by Alex Ross
The New Republic, Sept. 28, 1992.
In November 1938, when a dark-hued and dissonant work by the late Ernst Krenek was performed in Boston, the audience responded more generously than might have been the norm in a less dark-hued and dissonant time. A Brahmin matriarch turned to her companion and observed: "Conditions in Europe must be dreadful." That casual remark anticipated a mode of music appreciation that has become increasingly dominant in recent years. Twentieth-century scores have been reduced to bulletins from one crisis or another, soundtracks to history's docudrama. Symphonies become invasions; string quartets turn into hidden diaries.
Music composed during the brief and spectacular lifetime of the Soviet Union is especially vulnerable to historically minded readings. Shostakovich is the most obvious target; he first advertised his works as affirmations of the regime, then privately advised us of alternative, subversive programs. Either way, he allowed his music to be relentlessly politicized. During the past twenty-five years, composers in what is now Russia and the other assorted republics have also spoken out in a certain "tone," a voice now impersonating the Evil Empire's interminable decadence. Anarchic and synthetic, nostalgic and visionary, cynical and serene, music in the Brezhnev era was an overflowing midnight harvest, a classic End-Zeit which might one day draw comparisons to Gustav Mahler's Vienna or to Berlin and Paris between the wars. The government that once made Shostakovich's life a living hell may have lost interest in the tendencies of its composers toward the end, but the composers did not lose interest in the tendencies of their society.
Of the numerous major figures to inhabit the Soviet fin-de-siècle, a man named Alfred Schnittke has rapidly become the most notorious. Born in 1934 of Russian and German-Jewish descent, Schnittke has achieved indisputable international stature, and his scores are being performed and recorded many times over. (The Swedish record-label BIS intends to record all of his music, and has already imprinted sixteen hours of it on glistening compact discs.) In this country, of course, Schnittke has become wildly trendy. He happens to sate a current American appetite for artists who brood at one moment and go wacky at the next. Audiences have also listened to him eager for clues to the Russian enigma, and in that respect they have not been disappointed.
All composers somehow reflect their times; some composers do little more. Schnittke is a separate case. Conditions in Russia are, indeed, dreadful, but that is the least surprising news that this composer brings. He represents not only a moment in the history of Russia, but also a moment in the history of music. To put it simply, he will not vanish when his times are up. The multiplicity of styles, of schools, of genres; the overbearing weight of an impressive past; the overshadowing brilliance and energy of present-day "popular" modes seemingly alien to the classical tradition; the possibilities of a future in which parochial barriers will crumble away—all this is acutely observed in Schnittke's music, and at times epiphanically reconciled. He is nothing less than the composer of our climate.
The wellspring of Alfred Schnittke's music is, inevitably, that archetypal twilight time, the twenty-five years before the outbreak of the First World War. A great many contemporary composers are beholden to the original and much-lamented fin-de-siècle, but Schnittke has overheard the paradoxes as well as the clichés of that era. As a devotee of Gustav Mahler, for example, Schnittke has not sought to replicate that composer's luxurious immolation of Romanticism, but rather to expand upon his last-minute discovery (realized fully in the incomplete Symphony No. 10) that the conflict of dissonance and consonance is the forge of the most intense expression. An even more important legacy from Mahler is the recurrent juxtaposition of an elegiac tone and polystylistic satire—although that technique could have been derived as well from Mahler's non-identical twin, Erik Satie.
Nor could any young Soviet composer escape the shadow of Dmitri Shostakovich. But again, Schnittke does not ape the standard profile enshrined in today's concert-halls. In place of the monumental Fifth Symphony, it is the willfully chaotic Fourth—hidden for decades in the Shostakovich's desk-drawer—that has fascinated Schnittke the theorist. Also paramount is the Bolshevik radicalism of Shostakovich's sardonic ballets and film-scores of the early thirties, rather than the socialist-realist tragedy of the later symphonies. At the dawn of Lenin's brave new world, Shostakovich began the fusion of Mahlerian expressionism and quasi-dadaist satire that Schnittke was later able to complete in the dusk of Brezhnev's decrepit monolith.
