Alfred Schnittke’s World

This year Russian-German-Jewish composer Alfred Schnittke would have turned 80. To celebrate his birthday, Julliard’s 30th annual mid-winter festival FOCUS! 2014 presents six concerts of works by Schnittke and his circle of composers, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Valentin Silvestrov.


Alfred Schnittke’s World begins today and will continue until January 31. Extended techniques will give a glimpse at his world and how it is related to his compositional techniques.

In his essay About Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977), Schnittke disclosed the major goal of his creative path: “the aim of my life is to overcome the gap between “E” and “U” (Ernst – serious music and Unterhaltung – entertainment music), even if I have to break my neck. Schnittke wanted to find a “unified style where the fragments of “E” and “U” represent elements of diverse music space, instead of being merely facetious supplements.

The goal in itself was not unique, since many other composers in the 20th century combined several styles in their works; it was, however, less common to state the goal so explicitly. One of the reasons why Schnittke wanted to bridge the gap between serious and entertaining music, was his obligation (over the 20 years of his career) to compose what he called “applied music” and “pure music” simultaneously, since, living in the Soviet Union, he had to “divide his time between writing utilitarian film scores for livelihood and unperformable masterworks “for the drawer” (Richard Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically). In fact, the grounds for creation of a unified style go beyond the composer’s lifestyle, and it is worth looking at the origin of the means (his style and devices) and their pertinence for reaching the goal.

Timelessness (Polystilistics – all times at once)

One of the most enigmatic and intriguing views which Schnittke shared with the world, was his perception of time. He sensed that all the time periods may coexist simultaneously at any point of time, and that it was natural to travel between times:

… there is no absolute point in time. Any point in time is merely a logical abstraction.  In fact, it is, roughly speaking, a chord of points (moments) that embodies hours and days rather than a second… The way to capture this at once exists beyond the physical world. One can imagine a second that embraces everything – past and future. The whole world rolls up into one point. And then these countless times and places depart, diverge, and unroll. (Aleskandr Ivashkin, Conversations with Alfred Schnittke)

At first this idea may seem somewhat arcane; however, Schnittke found the way to simultaneously embrace many time periods beyond the physical world – in music, which for him was a “one-time chord.” Schnittke describes his vision of the universe beyond the “real (physical) world” in the following way:  in the “real world” time is a line consisting of points, i.e. it is only one-dimensional; in the “true world” time is a multi-dimensional space (of spanning lines); while in the “real world” only selected points from this space that form a line exist.

… I sense the existence of infinite forest of times, where every timeline is unique and each tree grows in its own way. Everything that emerged in the past, emerged on different trees, but was (and is) related to the trees that grow at present. Today, in reality, we forgot about them. … but they continue to live, these trees. This is why I don’t treat (things from the) past as museum exhibits. I sense that I go back to this ideal forest… and deem it possible to go back to anything from the past. (Ivashkin, Conversations with Alfred Schnittke)

It may take several readings of this passage to imagine this forest, and one can only hope that the vision reflects the image that Schnittke had in mind. It may, however, take just one listening to Concerto Grosso No. 2 (or Symphony No. 3) to discern the concept. In order to create the feeling of “all times at once” Schnittke used polysitlistics – a combination of several contrasting stylistic features in one composition, that involves musical borrowing (often from the past) of different degrees. Although Schnittke was definitely not the first to use the polystilistic method in his composition, his name is the most closely associated with the use of the term since he was one of the first to define it as such.

Polystilystic approach is also employed in Schnittke’s Symphony No 4 (1983) that will be performed tonight.

The Fourth Symphony also represents Schnittke’s lifelong search for a spiritual belief and his attitude towards political system.  The work draws musically on three main strands of Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, while underneath there is a three-note semitone interval motif symbolizing synagogue chant. In the Symphony tenor and countertenor soloists are employed at three key structural moments and a choral setting of the Ave Maria towards the end synthesizes all previous motives in a single diatonic mode. The text of the Ave Maria originally had to be suppressed because its religious nature would have disallowed its performance in the Soviet Union.  The composer believed that in order to preserve authenticity an artist should not react against the system, but rather act as though the system does not exist.

More about Schnittke’s colleagues during the upcoming week.

©2014 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Alfred Schnittke’s World

  1. Pingback: Alfred Schnittke’s World | Avant Music News

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