I first became aware of the music of Alfred Schnittke when I was living in Los Angeles and attending regularly the subscription series of concerts given by the Kronos Quartet at UCLA. The first of these series I attended covered the first three of Schnittke's string quartets; and, since there did not appear to be any budget for program notes, my initial exposure to Schnittke, the first of the quartets, left me completely in the dark, probably frustrated as much as I was mystified. Having the second quartet as my second dose did not improve the situation. It was only by persevering until I heard the third quartet that things began to make sense.
By this time I knew that Schnittke was Russian and that Dmitri Shostakovich had been a major influence on his work. This was a time when we were beginning to appreciate the strain that Shostakovich had endured in his efforts to survive as a composer in the Soviet Union. There was even a play based on a fictitious meeting that Joseph Stalin called with both Shostakovich and Serge Prokofiev, basically to let them know, on no uncertain terms, that his self-perceived obligations to the legacy of the Russian Revolution were far more important than any of their attempts to be "revolutionary" in artistic creativity, since in the interests of the proletariat, such activities were fundamentally elitist (to invoke an adjective being used rather heavily right now). This play provided a good way to set the context for why I had suggested that Shostakovich's fifth symphony (now generally regarded as one of the "great hits" of the twentieth-century symphonic repertoire) was best "viewed through the lens of a pious acknowledgement of authority" and why Shostakovich's surface-level piety was actually "invoking irony in ways that would elude the perceptions of more superficial listeners" (such as Stalin).
It is likely that by 1983, when Schnittke composed his third quartet, he was aware of what Shostakovich had endured. His studies at the Moscow Conservatory must have included a "Soviet-approved" version of history, which included the notorious description of the Shostakovich fifth as "a Soviet artist's reply to just criticism." Whether or not Schnittke ever had (or took) the opportunity to read James Joyce, he very likely shared with Stephen Dedalus (in the "Nestor" episode of Ulysses) the conviction that history "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." If Shostakovich tried to deal with his personal nightmare of political history through irony, Schnittke seems to have turned to metaphor by taking on the authority of music history imposed by both his training and subsequent teaching responsibilities. On this "playing field" he could more easily get away with ridicule as an alternative to Shostakovich's cryptic ironies.
We see one of the earliest examples of Schnittke's strategy in his first violin sonata, composed in 1963. This was an effort to work with the twelve-tone system technique of Arnold Schoenberg; but he called the result "a tonal world with atonal means." It was also a reflection of Shostakovich's thinly-veiled flirtations with popular music, particularly when, in the final movement of this sonata, he managed to twist his twelve-tone row around to reveal a principle theme that is basically "La Cucaracha," thus ridiculing the historical burdens of both the Soviet system and the Western obsession with Schoenberg's legacy.
This sonata can be heard as a bit of muscle-flexing in preparation for his 1972 "Suite in the Old Style, for violin and piano or harpsichord." This begins, innocently enough, as "a pious acknowledgement" of the authority that the study of music still assigns of seventeenth-century practices; but, as Schnittke leads us through his five movements, it becomes clear that he is more interested in showing us how frayed the fabric of that authority has become. His sense of ridicule thus progresses from subtle to blatant without ever wallowing in anger.
By the time of the third quartet, he is more favorably inclined towards history while still guarding against history-worship. On the very first page of the score, he introduces three statements that pretty much span music history as it is currently studied:
- A cadential phrase from a "Stabat Mater" by Orlando di Lasso
- The principle fugue subject from Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 133
- Shostakovich's "signature" motif, DSCH (D, E flat, C, B)
These three seeds cultivate each other, sprouting tendrils that weave among each other for the (trying to swim?) in Richard Wagner's leitmotif for the Rhine River. History may still be a nightmare, but it can be endured if one applies the right level of surrealistic humor.
Unfortunately, Schnittke suffered a stroke in 1985 that not only sent him into a coma but also led to his being declared clinically dead several times before his recovery. However, he was never in good health after that recovery; and this may have influenced his outlook on history. Thus, in 1988 he composed a piano quartet whose first movement was a very early (1877) sonata movement by Gustav Mahler (whose later years were also plagued by bad health) and whose second scherzo movement was thoroughly Schnittke at his most aggressive approach to late-twentieth-century idioms. The few sketches Mahler had left for the scherzo are in among those idioms; but it is unclear whether they are a nightmare of history, an invocation of the Sehnsucht found in so much of Mahler's music, or a combination of the two.
Certainly, as Schnittke's health deteriorated with his age, his humor deteriorated along with it. During my time in Singapore I remember hearing that one of his last symphonies was so intense that, when it was performed by the New York Philharmonic, conductor Kurt Masur strongly suggested that the concert was unsuitable for children.
I do not come across many reports of performances of Schnittke these days. Several years ago, on one of his visits to the San Francisco Symphony, Masur conducted a truly gripping performance of his second concerto for cello from that final period of his life. I also had the opportunity to hear one violin recital that included the first sonata; and, while I can no longer remember the soloist, I do remember that he took the time to provide the audience with some background (including the "Cucaracha" reference) before beginning the performance. Since August will be the tenth anniversary of Schnittke's death, one would think this would be a good time to hear this music; but, at least here in San Francisco, I seem to be the only one with that idea!