Dialogue Between the Past and the Present

Presented by Richard Kisling at “Thanksgiving and Remembrance: Commemorating German-Russian Victims of Genocide”, July 9, 2004 American Historical Society of Germans from Russia
35th International Convention, Modesto California

Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934 in the city of Engels.

He was a prolific composer, and produced an enormous catalogue of works.

His musical style, while completely at home in the 20th Century because of his training, was firmly grounded in more traditional concert music.

He was not celebrity performer, and his work is largely unknown to German Russians in North America. However, if one follows concert music — even a little — it sometimes seems that Schnittke’s music is being performed almost everywhere around the world.

Alfred Schnittke’s mother was Maria Vogel, whose people were from the Bergseite Roman Catholic village of Kamenka, in the Volga region. Maria left the village and moved to Engels, to take advantage of educational and vocational opportunities in the capitol city of the Volga German Republic. There, she became active in the leadership of the youth organization the “Young Pioneers” and later she became a German teacher, and then proofreader at Nachrichten, the official newspaper of the Republic. Nachrichten stopped publication in August, 1941, but after the war, when the central German-language newspaper, Neues Leben, began publication in Moscow in 1956, Maria Vogel was selected to serve on the editorial staff. She was the only ethnic German to be chosen. Maria Vogel died in Moscow in 1972.

Alfred’s father was Harry Schnittke. Harry’s people were German-speaking Lithuanian Jews, who permanently lived in the Soviet Union after 1927. Family members were involved with publishing and writing. Harry Schnittke’s mother, Thea, edited German-language books for the publishing house “Progress” in Moscow; his younger son Victor (Alfred’s brother) was an accomplished translator and poet. Harry Schnittke met Maria Vogel when they both worked in the newspaper offices of Nachrichten in Engels.

Alfred Schnittke, then, was born into this German-speaking household. Alfred always considered Volga German dialect his mother tongue, and in fact, as an adult, when he visited German relatives in Kazakhstan, he was surprised to learn that they spoke only Russian. The Schnittkes, however, were not deported along with the rest of the Germans in 1941, because they could show Jewish ethnicity.

After the war, Alfred studied and then taught at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, and he spent most of his adult life in Moscow. He was held hostage for many years by the Soviet musical establishment. Even though his music became so popular that some concerts of his music were mobbed like sporting events, his first visit to the West to attend a premiere of one his works came only about 20 years into his career, in 1977. After 1985, during the Gorbachev era, Schnittke had easier contact with musicians in the West, and he was able to attend more and more premieres of his works in Europe and in North America, where his work was becoming increasingly popular. After 1989, he lived in Germany. He died in Hamburg Germany 9 years later in 1998.

Schnittke’s Output is Prodigious: he wrote a total of sixty-six film scores, 9 large symphonies and numerous other orchestral works, concertos for solo instruments and for ensembles of instruments, chamber music for many familiar and unusual combinations of instruments, piano music, choral music, much of which is religious, art songs, operas, incidental music for plays, occasional pieces and so on. It is a huge catalogue.

His publisher, Sikorski, attributes Schnittke’s popularity to the fact that he was not an avant-gardist. In fact, everything he wrote was thoroughly grounded in the past, but it was always original… and typically Schnittke.

1 He wrote in traditional forms like sonatas and concertos, but he filled these forms with new content.

2 He wrote for traditional instruments such as violin, piano, and so on, but he made unusual demands on the performers.

3 His music is highly emotional like older music, but emotional in a way that reflects 20th Century experience. Considering the stifling repression in the Soviet Union, and the uncertainty and anxiety experienced everywhere during the post-war era, it should not be surprising to discover that “terror, threats, dread, mourning… are part and parcel of the music” of this great composer.

4 Music lovers will certainly hear some of Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler in his music; casual listeners may experience it much like film music.

Schnittke is best known for the way in which he sets different historical musical styles side-by-side, and then allows them to interact. His publisher Sikorski says that “Decisive for Schnittke is that the music of the past, quoted or evoked in many of his works, should be constantly confronted with the musical language of the present. The important thing here is the dialogue between the past and the present, as Schnittke experienced it.”

This dialogue is often expressed in the music by allusions to the music of earlier centuries. “Do I know that music?” the listener might ask, upon hearing something that resembles a recognizable chorale or march or dance tune. This experience repeats several times, and each iteration of the “old” style expresses homage to that earlier music. These evocations of memory are embellished, interrupted and often overwhelmed by Schnittke’s own 20th Century material. The result? Both styles of music can be heard in a new context, and these layers of associations, suggestions and interpolations become subtle and powerful expression that probes deeply into the listener’s emotions and psyche.

Just how popular is Schnittke’s music? A simple internet search reveals dozens of performances since the turn of the century, and these are taking place in every region in North America:

1 Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington;
2 Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Houston;
3 Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver;
4 Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Most of these performances are by major arts institutions, such as symphony orchestras, where as many as 10,000 concert-goers might attend a series of concerts.

The same is true for European music centers. The Gewandthaus in Leipzig, Germany, for example, will feature 5 significant Schnittke performances in the 12-month period that began in May, 2004.

For hundreds of thousands of concert-goers around the world, Alfred Schnittke’s biography in the printed program notes is their only source of information about German Russians.

This evening we will hear 3 very short piano pieces, which date from 1990, late in Schnittke’s life, when he composed with fewer and fewer notes, but at an ever-loftier spiritual level. These are 3 movements from Five Aphorisms for solo piano.

In the first, Lento, tone clusters — chords with all the notes filled in — make the piano growl, but these passages are alternated with freely melodic, almost vocal sections.

In the second, Senza tempo, carefully constructed chords are allowed to sound for extended periods of time, and are only barely interrupted by the merest tendrils of melody.

The third piece, Grave, comes close to expressing Schnittke’s dialogue between the past and the present, but in this case he uses just a single tune alternately dressing it in traditional and in 20th Century clothing. I would like to point your attention to the eight iterations of the opening melody, each of them handled in a different manner.

One of the most striking compositional techniques in these pieces is the use of 2-octave tone clusters. These clusters require the performer to play a 2-octave span, but fill in as many notes as possible. They occur only twice, but the effect — as you will see — is dramatic.

These pieces originally were written to be performed, as we are doing this evening, with poetry read between the movements.

Alfred Schnittke was born 1934 in Engels, the capitol city of the Volga German Republic; his mother was Volga German, his father was from a family of Lithuanian Jews.

He produced a huge catalogue of works.

His music is best known for the way in which he creates interaction between old and new musical styles in his compositions.

His music is being performed almost everywhere. Including, this evening, Modesto, California.

I hope you enjoy hearing a few moments of the music of Alfred Schnittke this evening.

References Consulted
Constantin Floros’ biographical essay about Schnittke on the Musikverlag Hans Sikorski webpage, 2003
Alexander Ivashkin, Alfred Schnittke, London, England: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996
Alexander Ivashkin, editor, A Schnittke Reader, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller