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"I am not a Russian, though Russian is my mother tongue - even if my mother spoke German better than she did Russian. But my real mother tongue was the half-forgotten and half corrupt German of the Volga Germans. And then I had another problem: I am half Jewish, hut never learned to speak Yiddish at all. And so I belong to nobody - not to the Russians, nor to any of the various German offshoots, nor to the Jews. I have no country, I have no place, and that tormented me lor years. I at last found peace when I came to understand that there is no reed solution; the situation cannot be changed. Wherever I emigrated, I would lake all my problems with me."
For a citizen of the Soviet Union, the personal problem of diffuse identity that Alfred Schnittke was able to discuss openly in his mature years was even more of a political problem. At least from 1974. when his Symphony no. 1 was premiered in the provincial capital of Gorky (then inaccessible to foreigners and today again called Nizhny Novgorod), Schnittke's music was a constant source of irritation to the Arts Board. But even in the period following World War II, his German and Jewish blood made him the subject of more or less subtle repressive measures: his works were deleted from concert programmes, state commissions failed to come his way and he was refused permission to publish or leave the country. Schnittke learned to live with this paradoxical situation and with his own. rebellious inner voice; his rich oeuvre is a complex reflection of the inner turmoil in which Soviet composers typically lived.
Schnittke (in English transliteration, Shnitke) was born on November 24, 1934 in Engels, then the capital of the "Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic" (the central Russian oblast today called Saratov). His mother was from one of the Volga German communities created along the Volga in the eighteenth century by Empress Catherine the Great, who was German-born. Schnittke's father, a journalist and translator, was born to Latvian Jewish parents in Frankfurt am Main. Shortly after the war, the family spent three years in the Russian zone of Vienna, where Schnittke's father worked for a Soviet German-language newspaper. It was during that time that the young Schnittke first became fully aware of the enormous gap between his roots in central Europe and life at home in Russia. The family moved to Moscow in 1948 and Schnittke studied at the Conservatory, where he stayed to teach instrumentation until 1972.
His instrumental works seemed too unwieldy and risky for the functionaries of the Arts Board, so that he never became professor of composition. He earned a living chiefly by writing film and incidental music - domains into which unwanted modern composers in the Soviet Union were typically forced to retreat.
However, the "thaw" after Stalin's death gave Schnittke a way (albeit unofficial) to keep in touch with the scores and techniques of the western avant-garde.
Works like the first sonata for violin and piano of 1963, which he dedicated to his violinist friend Mark Lubotsky and transformed five years later into the Sonata for violin and chamber orchestra, marked Schnittke's transition from the style of "modern" composers like Bartok and Shostakovich, who had the Soviet seal of approval, to a more advanced tonal language. ..It is a tonal world with atonal excursions but using quite traditional methods in the construction of its themes"…
The expressive solo opening in the violin is actually based on a twelve-note series, from which Schnittke derives new, tonally utilizable chordal constellations in each of the four movements: diminished and augmented triads in the first, minor chords in the second, major triads in the third and a synthesis of all species of chords in the final movement. The influence of Shostakovich is particularly apparent in the second movement, an energetic scherzo into which a grotesque waltz intrudes. The echoes of indigenous dance tunes - and the almost literal quotation of the popular hit La cucaracha in the final movement - seem to carry the doctrine of cosy-folksy "Socialist Realism" to absurd lengths. But the heart of the work is the third Largo movement, an extensive, yearning song on the violin evolving from the major chords of the accompaniment and creating large arches of mounting tension.
In orchestrating the sonata, Schnittke added a harpsichord to the string ensemble; the instrument introduces strangely unreal, Baroque echoes into the essentially expressive tone of the work. It is the first evidence of the fusion of musical eras and involvement with tradition that were soon to become a stylistic principle for Schnittke.
When the pure doctrine of the western avant-garde entered a crisis in the late sixties, the musical world was provoked and fascinated by Schnittke's "impure" techniques, which he himself termed a "polystylistic approach", comprising collages made up of quotations and allusions, subtle plays on common speech patterns from the past and the present, a polyphony of meanings and commentaries within a work.
The key work of this fusion of old and new, serious and trivial music was the first symphony, which Schnittke variously called "Not a Symphony" and "Antisymphony" The intention of not excluding or suppressing any element of our musical culture, in reaction to what Soviet dogmatists daily tried to do, makes Schnittke's polystylistic approach seem like a rejection of the notion of musical progress commonly expressed in the West into the 1970s.
