the yoke of totalitarian power.
Schnittke is often called the “man in between.” A strong pulse of latent energy is
undoubtedly inherent in both their musics, and extreme pessimism is common to
both: many works by Shostakovich and especially Schnittke are “dying”, dissolving
in the world, fading into the distance of time. Indisputably, all of this has to do with
time. Those wishing to listen to Schnittke’s music in the future are by no means
bound to feel all these concrete, time-connected features. But they will undoubtedly
absorb the intense energy of the flow of the music, making it part of their being, part
of their thinking, and part of their language.
Schnittke is a “man in between” different traditions. “Although I don’t have any
Russian blood,” said Schnittke, “I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life here. On
the other hand, much of what I’ve written is somehow related to German music and
to the logic that comes out of being German, although I did not particularly want
this. . . . Like my German forebears, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far
better than German. But I am not Russian. . . . My Jewish half gives me no peace: I
know none of the Jewish languages, but I look like a typical Jew.”
Schnittke was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century.
His works are an established part of the standard repertoire for orchestras, chamber
groups, and soloists. In the 1970s and 1980s he enjoyed extraordinary popularity in
Russia. “His music used to be our language, more perfect than the verbal one,”
wrote one Russian critic. When Schnittke’s music was to be performed in Moscow,
Leningrad, or Novosibirsk, concert promoters used to warn the police in order to
prevent overcrowding and chaos. All performances of his music were important
events for Soviet listeners, for in it they found spiritual values that were absent from
everyday life during the endless years of “terror”, “thaw”, “cold war”, and “stagnation”.
In the West, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, his music was widely
performed, from Germany to the United States, from South America to New Zealand.
His works have also been recorded on more than one hundred CDs from many
During the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw” in the USSR of the early 1960s,
Schnittke became interested in absorbing new compositional techniques and in
finding new sound perspectives. By contrast, the 1970s was a time for retrospective
analysis of stylistically different idioms (exemplified in Schnittke’s well-known
polystylistic Symphony No. 1) and for trying to find new meanings for the old roots
(in, for example, the musical hermeneutics of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 or the Violin
Concerto No. 3). Finally, from the late 1970s, Schnittke began to expand the space of
his music. He wrote symphonies, concertos, and the so-called “Faust Cantata, seid
nuchtern und wachet. . . .” Later, between 1986 and 1994, he completed his major
works for stage: the ballet Peer Gynt (1986) and the operas Life with an Idiot (1991),
Gesualdo (1994), and Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1983–1994).
Schnittke’s nine symphonies reflect the various aspects of human history. The
first, third, fifth, and seventh are concerned with historical and cultural entities. The
second, fourth, sixth, and eighth symbolize religious or spiritual experience. Schnittke
tries to find a new shape, a new angle, but remains within the true symphonic
tradition. With him the tradition of the great European dramatic symphony comes to
some kind of conclusion, yet in many respects he still keeps the tradition alive, for one
may certainly detect the influence of German culture, German forms, and German
logic. But, at the same time, he virtually destroys the symphonic tradition by revealing
its erosion. In this respect, he is more the irrational Russian “destroyer” than the
precise German craftsman.
Many of his ideas came from his work as a film composer. (He composed
soundtracks for sixty-six films.) For Schnittke, “incidental” and “serious” music
coexisted and interpenetrated each other. Inside the “neoclassical” frame of the
Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977), one finds the transformation of a cheerful songchorale
of Soviet schoolchildren, a nostalgic atonal serenade, quasi-Corellian allusions,
and, finally, “my grandmother’s favorite tango which her great-grandmother
used to play on a harpsichord” (Schnittke’s own words). In the Concerto Grosso, as
in many of his other compositions, Schnittke uses fragments from his film scores.
Speaking about this work, Schnittke said, “One of my life’s goals is to overcome the
gap between ‘E’ (Ernstmusik, serious music) and ‘U’ (Unterhaltung, music for entertainment),
even if I break my neck in doing so!”.
Schnittke’s late compositions are enigmatic. Their textures become very ascetic,
and the number of notes is reduced. However, the latent tension increases, and the
meaning of his last few compositions is to be found between the notes rather than in
the musical text itself. The actual musical language becomes “tough”, dissonant,
discordant. It is definitely not easy-listening music. At the first performance of the
Symphony No. 6 at Carnegie Hall, almost half the audience left before the end.
However, those who remained were enthusiastic.
In considering Schnittke’s output, one might recall Charles Ives’s saying: “Nature
creates valleys and hills, and people build fences and attach labels”. No one
knows how long it may take before Schnittke’s compositions are seen properly as an
integral part of musical history. However, it is clear that he did express the very
essence of the hectic and dramatic twentieth century, and that he pushed music out
of its “local” isolation by bravely demolishing all artificial fences.
