ANNIVERSARIES: Alfred Schnittke Born 80 Years Ago


Controversial composer Alfred Schnittke was born November 24, 1934 in the Soviet Union's Volga Republic, an ethnic German enclave. In his mid-thirties he pioneered a broadly eclectic style of composing that drew on many classical styles (even sometimes quoting familiar Beethoven or Bach works, among others) as well as the occasional foray into jazz and pop. By 1972 his experimentalism had earned the disapproval of the Soviet Composers Union (the Soviets also weren't enamored of his occasional expressions of religion, for that matter), but a number of esteemed musicians who had left Russia to live in the West supported his work and brought him an international reputation. His work was basically pessimistic in outlook, but its emotional impact, and the accessibility of some of the styles he drew on, nonetheless seduced many listeners.

The contradictions in Schnittke's style are laid out in his liner notes to the BIS recording of his Symphony No. 3: "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. The tensions of this form, which are based upon a tonal perception of space and on dynamic contrast, are paralyzed by the present material-technical point of view. Nevertheless there is hope: in art, the impossible has a chance of success whilst the certain is always deceptive and hopeless." That said, he could easily be considered the last great symphonist.

In the last decade of his life, during which his health declined, he withdrew from polystylism into a grimmer sound. Meanwhile, independent labels BIS and Chandos recorded a considerable amount of his music, and majors Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, EMI/Virgin, and RCA Victor also issued his works, although unfortunately some of the best of them have gone out of print. He died in 1998 after a stroke.

Schnittke is a difficult case; his music is often deliberately hard to grasp, flouting mainstream expectations and conventions, yet his extension of the legacy of Shostakovich and the disturbing emotional impact of much of his work make it too important to ignore. Here is the best of it on ten albums.

Symphony No. 1

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (BIS)

In many ways Schnittke's polystylism was a comment on the fragmentation of the symphonic tradition, and his symphonies are at the core of his legacy. It was his Symphony No. 1 that brought him fame (or, in some circles, an infamy which continues to this day). It's a massive work, over 72 minutes here, and uses a 100-piece orchestra. When premiered in 1974, it was interpreted as an attack on the very concept of the symphony due to its multiplicity of quotes from Beethoven (crowned with an apparent raspberry), Chopin, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, and many others; blasts of atonal improvisation; jazz sections; and its apparent lack of form. But it succeeds as a depiction of alienated, chaotic modern life, in which a multiplicity of cultures and values are juxtaposed. Surprisingly for such a challenging and provocative work, it has been used as the score for the second act of John Neumeier's much-performed ballet A Streetcar Named Desire.

Symphony No. 2 "St. Florian"

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (BIS)

Although vastly different from his first essay in symphony writing, this was equally audacious for a composer in the officially atheist U.S.S.R.: a symphony in the form of a mass. Composed in 1979/80, it was inspired by a visit to the church where Bruckner played for many years and was buried, St. Florian's, and three of the six movements start with the choir quoting Gregorian chant. Most of the coda of the fourth movement and the introduction to the fifth movement are extended a cappella vocal sections, highly unusual in a symphony. The closing Agnus Dei has some harsh orchestral contrasts in spots but is largely hushed, mysterious, and awed: one of the most surprisingly beautiful moments in 20th century avant-garde music.

Symphony No. 3

Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Eri Klas (BIS)

This 50-minute work from 1981 opens with a crescendo that builds inexorably for nearly four minutes until subsiding, then repeating the process through ebbs and flows. Schnittke's plan was to write music "related to the scale of natural overtones, achieved by the piling up of the overtone spectrum," though due to standard orchestral tuning he ended up with a "tempered approximation." He also built much of the symphony's material from the note equivalents of more than 30 German composers' initials. Despite these oddities, in some ways this four-movement work is closer to normal symphony form than the two that preceded it. The overall effect is so methodical as to almost be comforting.

Symphony No. 4; Requiem

Uppsala Akademiska Kammarkör/Stockholm Sinfonietta/Okko Kamu, Stefan Parkman (BIS)

In one seven-section movement, with a program related to the rosary, the Symphony No. 4 (1984) opens with harpsichord, piano, and bells or glockenspiel, and there are many sections where these three instruments play alone or with percussion. Thematic material and textural build-up are strictly governed by a series of diatonic tetrachords and trichords; the effect partakes of both Serialism and harmony, with a misterioso mood dominant. The closing section adds chorus for an Amen.