Of course, what distinguished Schnittke's approach from the quote-happy arbitrariness of the post-modernists was the tone of intense mourning, the uncanny sense of the apocalyptic and nightmare-like which pervades most of his works.
In addition to the grim collage of the first symphony (later to be followed by eight others), in the early seventies Schnittke also composed more conciliatory stylistic adaptations which are not so far away from the "music in the old style" popular around 1900. In the Suite in the old style, which Schnittke wrote for violin and piano (or harpsichord) in 1972, one is reminded less of the polystylistic destructive power of his "Antisymphony" than of the untroubled Baroque exercises of composers like Max Reger and Richard Strauss, particularly in the version for chamber orchestra by Spivakov and Milman (1991).
The gentle siciliana of the Pastorale is followed by the echoes of a lively pas de deux (Ballet) and a nostalgic Minuet. The fugue is characterized by kinetic energy and the Pantomime by a march-like crescendo. This Baroque idyll is discreetly called in question only by the undecided harmony at the end of the suite.
The collision of various styles and eras is more multiplex and ambiguous in the Piano Concerto with string orchestra Schnittke composed for the pianist Vladimir Krainiev in 1979 - an extremely productive year in which he wrote his Symphony no. 2 "Sl Florian" (referring to Anton Bruckner) and many smaller works. The past is conjured up directly in the solo piano introduction, which suggests bygone times Schumann perhaps, or Chopin or Beethoven. And who would not be prompted by the rocking thirds to think of the "Moonlight Sonata", which Shostakovich had already quoted in his last work, the viola sonata? But the happy mood does not last long. A throbbing motif gains the upper hand and the full string writing introduces a maestoso chant reminiscent of the Orthodox Church.
The toccata (Allegro) seems to announce a cataclysm, using dissonant clusters, glissandos, microtones and an improvisatory jazz episode with walking bass that Schnittke called a .,blues nightmare". The composer has himself described the rest: "There follow the slowly growing cadenza and the genuine climax, in which everything - unable to create equilibrium between sunshine and storm clouds - at last explodes into a thousand pieces ... The coda consists of fantastically gentle recollections of all that has gone before. Fresh uncertainty intrudes only at the end - but it is perhaps not without hope?"
Works like the piano concerto, with its almost incomprehensible mixture of virtuosic brilliance and existential musical speech, rocketed Schnittke to fame in the late seventies; the major Western festivals were soon featuring his symphonies, orchestral pieces and chamber works. After being granted German citizenship in 1990, he lived in Hamburg, where he became professor of composition at the Musikhochschule. He exhibited a unique talent for the stage in operas like the grotesque Life with an Idiot (Amsterdam, 1992) and the Historia von D. Johann Fausten (Hamburg. 1995).
His new-found fame and the flood of commissions naturally brought their share of nervous strain with them. In the night of July 22. 1985 Schnittke had suffered the first of a succession of serious strokes.
"I was unconscious for twenty days and was 'there' three times - if one may euphemize clinical death in that way."
Schnittke's involvement with the meaning of life and death and with God and the Devil deepened in the final years of his life, which were marked by further breakdowns. One of his last works, the Funf Fragmente auf Bilder von Hieronymus Bosch (five fragments on paintings by Hieronymus Bosch) composed in 1994, uses paintings by the Netherlandish painter to reflect on the question of earthly sin and heavenly redemption. Schnittke had discovered in Wilhelm Fraenger's book on Hieronymus Bosch certain quotations which the art scholar connects with Bosch's pictures. They include one from Aeschylus's Song of Aphrodite, which Fraenger connects with the left wing of the famous triptych The Garden of Delights in the Prado in Madrid, and a text by Nicolaus Reusner, which he connects with the "Resurrection frog" in Bosch's Wedding at Cana.
The third and fifth Fragments feature texts sung by a tenor, while the others use only instruments, sometimes in unusual ways. In the first Fragment, a solo trombone represents the voice of one crying in the wilderness or proclaiming the Last Judgement, the second uses the conciliatory brilliance of a solo violin, while the fourth uses the whole chamber orchestra to reflect on the painter's grotesque and apocalyptic visions.
Considerably debilitated by two more strokes, Alfred Schnittke was seldom able to attend the premieres of his late works and finally incapable of writing without assistance. He died in the Hamburg University Clinic on August 3, 1998 at the age of 63.
- Michael Struk-Schloen