Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

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.

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Composer as Storyteller, Creating Order Out of Chaos

Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 2, 2010

Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 17 August 1998

“I’m sorry, but I’m loath to listen to my work,” the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke declared in 1981, preventing a scheduled performance of his Septet. “It’s a terrible composition.”

Earlier this month, when Schnittke died at the age of 63, he was almost totally unknown outside music circles. And though one hates to say it, that obscurity may be because it seems so easy to agree with that self-criticism and not just about the Septet. One could, a bit perversely, portray his career as one of crass vulgarity and crude effects.

Schnittke’s piece composed for his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory was called “Nagasaki” and included a musical evocation of an atomic bomb blast. Then came “The 11th Commandment”, an opera about the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. After such melodramatic beginnings, Schnittke built a career in the Soviet Union by writing 66 film scores for cartoons, documentaries and features.

His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke’s First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.

This was not the exception. Schnittke’s Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It’s a post-modern playground.

Enough.

I have indulged in this bit of mock criticism because it is almost impossible to describe Schnittke’s music without making it sound as if it really were awful, as if it were full of cliches. In his work, history is plundered; irony is rampant; pastiche becomes the only coherence; the beauties of art are seemingly beyond reach.

Schnittke once said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper and suddenly it rusts.” But the remarkable thing is that even though this style – one for which I generally have very little sympathy or interest – really is Schnittke’s, any dismissal of his achievement is entirely wrong. Schnittke was a modern master. Or, better, a post-modern master.

He took a style that mocks the very idea of genius and turned it into an affirmation of genius. He applied techniques that are meant to undo notions of truth or beauty and used them in a life-and-death struggle to reassert those notions. He adopted an attitude usually associated with easy irony and facile posing and molded it into a profound expression of his inner life. In his music, even the classical-music tradition, which such mannerisms usually declare to be at an end, ends up taking on new life. Schnittke turned post-modernism on its head.

I first heard Schnittke’s music in 1981, when he was relatively unknown in the United States. When the contemporary ensemble Continuum gave one of the first New York concerts devoted to his work, I was unprepared for the shock. There was such a contrast between the eclectic, disjointed style and the incisive coherence of the results, that I could only think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes a traveler with his piercing gaze.

Schnittke’s is a storyteller’s art, able in the turns of a few phrases to leap across centuries, to adopt the most noble of attitudes, to inhabit the most vulgar of characters, to moan with despair and then burst out in laughter, to mock himself but command attention with his seriousness. One listens in disbelief but then realizes that one’s knuckles are white from gripping the chair.

Not every attempt was successful. The First Symphony really did seem to create a circus of sarcasm. The Sixth Symphony, performed a few years ago in New York, is weirdly fractured and despairing. But listen to any of the recordings of his most famous work, the 1977 Concerto Grosso, with its mixture of Vivaldi and cartoon music, elegiac melody and robust declamations. It is a universe of thwarted expression, everything is at risk; the result is maniacal, almost crazily daring.

But there is an odd kind of integrity in this music, a concentration that absorbs all contradiction, just as in the wrenching 1985 Viola Concerto, the soloist vigorously maneuvers about in a shape-shifting world of uncertain character.

Schnittke was akin to Mahler, not just in the way both used earlier musical styles and folk melodies to poke through a scrim of modern melancholy, but because both also found something profound in the midst of these musical recollections and meditations. A constant struggle is going on. And for both, irony was a temptation, not a solution. Yield to it, and everything dissolves into insignificance. It may be that for Schnittke, post-modernism itself had a kind of devilish character to which he was drawn and against which he had to struggle, sometimes turning to the comforts of religious faith. (He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.)

This may have been one reason why Schnittke was so preoccupied with the story of Faust. In 1959, he wanted to write a composition similar to “Lamentation of Doctor Faustus” that the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn writes in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”. It would have been a drama not just about the soul but about the artist weaving his way through the temptations of easy sentiment and amusement. In 1983 Schnittke wrote the “Faust” Cantata. One of his last works was an opera, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten”.

One of Schnittke’s core dramas may have been a struggle between post-modernism, with its miscellany and mannerisms, and the far deeper desire to create coherence and comprehension. He once asserted that “everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful” is not external to the world, but an intrinsic part of its order. Disharmony and cacophony, which he called the world’s evil, is knit into what is “harmonious and beautiful”.

And Schnittke really did seem to keep that in mind. An astonishing number of his pieces use a motif created by the musical notes corresponding to the letters of Bach’s name in Germanic notation (B, A, C and B flat). That motif and Bach’s music are cited as if they were visitations from another world, at sea in a monstrous post-modern universe. But Bach is not dissolved in that universe. Instead, Schnittke treats him as his Virgil, leading him through the surrounding wilderness, helping him knit evil into the fabric of beauty.

Correction: August 19, 1998, Wednesday The Connections column on Monday about the works of the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke misstated the order of the musical notes that spell out Bach’s name in Germanic notation. The notes, a motif Schnittke used in some of his compositions, are B flat, A, C, B (not B, A, C, B flat); B natural is H in Germanic notation.

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