It is hard to believe that Schnittke was writing articles on music all his life! His first
publication appeared in the main Russian musicological journal, Sovetskaia Muzyka,
in the late 1960s. He was continually analyzing the music of his fellow composers. It
is truly amazing that, although he was so busy with his own music, he always found
time to listen to the music of his contemporaries, to speak at conferences and
seminars, and to publish analytical articles. The very last speech he made was the
keynote address at the Prokofiev festival in Duisburg in 1990.
He had a tremendous number of social contacts and loved polemical arguments.
For instance he was always ready to get seriously involved in discussions on how to
teach harmony. He was also always prepared to defend those of his friends who were
accused of “modernism” or “formalism”. Schnittke’s archive is full of sketches for all
sorts of speeches, talks, lectures, and letters (including letters that were never sent).
When he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (1961–1974) he wrote
articles on Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s orchestration that were published in
Russia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some of Schnittke’s writings on music are, in fact, summaries of his own
analyses of Western music: he was constantly analyzing all sorts of music. In the
early 1970s he wrote eleven analytical essays for a collection on the subject of the
technique of modern composition. The purpose of this collection was to help
students and listeners to gain a better understanding of the music of Ligeti, Berio,
Stockhausen (at that time still very little known in the Soviet Union), as well as the
music of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Webern. This collection, however, was never
published. At the proof stage, officials at the Ministry of Culture decided to cancel
the publication, which seemed to them too “avant-garde”. Thus, these eleven essays
are published for the first time ever in this volume. Some of them Schnittke used
later for his research talks, in particular for his talks on Stockhausen and Berio at the
Moscow Conservatory and at the Composers’ Union in the 1970s.
One of his most important essays—on Stravinsky’s paradoxical logic—was
written for the collection I. F. Stravinskii: Stat’i i materialy [I. F. Stravinsky: Articles
and Materials], published in Moscow in 1973. After Stravinsky’s visit to Russia in
1962, a Russian translation of Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (written with Robert
Craft) was published in the Soviet Union in 1971, but only in extensive excerpts. It
was a time when Soviet officials were trying to change the official “image” of
Stravinsky in Soviet Russia. Instead of being referred to as a “hooligan” and
“composer with no musical talent whatsoever” (as he was frequently described in
official Soviet textbooks on music history published in the 1950s), Stravinsky started
to be called a truly Russian composer.
Schnittke was always interested in Stravinsky’s music. His comments on Stravinsky’s
latest compositions (The Flood, Threni, Cantata) are particularly interesting.
Schnittke was engaged in a search for a hidden tonality in Stravinsky’s serial works,
but he never published any results of this analysis. Fortunately, his essay on Stravinsky is published in the present volume. It shows not only Schnittke’s ideas on Stravinsky but also the “paradoxical” principles that we can clearly detect in his own music. Schnittke was a very good friend, with the ability to listen and to respond to other people’s needs. His essays on Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Giya
Kancheli, and on various performers, speak for themselves. They show Schnittke’s
special gift for listening to his friends’ works and finding the most essential features
in their compositions. Giya Kancheli often says that Schnittke understood his music
better that Kancheli himself.
Some of the texts published here were originally presented as talks. One of them,
“Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music” (given at the Moscow International
Music Congress in 1971), reflects Schnittke’s own experience, as he was engaged in
writing his “polystylistic” Symphony No. 1. Schnittke’s address on Prokofiev (at the
opening of the Prokofiev festival in Duisburg, Germany, 1990) was his last public
address. In it he summarized some of his ideas on the development and progress of
music (in which he did not believe!). Also included are personal recollections of
Prokofiev’s last public appearance at the première of his Sinfonia Concertante, and on
Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953 (which coincided with Stalin’s funeral).
This volume presents Schnittke’s most important articles and talks, together
with selections from conversations we had between 1985 and 1994.
(The complete book of these conversations was published in Russia in 1994, and in
Germany in 1998.) When Schnittke talked about music, what he said was so nearly
perfect that it could be published practically without any editing. He spoke as if he
were writing! I tried to preserve the “presence” of his own “voice” and “intonation”
in the text of our conversations.
I should like to express my sincere thanks to John Goodliffe for his wonderful
translation of the often complex and difficult texts. And a very special “hero” of this
publication is Professor Malcolm Hamrick Brown, founding editor of the series
Russian Music Studies. Together with Jeffrey Ankrom (formerly music editor at
Indiana University Press), Professor Brown has devoted an enormous amount of
time and energy to editing this book, going far beyond what one might expect of any
ordinary editor. Using his considerable skill, insight, and specialized musical knowledge,
he has helped to produce the clearest and most expressive English equivalent
of what Schnittke said or wrote. The editor would like to express deepest thanks to
The Leverhulme Trust (UK) for sponsoring his research work at the Alfred Schnittke
Archive, Goldsmiths College, University of London.