The Shostakovich Fourth—often peripatetic in layout, at times a mere anthology of banal dances and aimless marches; passing from chillingly spare chamber music to near-anarchic fortissimi for full orchestra; in Schnittke's vocabulary, a "polyphonic" work—came to light at the end of the nineteen-fifties. The composer had suppressed it after being declared an "enemy of the people" by Stalin in 1936. Other documents of the early Soviet era had been privately circulated: the refined atonal works of Roslavetz and Lourié, both of whom pioneered twelve-tone systems prior to Schoenberg; futuristic tone-poems like Mossolov's The Iron Foundry; and hybrid experiments like Vladimir Deshevov's The Red Hurricane, mingling ballet, opera, dramatic recitation, and vaudeville.
The fevered and fantastical progressivism that had been cut short in the 1930's seemed to resume abruptly after the departure of Khrushchev in 1964. Brezhnev's cultural authorities would never fully reassert their hold over what should and should not be composed; with the ascendancy of pop, they may not have cared. Still, there must have been some consternation over, say, the early works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt—music that lapsed centuries in time at a moment's notice, plunging into Tchaikovsky or Handel or medieval chant. A group of Ukrainian composers wrote in minimalist and eclectic modes through the late sixties and seventies, well in advance of American trends. The current fad for Schnittke may soon give way to long-overdue enthusiasm for the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, who has pursued her own highly individual path through various movements and styles.
Schnittke kept a low profile through the disarray of the 1960's. His ventures into twelve-tone or "serial" composition resemble many works written in that manner, at least on the surface. The final movement of his Violin Sonata No. 1 (1963) is unobjectionable from the academic point of view, but at the same time it is rhythmically wry and engaging in a way that is alien to the whole Schoenberg/Boulez sensibility. It's positively danceable, in fact. Other works from this period show similar peculiarities, but for the most part the composer was biding his time. In his own words:
My musical development took a course similar to that of some friends and colleagues, across piano concerto romanticism, neoclassic academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis..., and took cognizance also of the unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial. Having arrived at the final station, I decided to get off the already overcrowded train. Since then I have tried to proceed on foot.
This walking journey is remarkable not for any new ground that it happens to cross, but instead for the startling vistas it creates among familiar landmarks. In this respect his resemblance to both Mahler and Shostakovich is conspicuous. No less remarkable, however, is the distinct and individual accent audible in every bar, even amid the prevalent carnival of styles. We always know who is speaking, even as he does the composers in different voices.
As it first became known in the West, the music of Alfred Schnittke admittedly did not make so strong an impression. A retiring man who does not enjoy speaking to the press, Schnittke has permitted others to speak for him. And his friends in the West have sometimes chosen lesser works to get his name before the public. Silent Night, for violin and piano, was composed as a holiday greeting for Gidon Kremer; the violinist took to performing it in public, and caused consternation on a national level in Austria where Gruber's Yuletide anthem is considered sacred ground. With a breathtaking economy of means, Schnittke managed to turn the song into a miniature nightmare, Christmas at Anselm Kiefer's. In a similar vein, his cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto rambles away from its core material and quotes strains of other famous concertos, while turning Beethoven's introductory timpani motif into an obsessive rant. One short work is self-evidently titled Moz-Art ("Mozart/sort of").
These acidic bonbons, while misrepresenting Schnittke as a facile ironist, give an approximate sense of his method. Nearly all of the major works are built around a moment where scraps of historical material are put under pressure from the present. According to violinist Oleh Krysa, Schnittke has described this moment as a sometimes involuntary epiphany: "I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts." He has a particular fondness for metamorphosing the sediments of Vienna's golden age, the Haydn-to-Schubert era. Veins of dissonance are marbled into a wistful turn of phrase, to the point where historical classifications become useless. The corrupting of source-material proceeds sometimes at a sinister and gradual pace, sometimes more abruptly—the pastiche-passage might break off with cluster chords and fisted dissonances, in the manner of a teenage pianist getting fed up with his assigned piece of sight-reading. These gestures of musical delinquency are at the core of Schnittke's constructive self-doubt as a composer.
