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Description by Seth Brodsky

Alfred Schnittke's Third String Quartet from 1983 is already one of the most performed
works in the post-1945 repertory. This may be due on the one hand to Schnittke's
considerable reputation, and perhaps also to the Quartet's use of older, more recognizable
musical models. But the work's popularity may also be a result of its enormous concentration.
It is one of those remarkable works that perfectly synthesizes form and content, ends and
means, and in doing so rightfully earns the mantle "classic."
This achievement is particularly notable with a composer like Schnittke, so justifiably known
for his "anti-classical" or "polystylistic" approach; most of Schnittke's works, this one
included, depend on shattering classical norms of balance, purity, and wholeness for a
multiplicity of styles. Schnittke's Third Quartet shatters all three within its first minute. We
hear only broken pieces from other times and other works -- first from Orlando de Lassus's
Stabat Mater (later 1500's), then from Beethoven's Grosse Fuge for String Quartet, Op. 133
(1825), and finally from Dmitri Shostakovich's famous "musical signature" D-E flat-C-B (in
German notation D-S-C-H, hence D. SCHostakovich), first used in Shostakovich's Fifth
String Quartet of 1952. Schnittke takes these three musical modules, from disparate
traditions traversing half a millennium, and puts them directly after one another, only to have
the whole thread snap and fall to the ground.
Hardly "balanced, pure, and whole." And yet what Schnittke does with this historical flotsam
is not only expressive, but extraordinarily resourceful, intricate, and interrelated;
indeed, Schnittke eventually reveals that the Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich cells
are motivically intertwined, one yielding to another through fluid transformations, "developing
variations." If this approach is reminiscent of Brahms, Schnittke's motivic concentration
throughout the remainder of the Quartet is Beethovenian. In the "Agitato" second movement
in particular, almost every note, figure, and expressive gesture is derived from the main
motives and thus tied to the whole movement and the entire Quartet. And even as this
"Agitato" hurls itself inevitably toward catastrophe, it follows a strict sonata-form plan of ABA
(exposition of material-development-return of exposition). In its structure, compression, and
expressive but controlled violence, this movement offers a striking chamber-music foil to the
opening "Allegro con brio" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Likewise, the funereal "Pesante"
last movement returns to and develops the motley shards of the first movement into a single
lachrymose plaint, bringing the whole Quartet to a culmination and closure. So the whole
Quartet mirrors its middle movement's ABA-form.
And yet what makes Schnittke's Third Quartet most remarkable is not this "classicism," but
rather this "classicism despite itself." For while the Quartet holds itself together so tightly, it
also achieves the expressive opposite: its emotional world is constantly falling apart, by turns
confused, manic, hysterical, depressed, bitter, and utterly despairing. And though the Quartet
is so motivically unified and closed, at the same time it is referentially wide open, embracing
an overwhelming number of musical and extra-musical sources, including the entire string
quartet tradition (from Franz Josef Haydn to Beethoven to Alban Berg and Bla Bartk)
and the idea of the string quartet as artistic confession (for at the time of their respectively
quoted quartets, Beethoven and Shostakovich were both consummately isolated creators,
one through deafness and the other through political dissidence).
Above all, though, Schnittke's Third Quartet astounds though the unresolved tension of
these opposites, the passage of great art into wreckage, back into great art. A work of such
effective contradiction deserves the contradictory label "Classic Polystylism."
Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican
Hall, London, 17 February 8 March 1990
Andante : Agitato : Pesante
The striking juxtapositions of disparate material to be found in the music of Alfred Schnittke
frequently have a quality of bathos and irony, and the intention of incorporating past styles within
a musical language of the present. But what is to be made of the particularly bold choice of
quotations which open the Third String Quartet, including within the first eight bars a phrase
from a Stabat Mater by Lassus, the theme of Beethovens Grosse Fuge, and the personal musical
monogram of Dmitri Shostakovich, DSCH?
