World Premiere Recordings
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, orchestra
Tadaaki Otaka, conductor
Symphony No. 6
Life and work come together in a particularly disturbing way in Alfred Schnittke's Sixth Symphony. Schnittke wrote the work in 1992, after sustained his second major stroke; he suffered his first in 1985, would suffer another in 1994, and, eventually, a fourth in 1998 would take the composer's life. While Schnittke's debilitation was constant and cruel, his fortitude was more astonishing, and his post-1985 "late period" bore a tremendous spring of new music: 3 operas, 4 symphonies, 6 concerti, and many smaller works.
Platitudes abounded of Schnittke's "race against death," and surely Schnittke's last efforts, the Sixth among them, carry a certain heroic. But what renders these late works most poignant is their relationship to Schnittke's lifelong obsession-with evil, in all its deceitful and destructive mask-and his lifelong method-a direct, unremitting unveiling of that evil.
In works such as the Sixth Symphony, one hears the staggered notation of confessions and confrontations, a relentless "season in hell" unrelieved by even briefest repose. The formal has almost entirely disappeared, the structure feels splintered and shambled, every idea chokes itself into silence. Especially in the Sixth, Schnittke lives without the lyric line, that cumulative, tidal development which had been for centuries the life-support of the symphony; instead, every event begins anew at ground zero. The Sixth Symphony is the sound of Schnittke working in the dark, dammed and damned but equally unwavering.
The first movement, for example, begins with a single incisive chord that quickly spread, diffuses, and balloons in a hair-tearing haze. Every movement from the orchestra, often in groups of only one or two instruments, sounds its own arduous achievement and subsequent exhaustion. A confounding climax near movement's end quakes into muteness before looping back to the beginning. The remaining three movements-a wizened, clownish Presto, an Adagio of lachrymose shards, and an angry, blunt Allegro vivace-make many equal attempts, but remain steadfastly in a still, silent darkness.
This darkness has an incarnation in late Schnittke, in the figure of Faust-in many ways the mythic shadow of Schnittke's fascination and struggle with evil. Faust was for Schnittke a man doomed to irresolution, "at least an 'evil' Christian"; simultaneously, he was (perhaps like the composer) obsessed with acquiring knowledge, feeding an insatiable curiosity. His fable became for Schnittke a moral and aesthetic life-symbol, whether in the guise of Johann Spies's 1557 didactic tract "History of Dr. Johann Fausten, the Well-Known Magician" or Thomas Mann's 1946 novel Doktor Faustus, whose "Faustus" was fictional composer with a polystylistic, anarchic style.
At the Sixth Symphony's composition, Schnittke was indeed orchestrating the first two acts of his Faust opera, a work still uncompleted when the composer died. In many ways, however, the opera's myriad motives, colors, harmonies and gestures contaminate the Sixth; Symphony can be heard as a kind of instrumental fantasy upon the opera.
And yet, beneath the more deliberate "themes" of the Symphony lies a disquietingly direct experience of Schnittke's own difficulties. Schnittke once remarked that he wanted the Sixth to convey the sound of a struggle with concentration, a sonic transcript of mental confusion and fatigue-hence the countless grand pauses for full orchestra and the stuttering attempts to repeat even the homeliest musical ideas. In a strange way, this is the sound of "bad" music, the very stuff that bespeaks musical failure. But expression as direct as Schnittke's Sixth often has little to do with the well-made. It inhabits a second-level eloquence, that eloquence that comes from an almost complete lack of words.
- Seth Brodsky
Symphony No. 7
A similar awkwardness haunts Alfred Schnittke's last three symphonies (No. 6: 1992, No. 7: 1993, No. 8: 1994). It's a sonic landscape that feels unfinished, in both senses of the word-incomplete and unpolished. The raw and splintery commiserate with absent and obscure; things fall apart, or silent, before they begin; the orchestra, already teetering on the brink of nothing, flickers out like a dry kerosene lamp. Essentially, this ghostly symphonic triptych wanders and waits: its dimension is limbo, its sentence purgatorial.
That being said, Schnittke's Seventh is the "bright spot" of the three. Not that it's a happy work, nor an easy listen, but the Seventh is somewhat relieved by Schnittke's uncanny humor and weirdness. While the Sixth sorrows and the Eighth searches, the Seventh sets its specters free to graffiti the work with the unpredictable, the ungainly, and occasionally even the visionary.
The work is in three movements, though the middle movement is more an inexplicable intermezzo than an independent symphonic structure. The entire work opens with a 42-bar violin solo, both intensely lyrical and ungraceful. And while it leaves little room for the performer's suavity, its initial gesture-a pious ascending arpeggio which eventually sinks back to slumber-carries the rest of the Symphony on its back, providing the skeleton for even the most disparate motives of the next three movements.
This initial violin figure is reminiscent of the opening of Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony; it echoes that Brucknerian melodic shape, but also that Brucknerian naivete, a singular mixture of childlike, childish, and awesome. Schnittke indeed felt throughout his life a kinship with Bruckner, both being devout but tortured in their Catholicism, and confessional and direct in their music.
After the choral expansiveness of the Symphony's brief opening movement, the following movement comes as something of shock: it lumbers and cackles, moving only in blocky, single-dynamic cluster chords, or else strange marionette-like lines. Almost all in winds and brass, this alien music apparently contains musical monograms of German towns. At one point, this cumbersome ritual is smeared by an unaccountably violent timpani-eruption. Schnittke seems to be just as confused as us; we're all listeners, he seems to say, and the "composer" is somewhere else, sending us undecipherable telegrams.
The last movement, twice as long as the first two combined, breaks in with freakish wind clusters. The first real momentum we've yet heard, it soon breaks down into single, often unaccompanied lines; these "melodies" test the lyrical to the utmost, typically for late Schnittke (the main theme of this last movement covers more than three octaves in its first three notes!). Eventually, a choral theme breaks through on horns, explicitly Brucknerian in tone and contour. Stern and Teutonic, yet it still fails to go anywhere, or reveal its origins; its shape does suggest a cruel parody of the Symphony's opening violin solo. Things starts and stops and wear even thinner; lines become more angular and desiccated, the tone more desperate but also more tired.
After a brutal trial for violins alone come the Symphony's last minutes, as touching and "touched" as anything in Schnittke's whole output. First a little ditty for winds and trumpet, a poignantly fragile confection of weird beauty, echoing Prokofiev's ballet music. And then the Symphony's magical coda: the Brucknerian horn theme returns as dirge-like waltz, played on tuba, contrabassoon, and double bass respectively. As ugly as it is heartbreaking, it brings the whole sad parade to a close. It's the muddy pearl at the end of a barely coherent work, and does what Schnittke does best: make the black even blacker.
- Seth Brodsky