The "stylistic modulations" never give a sense of arbitrariness, of random rummaging; he is always telling a story through the juxtaposition of styles. One of his most startling interventions in past music comes in the second movement of a recent work, peculiarly titled Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Gustav Mahler's teenage sketches for a Piano Quartet are amplified beyond recognition by a confused and angry orchestra; after a final gong-splattered climax of tension, the Mahler fragment is heard in its original form, beginning confidently but soon drifting off into isolated figures and hints of figures. The movement as a whole is structured so that Mahler's boyish thoughts sound like the logical completion of a late twentieth-century symphonic span. What Schnittke begins, Mahler finishes.
A fairly considerable fraction of Schnittke's output falls into the category of "anti-music," aiming to demonstrate the seeming foolishness of composition this late in the twentieth century. Much of the confusion and controversy over his work probably emanates from an over-familiarity with these extrovert exercises in self-deconstruction. The Violin Sonata No. 2 ("Quasi una Sonata"), the first piece composed after Schnittke's decisive break from twelve-tone writing in 1968, is perhaps his most strenuous exercise in futility. A "borderline case of sonata form," it never seems to get past a confident opening chord of G minor; as a "report on the impossibility of the sonata," it resembles many other works of the late-modernist era. The composer himself compares it to Fellini's 8 1/2, in which a film director is incapable of completing or even beginning his much-anticipated masterpiece.
Schnittke has also composed five symphonies, mostly out of a sense of duty: "I do not know whether or not the symphony will survive as a musical form. I very much hope that it will and I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless." None of the series conforms to the traditional symphonic plot, although all exceed forty minutes in length. The most remarkable is the Symphony No. 1 (1974), perhaps the apex of unruliness in Schnittke's output. Miraculously, the piece was performed in the Soviet Union soon after its composition—apparently even with the private blessing of Tikhon Khrennikov, long-time head of the Soviet composers' union who helped instigate the musical purges of 1948. How it came to be praised for "civic-mindedness and patriotism" is a mystery best left to future scholarship. Although classical composition no longer received the deadly scrutiny of Stalinist henchmen, conditions persisted in which the setting to music of Brezhnev's diaries (for example) was a potentially useful act of self-abasement.
Bedlam erupts in the very first bars of this symphony, and never really subsides. Jazz combos do not merely add flavor to the texture, as they do in many urbane twentieth-century scores, but actually take charge of the piece for considerable stretches. From time to time the full orchestra attempts to bring the madness to a halt, with a loud minor chord heavy on the interval of the third. This warning goes unheeded. The second movement opens with a lampoon of mindless Baroque music that falls quickly into disrepair. At the outset of the fourth, a trumpet plays the lilting second theme from the funeral-march movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, significant in the annals of musical satire for its refurbishment as kitsch in Erik Satie's Embryons desséchés. The Chopin tune is the fanfare for an unrestrained five minutes of mayhem, in which Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto (among other works) fights like a wounded animal against a fusillade of sound that recalls and exceeds the most anarchic moments in the music of Charles Ives.
The Symphony No. 1 makes an especially dramatic impact in live performance, with choreography supplied in the score for the musicians as they wander on and off the stage—the only possible precedent for this work in the symphonic repertoire is Haydn's Farewell. Schnittke has followed to its logical extreme the creed once voiced by Mahler, that "the symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything." Western musical history is re-created as a barrage of garbled transmissions, a radio receiving many stations on one channel. Despite its veneer of goofiness, this triumph of planned anarchy has a simple and serious effect. It produces the sound of music, rather than music itself—what is overheard by a society that no longer knows how to listen. The society in question need not be Soviet.
If Schnittke were only an imp of the perverse, the composer of quasi-sonatas and un-symphonies, he would be a beloved figure of the avant-garde, but by no means a candidate for the mantle of Greatness recently offered him by various critics. Since the mid-seventies, however, he has approached the sacred genres of classical music more reverently: in the compact and emotionally intense Piano Quintet (1972/76); in the choral-orchestral Symphony No. 2 (1980), inspired by the St. Florian monastery where Anton Bruckner performed and composed; and in the staggering two-movement String Trio (1985), dedicated to and worthy of the memory of Alban Berg.