I hope that this book, the first to present Schnittke’s own ideas in English, will
help to promote a better understanding of his life and work, and that its readers will
thus be enabled to share his many original and brilliant ideas on the development of
London, December 2000
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.
Tom Service, The Guardian, 15 January 2001
Alfred Schnittke’s music is defined by diversity. His symphonies lurch from modernist violence to quotations from Beethoven; his concertos contain everything from baroque pastiche to jazz solos; and his chamber music is brutal then beguiling.
This BBC weekend was the first major retrospective of Schnittke’s work since his death in 1998; it included appearances from his closest friends, including violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Alexander Ivashkin, and the composer’s widow, the pianist Irina Schnittke.
There was no more telling contrast in the first two days of concerts than that between the riotous First Symphony, composed in 1969-72, and the Concerto for Mixed Choir, written in 1985. The symphony was played in the Barbican by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury performed the concerto in the haunting intimacy of St Giles, Cripplegate.
Schnittke’s First Symphony is one of the great showpieces of the recent orchestral repertoire, and the BBCSO’s performance was a major event. The 70-minute symphony began with every musician playing as they walked on stage, creating a ferocious dissonance. It goes on to parody genres of music from military marches to waltzes, and the niceties of concert-hall convention.
After one outburst, a violin and piano duo started a separate performance in front of the first violins – disregarded by the orchestra, which continued to play. Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan gave a hyperactive recital, mercilessly satirising the virtuoso tradition. At the end of the symphony, the players continued performing on the journey backstage, only to reappear exactly as they did at the start of the symphony, before Brabbins finally called a halt to proceedings.
Next to this extraordinary collage, the serene concentration and austere atmosphere of the Concerto for Mixed Choir, settings of sacred verses by the 9th century Armenian Grigori Narekatsi, could have been the work of another composer. Yet there is a profound connection between the archaic style of the concerto and the “polystylism”, as Schnittke described it, of the symphony.
Although the First Symphony is often hilarious, there is a tragic tension in the piece between its hidden architecture and the fragments of music Schnittke pastes over it. The funny stuff on the surface has a deadly serious meaning; it’s the modernist structure underneath that Schnittke is really parodying. So the timeless qualities of diatonic melody and plainchant in the choir concerto (and in other of Schnittke’s works of the 1980s performed over the weekend, such as the Fourth Symphony) are one way of bypassing the dilemma of the symphony. Yet the ultimate irony is that these languages are no less borrowed than any passage of the First Symphony.
At the end of his life, Schnittke found a musical language that escaped the conflicts of his previous music. The London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of Fragment, part of a piece they had commissioned from Schnittke in 1994, but which he never finished. There is an amazing conviction and clarity about the work’s three existing movements. Even more striking was the British premiere of the radiant Eighth Symphony, given by the BBCSO under conductor Eri Klas. There, the earlier tussle between styles and structures is replaced by a music that is more unified but also more terrifying: a stillness and calm that seems to reflect Schnittke’s gaze upon death.
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.
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.
Alex Ross, The New York Times, 10 February 1994
If you knew little of Alfred Schnittke or his music, you might say he is trendy, hip, in fashion. It is an understandable assumption, given the current spate of Schnittke performances: the world premiere of his Symphony No. 7 tonight by the New York Philharmonic, the American premieres last week of his Piano Sonata No. 2 by Boris Berman and his Symphony No. 6 by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a forthcoming performance of his Faust Cantata by the American Symphony Orchestra. Other recent works are being rushed to recordings. Not since Britten has a living composer been given this kind of attention.
But the man who sat patiently through an interview at the Watergate Hotel in Washington on Saturday morning has nothing to do with the world of trends. Soft-spoken, shy and physically frail from two recent strokes, this Russian-born composer is incapable of self-promotion. Unlike many composers before him, he does not conduct, and he has written perplexingly little for his own instrument, the piano. He has gained recognition only through the substance of his music, with its anarchic conjuration of musical history and its underlying eloquence.
Mr. Schnittke talked about the new symphonies he has written for the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in typically muted and gnomic terms. “I prepared something that was not exactly perfect,” he said of the Sixth Symphony, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It seemed incomplete in a sense, and it’s not clear if we’ve really heard it. I already cut one episode, and I’m thinking about other ways to change it.” Mr. Schnittke’s printed discussions of his music regularly speak of attempts, reports, experiments and sometimes failures.
