Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Piano Quintet (1972-1976)

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

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Moderato : Tempo di Valse : Andante : Lento : Moderato pastorale

Composed between 1972 and 1976, and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is the most Russian in spirit of his mature works, with the exception of those employing native liturgical chant such as the Second String Quartet and the Concerto for mixed chorus. This Russianness is inevitably bound up with the choice of medium; for any Soviet composer writing for piano and string quartet must acknowledge the Piano Quintet of Shostakovich, a profoundly Russian work by a composer Schnittke profoundly admires. His influence can be heard not only in the sound of keening strings and dark-hued lugubrious string trills, but also in the shared emotional world of darkness and light (the work has also been scored for orchestra, and entitled ‘In Memoriam’). An important role is also played by Schnittke’s characteristic use of ‘polystylism’, an allusion technique which is all the richer for being at the second degree; Schnittke’s second movement waltz, for example, alludes not only to the nineteenth century form of Tchaikovsky, but also to the allusions to that form found in the chamber music of Shostakovich, including his own Piano Quintet and the Eighth String Quartet.

Whereas the five movements of the Shostakovich are each self-contained, however, those of the Schnittke attain a unity of conception through constant thematic transformation of the opening phrase (itself an allusion, being no more than a chromatic variant of a simple cadential changing note figure) and from the fundamental nature of the musical material. Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Ligeti, Schnittke has worked on the edges and extremes of sound, making the Piano Quintet a sustained conflict between musical opposites: between sound and silence; between the micro-intervals and chromatic polyphony of the strings, and the equal temperament and triadic harmony of the piano; between the relentless chiming of repeated notes at extremes of the keyboard register and dense quartet clusters built up from the intense overlapping of irrational rhythms. There is no compromise between these factors; they exist suspended in a condition of stasis, very Russian, which only resolves in the final Moderato pastorale as a gentle piano ostinato, simply the notes of the harmonic series, confronts the motto theme in chromatic and microtonal versions – and survives to have the final word.

String Quartet No. 3 (1983)

Posted in Programme Notes by R.A.D. Stainforth on May 31, 2011

Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990

Andante : Agitato : Pesante

The striking juxtapositions of disparate material to be found in the music of Alfred Schnittke frequently have a quality of bathos and irony, and the intention of incorporating past styles within a musical language of the present. But what is to be made of the particularly bold choice of quotations which open the Third String Quartet, including within the first eight bars a phrase from a Stabat Mater by Lassus, the theme of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, and the personal musical monogram of Dmitri Shostakovich, DSCH?

The reference to Shostakovich, and in particular the DSCH idea, provides a clue. In his Eighth Quartet, for example, it not only forms the motivic substance for much of the work, but can also be identified with themes from other works by the same composer. Similarly, Schnittke’s quotations, although in one sense symbolic of two past masters of the string quartet idiom, are carefully chosen for their motivic correlation – the DSCH motive being no more than a transposition of the first four notes of the Beethoven. From this kind of musical wit grows an opposition between the contemporary world they represent and the diatonic world of Lassus, then the consequent synthesis of the two, which is achieved in the third movement as the turn figure of the opening tonal cadence is progressively incorporated into the chromatic language of the former.

Once these basic themes have been identified, the overall structure explains itself on a descriptive level. Schnittke characteristically interrelates separate movements by shared material, and the saturation of the texture by these three elements makes the Third Quartet a model for this kind of activity. Within this thematic unity there are allusions to a number of different historical musics, from the points of canonic imitation in the first movement to the nineteenth century Waltz-Scherzo of the second. At the same time, the opening cadence by Lassus returns in its original form at important junctures throughout the piece, like a punctuation mark containing the overall diversity of style.

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