And in writing a series of concertos for soloist and orchestra between the years 1978 to 1985, Schnittke has achieved an unusually accessible balance of competing styles with his own unmistakable timbre—an extension of the technique of Berg's Violin Concerto, in which a progressive style served as frame for a rich and haunting succession of recollections and recombinations. The philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who studied with Berg, called his teacher's valedictory work a "concerto for composer and orchestra." Schnittke's concertos are seemingly a series of fantasies on this idea, with the soloist ventriloquizing the composer's lonely voice as he negotiates his way across the minefield of tradition.
The Violin Concerto No. 3 (1978) opened Schnittke's great concertante sequence. Its first movement tersely presents the various thematic materials from which the work will grow. A second movement interrogates that material to the point where it breaks down. In the finale, atonal argument is disrupted by the entrance of a straightforward and deliberately second-rate exercise in German Romanticism ("forest music," the composer calls it). A slow re-opening of musical archives follows, ending in a chorale passage cast in the moody splendor of Russian Orthodoxy. The violin's wailing trills at the outset are, in retrospect, the beseechings of a chanter whom the orchestra at first confounds and then eventually follows en masse. Opening unexpected depths in a customarily virtuoso genre, the score stands alongside Sofia Gubaidulina's masterful Offertorium (1980) as one of the late twentieth-century's premier violin concertos.
Unlike another "kindred soul," Arvo Pärt, who abandoned exuberant polystylistic exercises in the 1960's for a uniform and deadly-serious regeneration of medieval modes, Schnittke cannot permit a clean escape. The Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979) again introduces a chorale in the old-Russian manner, but then catches it in a dissonant web of sound—noises from the twentieth-century street. In the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1984), the orchestra's nostalgic forest murmurs are a "fatum banale," an inescapable platitude which receives fatal wounds in the first movement but haunts the entire span of the work. Negotiations between soloist and orchestra break off completely in the second movement; the violin is reduced to performing a "cadenza visuale," frantic motions of virtuosic showmanship that emit no sound.
But these exercises in an old-fashioned medium are more notable for their subtle fluidity of musical construction than for their spectacular attempts at self-detonation—particularly in the case of the Viola Concerto, composed in 1985 just before Schnittke suffered a near-fatal stroke. This work is notable first for its dazzling exploitation of the possibilities of the viola's sound, combining the brilliance of the violin and the sonorousness of the cello. The ambivalence of the instrument is perfectly suited to the composer's predilections. The three-movement structure recalls the Violin Concerto No. 3, although it is wider in scope. In the histrionic second movement, Schnittke accomplishes what may be his most impressive conjuring act to date: the gradual transformation of a blithe German-Romantic motif into a ruthless, hammering act of orchestral rage. Everything leads up to and then retreats from this enthralling gesture. Violist and dedicatee Yuri Bashmet conceives the solo part as a Barrymore-like dramatic role, and his brilliant performances have made the concerto one of the most publicly effective of Schnittke's works.
Schnittke's course since 1985 is difficult to trace. The composer has told his friends that a "series B" has commenced, in which everything must be different. Even before his near-death seven years ago, signs of a new direction were beginning to appear. The tremendously moving Concerto for Choir, based on medieval Armenian poetry, seemed to indicate a tendency toward simplicity, a whittling down of musical means—the sort of development that took place late in Shostakovich's career. Several new works conform to this trend, and others do not. The recently premiered opera Life With an Idiot is reported to be another romp in the remorseless satiric line; but the Monologue for viola and orchestra is densely atonal in texture, with the exception of a painfully brief tonal epiphany at the end. The emergence of real-life glasnost in the Soviet Union—a decade after Schnittke's own, rather spooky prophecy of it in the seventies—evidently has not moved him to celebration. He now lives in Hamburg, Germany.
The various tendencies exhibited by recent works pale before the possibilities suggested by Schnittke's theoretical writings, which have not been translated in the West but might prove tremendously influential. In English and German interviews, he has meditated on the boundaries, past and future, of classical composition, and how an eventual synthesis might emerge in which genres will become obsolete. He reports that his own experience writing for the Soviet cinema (some thirty scores in all, including several for cartoons) has played an important role in the development of his montage-techniques, particularly in the Symphony No. 1. (One film with music by Schnittke is currently accessible on video—Elem Klimov's Rasputin, somewhat mangled in the course of release and distribution but still displaying some virtuoso musical/cinematic cross-cutting.)
