Alfred Schnittke (1934 - 1998)

Concerto, Viola. "Alfred Schnittke (1934 - 1998)." Performing Arts 32, no. 11: P6-P8, November 1998.

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = piccolo, 3rd = alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet, 3rd = E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, chimes, cymbals, flexatone, snare drum, tam-tams, vibraphone, xylophone), harp, celesta, harpsichord, piano, violas, cellos, basses, and solo viola. First performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonica.

Let the late composer begin his own story: "I was born on November 24, 1934, in Engels on the Volga, in the Saratov province. I have my German name from my parents: my father, a jew born in Frankfurt-am-Main, came to the Soviet Union with his parents - who were, however, of Russian origin - and there married a German woman born in Russia. From childhood on, I have spoken German - the `Volga German' of my mother. Later, this was somewhat revised through a two-year stay in Vienna, 1946-48; my father, who was on the staff of a German-language Soviet newspaper published in Vienna, took his family there with him. In Vienna I had my first piano lessons and immediately tried to compose in a style of high pathos. After my return to the USSR, I continued my education, in part privately, in part in academies. After graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1960 I joined the Composers' Union.

"My musical development took a course similar to that of some friends and colleagues, across piano concerto romanticism, neoclassical academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis (Orff and Schoenberg), and took cognizance also of the unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial. Having arrived at the final station, I decidedly to get off the already overcrowded train. Since then I have tried to proceed on foot."

There is a good deal more to his story than that, including his momentous meeting with the Italian composer Luigi Nono, who, visiting Moscow in 1963, brought a young generation of benighted Soviet composers unprecedented insights (reinforced by plenty of printed scores) into what had been happening musically in the West during the preceding decades. Then, too, there were Schnittke's sessions in the '60s with Philip Gershkovich, who had studied with Anton Webern in Vienna in the '30s, and in whose Moscow apartment Schnittke and others among the best and brightest would analyze, with Gershkovich's guidance, the "forbidden" scores of the Second Viennese School. And there was Schnittke's brief but telling fascination with the French composer Henri Pousseur's 1967 opera Votre Faust, written in a stupefying melange of styles, with quotations from Monteverdi to Schoenberg, and in which, in the words of another celebrated borrower and paraphraser, Luciano Berio, "the main personage is the history of music, not out of the old Faustian urge to use the past, but out of the desire and need to deal with realities wherever they may be". It all went into the Schnittke mill, to be ground together and emerge as part of an original, urgently communicative voice.

And then there was Shostakovich, without whose presence Soviet music can hardly be said to exist at all, whether those who came under his influence did so out of adherence to the occasional officialdom-pleasing aspects of his music or its tragic depths of anguish, its rebellion against oppressive acts, of a political, humanitarian or artistic nature. There is plenty of the Shostakovich spirit in Schnittke's music -- most obviously and tangibly, the Mahlerisms, more subtly a non-conforming attitude that would have relegated some of his best music to the commissars' dustbin, had it not been for the allegiance of such distinguished compatriots as the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, violinists Gidon Kremer and Oleg Kagan, cellists Natalia Gutman and Mstislav Rostropovich, and violist Yuri Bashmet. In the 1970s, with their help and a general loosening of artistic censorship, Schnittke was the most performed composer in the Soviet Union.

Going back in time and elaborating on Schnittke's autobiography: After returning with his family to the Soviet Union from Vienna, the young composer immersed himself in "the usual sort of Soviet instruction" (his words), which prominently included choral conducting. He later served as an instructor at the Moscow Conservatory, teaching orchestration and counterpoint, while simultaneously working in electronic music at an underground experimental studio: the by-now-familiar story of the Soviet musician's outward involvement in approved activities while secretly pursuing subversive ones.

In subsequent years, Schnittke worked in strict serial techniques, then varieties of neo-Romanticism and neoclassicism and ultimately in the personal grab-bag style which he himself called "polystylistic": the full arsenal of 20th-century techniques and instrumentation applied to quotations from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler - or "fakings," as he called them, of their styles - medieval chant, jazz, tango. All of it smashed together in jarring whirls. But the result is never jokily humorous. Schnittke's melanges and deeply, darkly, Russianly serious.

Of his Viola Concerto, the composer wrote:
"In 1977 I met the brilliant violist Yuri Bashmet at a recording of my Piano Quintet with Gidon Kremer. He asked me for a voila concerto and I agreed without hesitation - little imagining that I wouldn't complete it until 1985. In a certain respect the piece has the character of a - temporary - farewell; then days after finishing work on it a heart attack placed me in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life - a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).

"Apart from the range I did not have any technical limitations on the solo part to consider, for Yuri Bashmet can play anything. Everything seemed possible. I dedicated the piece to him and rejoice at its continued life, also in the hands of other artists."

As a totality, the Viola Concerto is an arch form, bending back to where it began, in darkness and sadness. In the first movement, the solo enters like a lost soul, with a theme that spells out, in the German notation, the dedicatee's last name ("Baschmet," the German spelling), excluding the "m" of which there is no equivalent. Here, the solo is literally that, alone - a very Schnittkesque metaphor - seeking a footing, which he finds, precariously, in a thematic scrap that sounds like something Mahler might have invented, which is superseded by an ersatz religious chorale. Whereupon - and this is the kind of programmatic fancifulness Schnittke invites - the orchestra screams out with a crashing chord (again made up of Bashmet's name) that sweeps away any suggestions of peace or fulfillment.

The second movement, the "chase through life," is a danse macabre of frightening intensity. It is for much of its duration a toccata-like moto perpetuo, with ghostly percussion effects and belligerent, Shostakovich-like marches, and as full of activity and solo-orchestra interaction as the first movement was darkly contemplative and solo-dominated.

The finale is for the most part slow and inward-looking but, again, with anguished Mahlerian outbursts. The concerto ends in dirge-like fashion, with (to my ears) inescapable associations with the Simpleton's lament in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and the scene of Prince Andrei's delirium, with its pathetic choral interjections, in the last act of Prokofiev's War and peace. Accidental?

In a summing up of Schnittke's career and music as it had progressed until the early-1990s, the world of the viola Concerto is evoked by the American critic-pedagogue Richard Taruskin as reprinted in his Defining Russia Musically (Princeton University Press, 1997):

"With a bluntness and an immodesty practically unseen since the days of Mahler, Schnittke tackles life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil, freedom-against-tyranny, and (especially in the concertos), I-against-the-world...even this composer's misfires are appealing in their way, because they arise out of something rare and suspect in the reticent and conflicted West, namely moral commitment. Long oppressed by an ideological dictatorship, Schnittke...has emerged as an upholder of what another Russian critic calls 'eternal moral categories'- just what progressive humanists, in countries where artists risk nothing more than public indifference or the withholding of largesse, are apt to denounce as the sheep's clothing of complacency or worse.

"Like Shostakovich - like Solzhenitsyn, for that matter - he has earned the right to preach to us. The appeal of his music lies less often in our response to its sound patterns than in our sense of the composer's moral and political plight (and the fragility of his life, if we know about his recent strokes and heart attacks)..."

Reprinted with permission of Performing Arts, Los Angeles, California.


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