The reference to Shostakovich, and in particular the DSCH idea, provides a clue. In his Eighth
Quartet, for example, it not only forms the motivic substance for much of the work, but can also
be identified with themes from other works by the same composer. Similarly, Schnittkes
quotations, although in one sense symbolic of two past masters of the string quartet idiom, are
carefully chosen for their motivic correlation the DSCH motive being no more than a
transposition of the first four notes of the Beethoven. From this kind of musical wit grows an
opposition between the contemporary world they represent and the diatonic world of Lassus, then
the consequent synthesis of the two, which is achieved in the third movement as the turn figure of
the opening tonal cadence is progressively incorporated into the chromatic language of the
Once these basic themes have been identified, the overall structure explains itself on a descriptive
level. Schnittke characteristically interrelates separate movements by shared material, and the
saturation of the texture by these three elements makes the Third Quartet a model for this kind of
activity. Within this thematic unity there are allusions to a number of different historical musics,
from the points of canonic imitation in the first movement to the nineteenth century WaltzScherzo of the second. At the same time, the opening cadence by Lassus returns in its original
form at important junctures throughout the piece, like a punctuation mark containing the overall
diversity of style.
Like many of Schnittke's roughly 250 compositions, his four string quartets reflect the influence of other
composers. At times they also seem to obey the composer's dictum of "acting as though [conventional musical
systems] do not exist". Such a compositional approach allows him effectively to subvert both the grip which
other styles can exert on a free-thinking composer; and paradoxically to embrace a multitude of
compositional genres and techniques his famed "polystylism".
In the first movement, the first moments indeed, of the third quartet (the order on these CDs is 3, 1, 2, 4) from
1983 we identify Beethoven, Lassus and Shostakovich. This is no pastiche, of course. Rather the result of a true
process of reflection and refinement. But it needs a sensitive ensemble to respect the delicacy of the amalgam.
The Canadian Molinaris have just that sensitivity. Specialists in contemporary repertoire (the earliest composer
whom they routinely perform is Ravel), their style nicely balances tentativeness (as the opposite of bluster, or
bombast; but lacking nothing in confidence and commitment) with assertiveness and an ability to adapt to the
twists and turns which Schnittke makes in these enigmatic, though very beautiful, quartets.
For every dissonant passage there is a harmonically grounded one; for every race a slumber. Significantly, for
every reflection of the past, Schnittke also looks into the future. Into a future, indeed, as bleak and hopeless of
anything the other great twentieth century writer in the medium, Shostakovich, ever achieved. Though
Schnittke's style is, if anything, even harsher. Certainly more fragmented. The second movement, the Canon,
of the first quartet [CD.1 tr.5], which dates from the mid 1960s, is a good example. Cleanly dodecaphonic and
peppered with what we now call "extended techniques", it picks up the lessons of the second Viennese school
and its heirs and most certainly makes them Schnittke's own. The persistent melodic disjoints owe more to
Bartk than to the great spirit of experimentation that was abroad in 1967 when the work was first performed.
The Molinaris have the right blend of caution and respect for wherever Schnittke wants to lead the listener.
They also convey with certainty the structure and the outcome, without which the three movements played
continuously must have in order to make any sense at all.
The second quartet dates from 1980 and is the reaction to the death of Schnittke's friend, the filmmaker Larissa
Efimovna Chepitko. It is redolent, both in the alternation of slow-fast movements and extreme dynamics as well
as in the melodic material, of a liturgical funeral piece. It's perhaps the most striking of the four quartets at first
hearing. The Quatuor Molinari, though, have so well absorbed its idiom and import and so deeply understood its
need to keep moving, to occupy a position perfectly poised between reflection, allusion and strident novelty
that their performance bears repeated listening in ways that would not be possible had they accentuated
merely the potential for shock and the spectacle that also exists in many passages of this quartet.
The fourth quartet on the second CD along with the Canon in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky is almost twice as long
at 38 minutes as the other three, each around 20 minutes. It's in five substantial movements, contrapuntal in
flavor and slow in mood (no fewer than three of the five are actually marked lento). It's as lyrical as Berg was
and energetic as was Webern. In many ways it sums up Schnittke's excursions in the medium. And into the
worlds in which he lived with his poor health and despair at the brutality and ignorance which humans seem
intent on practicing. The Molinari players have a majestic command of Schnittke's use of strings, his tortured
melodic structure and sense of imminent doom. Without overplaying the place of the fourth quartet as a
summation of what he had previously written, they nevertheless make a very compelling case for this work, full
of pity and loss, as typifying the best of Schnittke.