As it happens, these new works, particularly the severe and enigmatic Sixth, are atypical of the 59-year-old composer’s output as a whole. He first gained notice in the West with a style that seemed to match popular trends, so to speak, of the 1960s and 70s. It was not one style, but many: “polystylistics”, he called it, a rampant musical eclecticism drawing on Baroque arpeggios, the Viennese waltz, 12-tone modernism and avant-garde procedures. There was an exhilarating expressive vibrancy to the blend, and more than a touch of dark comedy.
Some commentators, and some imitative composers, have mistaken this approach for mere nostalgia. “That’s one of the major inaccuracies,” Mr. Schnittke said. “The style was never focused on the past, nor, for that matter, on the future.” The most remarkable aspect of his work is how a distinctive and recognizable voice emerges through an impossible variety of material. The composer of the present is emphatically, grippingly in control.
Mr. Schnittke’s relation to the past remains very complex. He derived his polystylistic method from Mahler, Ives, Berg and Shostakovich, all of whom stitched together a musical language from disparate sources. If there was a formative moment in his career, it was his encounter in the early 60s with Shostakovich’s monumentally chaotic Fourth Symphony, which had been hidden for three decades in the composer’s desk. “What was most important to me,” he said of the Fourth, “was not only the incredible technical accomplishments, but also the unexpected compositional choices, polyphony in the largest sense.”
The first major work of Mr. Schnittke’s mature period, his First Symphony of 1972, amplified the discoveries of the Shostakovich Fourth in every possible dimension. It is a good candidate for the wildest piece of music ever written. Gregorian chants, bits of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, motoric Baroque music and coffeehouse jazz collide in front of a dark and turbulent orchestral mass. It seems inconceivable that such a work was given a public performance in the Soviet Union of 1974, when other composers were setting Leonid Brezhnev’s diaries to music. But Rodion Shchedrin, then head of the Russian composers’ union, pushed the symphony past the bureaucracy.
“There was a great deal of tension and negative official reaction to the premiere,” Mr. Schnittke recalled. “But at the same time it was in an incredible moment, important and positive for me. The reaction of the public astonished me: people went not only to the performance but to rehearsals.” Mr. Schnittke was able to continue working without official support, although obstacles impeded him continually until 1985.
A tempting interpretation of this music is that it somehow represents or foreshadows the collapse of the Soviet state. Leon Botstein, the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, has indeed titled his Feb. 18 concert “The Breakup of the Soviet Union: A Musical Mirror”. Mr. Schnittke’s reaction to this view was hesitant: “When I wrote, I wasn’t thinking about events, although some connection with events is of course possible. There is the example of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’.”
This last analogy is best interpreted as one of Mr. Schnittke’s characteristic ironical gestures. His music demands a deeper historical perspective. Just as strong as the connection to Shostakovich are the links to Mahler and Berg, whose music, Mr. Schnittke said, he “adores above everything else”. He is of German as well as Russian descent, and one of his favorite stylistic modes is a wistful German Romantic lyricism; the introduction and coda of the Seventh Symphony furnish a strong example. He now lives in Hamburg, the birthplace of Brahms.
Another plausible reading of Mr. Schnittke is that he pessimistically mirrors the decline of the classical tradition itself, writing music for the end of music. He has encouraged this sort of thinking with some dire pronouncements of his own. “I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless,” reads the program note for the Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, in four traditional movements, is an altogether frightening vision of music stripped to the bone; at one performance in Washington, several distressed young children were led out after the first movement.
But even though his music has taken on an increasingly grim tone, the composer is not a doomsayer: “In what I do, there is definitely going to be an exit and there is definitely going to be an answer to these questions, but at the same time there is a lot of rightful doubt about the forms and a nervousness about what the future holds for music.” While he considers the possibility of a synthesis of classical and popular genres “pure utopia”, he has dabbled in rock and jazz instrumentation, and enjoyed the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.
Might it be possible that Mr. Schnittke’s music has been inspired by the eclectic, parodistic, fundamentally grave and serious compositions of Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional hero of Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus? “Yes, the book had an incredible influence on me,” said Mr. Schnittke, becoming slightly more passionate than he had been for most of the interrogation. “I read it in the 50s when I was still a young man. I thought about it my whole life, but unfortunately never wrote anything connected with it.”
There is, however, the Faust Cantata, based on the same 16th century source that the fictional Leverkühn employs for his valedictory work. It has been expanded into a three-act opera, with a libretto drawing from various Faust sources; the Hamburg Opera will give the premiere in 1995. “Faust was a man both good and bad,” Mr. Schnittke said of this 20-year-old project, “and that ambivalence draws me to the story.”
Ambivalence, in the end, is what draws us into Mr. Schnittke’s magic schemes; they match our best and worst imaginings. Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.