The 1975 Requiem for soloists, choir, and instruments is largely tonal, but with startling effects and occasional extreme dissonance. It was originally snuck into incidental music to Schiller's Don Carlos -- partly to use music Schnittke had already planned, partly as a way to get it past the authorities -- but has since become a separate concert work. This 13-movement piece is an odd construction in any number of ways. A Catholic, not Orthodox, work, it's not a liturgically proper text; the Lux aeterna is omitted and a Credo is added. There's considerable deployment of percussion -- chimes, timpani, "flexatone," bass drums, tam-tam, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and in the Credo a drum set that contributes a rock-ish beat at several points (there is also electric guitar), changing the mood drastically. There are no strings in the normal sense, though the guitar and "chirara bassa" show up; organ, piano, and celesta frequently underpin the choir, with trumpet and trombone for color. There are stark contrasts among the movements of loud, anguished outbursts and quiet contemplation.

Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7

BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka (BIS)

These works are full of contrasts between nearly inaudible or actually silent sections and blaring climaxes. No. 6 from 1992 is relatively traditionally structured. The first movement's three-trombone theme gives the less fragmented moments a dark intensity, and thematic nuggets spike up out of distant low-end rumblings. The Presto second movement is brief and bellicose. The third movement uses a 12-tone row, and the final movement combines themes from the entire work. No. 7 (1993) contains two movements, the first in two short sections. The opening is, unusually, a 42-bar violin solo recalling Bach that's a memorial tribute to Oleg Kagen. The dramatic second movement is more than twice as long and is quite fragmented, but includes a striking brass chorale.

Symphony No. 8; Concerto grosso No. 6

Sasha Rozhdestvensky/Viktoria Postnikova/Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Chandos)

Schnittke's Symphony No. 8 is a strikingly desolate work, its textures much sparer (though still quite colorful) than his norm both in terms of instrumentation and thematic development. His last symphony has a definite aura of despair, even futility; it came just before the effects of multiple strokes left him too disabled to compose to his own satisfaction (he wrote a Ninth Symphony, but withdrew it after hearing a performance, though that hasn't stopped some labels from recording it anyway). Schnittke frequently revived the Concerto grosso form, since it matched his predilection for contrasting small and large groups of instruments; in No. 6 the soloists are violin and piano. Frankly, it's not an important work, but the Eighth Symphony sure is.

Cello Concerto No. 2; In Memoriam…

Mstislav Rostropovich/London Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (Sony Classical)

The five-movement Cello Concerto No. 2 receives a powerful reading from Rostropovich, one of Schnittke's dedicated advocates. Listeners doubting the composer's talent for handling large-scale structures will be suitably impressed by the massive passacaglia of the final movement. In Memoriam… is a rearrangement for orchestra of Schnittke's Piano Quintet, with his creative use of orchestral color putting a new spin on a powerful work full of grief and mourning. This recording is out of print on CD but easy to find used.

Choir Concerto

Russian State Symphonic Cappella/Valéry Polyansky (Chandos)

Much more tonal and accessible, and more stylistically consistent, than most of Schnittke's orchestral music, the four-movement Choir Concerto from 1986 is, per Russian Orthodox dictates, a cappella. Even as it shows Schnittke's relationship to Russian tradition, from znamenny chant to Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, it's a quite distinctive work. Built around small motivic nuggets, it's frequently gorgeous. In the parts where clusters build in step-wise motion, the mellifluous quality of voices smoothes what might sound harsh on instruments. It's not a concerto in the Western sense, but Bortniansky, Vedel, and other 19th century Russian composers used the title for works of this sort. The mystical and self-abasing text is in ancient Slavonic, translating excerpts from the third chapter of Middle Ages Armenian writer Gregor of Narek, AKA Grigor Narekats (951-1003). This group and conductor, heard in a 1994 recording, are the dedicatees of the work.

String Quartets Nos. 1-4; Canon in Memory of I. Stravinsky; Collected Songs Where Every Voice Is Filled with Grief

Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch)

These works are not, in general, the rebellious Schnittke of the early symphonies, but rather more personal, more scrupulously composed expressions of prototypical Russian angst, though the use of Serialism and "extreme" instrumental techniques in the String Quartet No. 1 did go against official Soviet policy. No. 2 is a tightly argued work largely built from a few motifs, while No. 3 is wildly polystylistic, with an abundance of quotes ranging from Lassus to Shostakovich -- yet it all seems quite organic and not merely clever. No. 4 is the longest and is full of contrasts in style, harmony, dynamics, etc.Collected Songs Where Every Voice Is Filled with Griefis a gorgeous string quartet arrangement of part of the Choir Concerto.

Psalms of Repentance

Swedish Radio Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste (ECM)

Schnittke wrote Psalms of Repentance in 1988 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia, setting Old Russian texts -- neither liturgical nor Biblical Psalms, but rather the distinctive tradition of the penitential psalm -- and capturing the spirit and sound of Orthodox chant with dark, brooding intensity, emphasizing the stark anguish of the sinner. Frequent stepwise motion recalls chant; at times, the men's voices are alone, making the sound even grayer, and sometimes they produce a low drone effect. Piquant dissonances are harsh and grinding or lush and soothing by turn. Kaljuste leads a polished and passionate reading. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.