This is a highly successful pair of CDs then. The liner notes are to the point and informative. The acoustic is
close and helpful without being clinging. Technically the Molinari's playing is a good combination of the
spontaneous and the obviously accomplished listen to the quadruple pianos at the end of the second [CD.1.
tr.10], for instance. No collector either of Schnittke or indeed of the twentieth century chamber music
repertoire should let it bypass them. Both the Kronos (on Nonesuch 79500) and Tale (on BIS 467) have
recorded cycles; although the latter lacks the fourth: the Alban Berg String Quartet (on EMI 54660, paired with
Rihm's fourth) can be considered. The Quatuor Molinari have winning performances, full of depth, insight and a
real understanding of Schnittke's emotional compass without for a moment descending into self-pity or false
defiance. They truly do play Schnittke's most intimate and to be coveted music as though few other
conventions exist. Surely what the composer would have wanted.
Copyright 2011, Mark Sealey.

Connoisseur of Chaos: Schnittke

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-sicle, 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
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 awayall 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-desicle, but Schnittke has overheard the paradoxes as well as the clichs 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 satirealthough 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 concerthalls. In place of the monumental Fifth Symphony, it is the willfully chaotic Fourth
hidden for decades in the Shostakovich's desk-drawerthat 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 Fourthoften 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"
workcame 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 Louri, 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 Prtmusic 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 paperand
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 abruptlythe 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 "antimusic," 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 selfdeconstruction. 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
compositionapparently even with the private blessing of Tikhon Khrennikov, longtime 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 selfabasement.
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 twentiethcentury 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
desschs. 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
stagethe 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 itselfwhat 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 unsymphonies, 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 twomovement 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 timbrean 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 Prt, 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 soundnoises 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 selfdetonationparticularly 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
meansthe 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 Uniona decade after Schnittke's own, rather spooky prophecy of it in the
seventiesevidently has not moved him to celebration. He now lives in Hamburg,
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 videoElem 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 abyssa 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 nchtern 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 existAdrian
Leverkhn, the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann's novel Doctor
Faustus. Schnittke's Faust cantata employs the same 1587 German text that was used
in Leverkhn's final composition, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus. Schnittke's
methodology of parody, of polystylistics and playing with forms, also unmistakably
recalls Leverkhn, 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 Leverkhn'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 jazzlike 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 Leverkhn,
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 recordnot 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 Leverkhn, twentieth-century music has an aspect of
the "highbrow swindle" about it. Schnittke has dropped the pretense of the total, selfcontained 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.
The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russias most outstanding
composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his
music, focussing on works that were included in the Barbicans Seeking the Soul festival, in January
2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on
cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isnt too bad
Schnittkes String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled
with melodic intentions, the quartets gestures all concerned with making something from small
fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovichs
D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the
individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an
emotionally neutral term as Andante suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the
movement, made yet more telling through Schnittkes frequent rendering of the players in the guise of
a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring,
although its lost within moments; despite being labelled Agitato, no little time is spent occupied with
dark, brooding material. This jaunty opening is pulled into a thousand new forms, showing off
Schnittkes superb ability to vary and re-work existing music. It gives the movement a distinct air of
obsession, as though Schnittke was unable to let go of this scrap of melody, endlessly turning it over
and around, gazing at it from every possible angle. The final movement (Pesante) starts in laboured
fashion, the quartet lurching forward under its own weight. An overt return of the Lasso quotation feels
horribly false (laboured in a different sense); far from bestowing any momentum or lightness of mood,
it only seems to trigger the works unravelling. It plunges into a funereal furrow, from which pizzicato
notes are projected like nervous tics, exerts a brief sense of unified desperation, before giving up the
His String Quartet No. 2, composed a few years earlier in 1980, is a work just as anguished in
character. Indeed, its short first movement (Moderato) is like the worlds slowest, most tortured
fanfare, laden with dissonances, exacerbated with quartertones. The second movement (Agitato)
couldnt be more different, its fabric initially created from continuous, extremely rapid arpeggios,
punctuated with moments of dense counterpoint. A myriad trills follow, suggesting the movement is all
about texture, whereupon a melodyshivering, and more than a little grotesque due to the trillsis
heard, ushering in a more determinedly melodic episode. These discrete types of material are then
thrown together into a dervish like coda, concluding in the manner it began, at an
impossible fortissississimo. Sadness sweeps across the quartet in the penultimate movement (Mesto).
