Alfred Schnittke: A Man in Between
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.
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.
London, December 2000
- Posted in Articles by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 14, 2011