Addressing the "commercial abyss" separating classical composition from "so-called light music," Schnittke has said: "Perhaps I am thinking in Utopian terms, but maybe there is a way to bridge this abyss—a way that may be the challenge for the next generation. Contemporary reality will make it necessary to experience all the music one has heard since childhood, including rock and jazz and classical and all other forms, [as] a synthesis. This has not happened in my generation." He is an admirer of jazz fusion, and speaks of a "border-complex" of fused genres as a compositional ideal. Here we enter dangerous territory. The harrowing revelation in store for artists who have previously attempted to "cross over" the classical/popular barrier (witness such bathetic spectacles as Carl Davis and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio, or Michael Kamen's orchestral back-up for an Aerosmith song on MTV, or even the violinists accompanying the Doors in "Touch Me") is that burden of bathos falls not on the rock performer but on the classical musicians who sample his aura.
Schnittke's ventures across the border have been cautious but effective. Jazz elements appear throughout his music, although he has apparently not been influenced by the fractal dissonances of free jazz. (A meeting of Alfred Schnittke and Cecil Taylor might change the world.) Here and there one finds fascinating intrusions of a rock aesthetic. Electric guitars flavor such works as the Symphony No. 2 and the highly peculiar Requiem (1975), whose "Credo" is also propelled by the syncopated stylings of a basement drum-set. And in the cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet of 1983, a setting of the 16th-century History of Dr. Johann Faust, the gruesome scene of Faust's going-under is delivered by a Satanically amplified mezzo-soprano: in the BIS recording, Inger Blom presides over a hectic cabaret orchestra like some Ethel Merman of the apocalypse. It may not amount to "ordinary rock-music," as the composer intended, but it manages to dumbfound listeners all the same. This cantata, one of Schnittke's most viscerally thrilling pieces, will furnish material for an upcoming opera on Faust themes.
There is a final border Schnittke has put into question. From beginning to end, his music has been haunted by a man who does not and never did exist—Adrian Leverkühn, the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. Schnittke's Faust cantata employs the same 1587 German text that was used in Leverkühn's final composition, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus. Schnittke's methodology of parody, of polystylistics and playing with forms, also unmistakably recalls Leverkühn, whose works were a musical endpoint at which all possibilities were combined and then destroyed. A Soviet musicologist who has interviewed Schnittke extensively has gone so far as to state that the composer "internalized" Mann's novel—"the book has been a program for him" (V. Cholopowa). There could be no better evocation of the atmosphere prevailing in Schnittke's finest music than this description of a passage from Leverkühn's Apocalypse oratorio:
Adrian's capacity for mocking imitation, which was rooted deep in the melancholy of his being, became creative here in the parody of the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges: French impressionism is burlesqued, along with bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, music-hall, the syncopations and rhythmic somersaults of jazz—like a tilting-ring it goes round and round, gaily glittering, above the fundamental utterance of the main orchestra, which, grave, sombre, and complex, asserts with radical severity the intellectual level of the work as a whole.
Yet Schnittke does not fall prey to the "aristocratic nihilism" that shadows Leverkühn, the colossal aloofness and condescension. The "tilting-ring" that goes round and round in Schnittke's works might be either the insipid wantonness of light music or the grave and serious classical tradition itself. One almost guess that melancholy is what holds Schnittke to the tradition, and that his capacity for mocking imitation is a secret urge for the outside. Registering his discontent, he has chosen to pursue a career in music prefigured by a character in fiction.
A Faustian four-and-twenty years after his breakthrough into musical freedom, Schnittke still sounds the depth of that which he professes. His music lays itself out like a documentary record—not a transcript of the crises of any particular moment, but a confession of the unease that has gathered around the practice of classical composition. As the devil tells Leverkühn, twentieth-century music has an aspect of the "highbrow swindle" about it. Schnittke has dropped the pretense of the total, self-contained work of art, and the dreadful condition that he puts in its place has a ring of truth. His chaos clarifies; his drift is mastery.