Po-faced and recalcitrant, the players almost stubbornly express themselves in a stolid, homogenous
mass, using only crotchets and quavers. Despite what motion there is, pedal notes in the cello keep
the material from sounding as though its going anywhere; its among Schnittkes darkest music, like a
plainsong for the end of the world. It takes a turn for the nightmarish as both violins launch themselves
into melodies that leap up and down almost madly, yet still the cello (and now the viola too) keep the
music firmly grounded. Massive repeated downbows, like a formalised screaming, end up consuming
the quartet, which collapses from the strain onto a unison C quarter-sharp, segueing into the final
movement. Schnittke marks it Moderato, but almost anything would sound moderate after such a
devastating display as the preceding movement. This, however, is moderation in extremis, the quartet
muted and reduced to pppp, the simple melody theyre trying to convey having all the power of an
asthmatic accordion. Schnittke takes off the muzzle for the final few minutes, triggering memories of
the opening of the piece, and, ultimately, a descent into an even more dynamically threadbare realm,
the music evaporating out of
Schnittkes Piano
Quintet dates
from 1976. Schnittke began work
on the piece four years earlier, as
a response to the death of his
mother, and a sense of grief
overshadows the first movement,
marked with a plain Moderato
(Schnittke never gives anything
away with his markings). The piano begins alone, making halting attempts at something melodic,
seemingly uncertain about which ideas to pursue. When the strings enter, they take up the pianos
initial melody, but hovering at the fringes, only gradually growing in loudness. The piano, momentarily

disoriented, regresses into something infinitely darker and more ominous: a repeated high G-sharp
underpinned by deep sustained notes; it ultimately overwhelms the quartet, which retreats, leaving it to
continue alone, endlessly repeating even beyond the point of audibility (Schnittke indicates the final
two bars to be Silent playing, only the sound of the pressed keys should be heard). The strings offer
an excruciating coda, the melody now contorted into a claustrophobic cluster, concluded with a final
ambiguous phrase from the piano. The following movement adopts the manner of a waltz, although its
light, rhythmic lilt quickly becomes stodgy and uncomfortable. Theres a playfulness in the strings;
although they initiate the waltz idea, theyre quick to assume a subservient role, imitating the pianos
material with a mindless keenness for canons that results in horrendous harmonic clashes. Its a truly
absurd waltz, blurred in all directions: vertically by trills and quartertones, horizontally by crossrhythms. and yet, theres a strange, dogged determination to keep up the charade, and thus the music
painfully continues, ultimately wearing as thin as the exercise itself. The opening melodic ideas return
for the central movement (Andante), and the strings perpetuate their penchant for incessant imitation,
although now, with a more individual rhythmic identity. They begin a plaintive counterpoint, but
subserviant once againimmediately pause on the entrance of the piano, opting for stasis whenever it
appears. They momentarily assert themselves, and the piano returns to its compulsive note repetitions
heard in the first movement. Now, the strings find their voice, and what they unleash is heart-rending,
the melody now keening and wailing above the ostensibly unmoved piano, which this time concludes
by audibly banging the sustain pedal once the actual notes have ceased. This psychologicallyunhinged quality continues into the fourth movement (Lento), the strings beginning almost wraith-like.
Before long, the music falls apart into motivic fragments; the remainder of the movement is an attempt
to put things back together again. As the ensemble becomes more unified, the effort to lay down a
clear, coherent pulse becomes farcical (bringing to mind the waltz from earlier), the piano literally
hammering out its crotchetsironically, all on the off-beatlike a madman. It segues into the final
movement, both the title (Moderato pastorale) and initial material of which seems to evoke the last
movement of Beethovens Sixth Symphony. For a time, the pianos (seemingly senseless) diatonicism
is overrun by the chromatics from earlier, but eventually, its the simple, bucolic melody that remains,
infinitely repeating, once again passing beyond the audible, the final phrase marked soundless.