Alfred Schnittke
by Alexander Ivashkin

Phaidon 20th Century Composers, 1996

Under the editorship of Norman Lebrecht, Phaidon's series of through-illustrated introductions to 20th century composers has proved visually elegant, refreshingly unstuffy, and useful in providing basic biographical material. This pioneering book-length study of Alfred Schnittke offers much factual background which will be new even to ardent Western enthusiasts of the composer. In doing so, it also tells a story of interest both to the converted and to those more sceptical of Schnittke's worth.

Alexander Ivashkin, a former cellist with the Bolshoi Soloists Ensemble, has been a friend of Schnittke for many years and presents his music from the point of view of one convinced that its composer is "a living classic" and the manifest successor of Shostakovich. While Schnittke has received his share of hostile reviews outside Russia, many foreign critics concur with the high estimates of Ivashkin and the new Russian musical establishment (although some of Schnittke's Western advocates of the 1980s have become more circumspect in the 1990s). If the mere existence of a book like this guarantees that Schnittke's music will be treated seriously in the immediate future, it arguably represents a rush to an applausive judgement which posterity seems unlikely to endorse so readily. Once past the superficial interest of Schnittke's vaunted "polystylism", his frequent expressive blatancy, melodramatic gesturalism, and dense over-scoring are surely fundamental stumbling blocks for which apologists should be required to advance some persuasive explanation?

Ivashkin acknowledges the negative responses Schnittke's music has evoked in the West, but treats them as the self-evidently unenlightened grumbling of reactionaries soon to be left behind by history. Indeed, so sure is he of his hero's Christ-like irreproachability that detractors appear in these pages in an almost demonic light:

"At the New York première of the Sixth Symphony in Carnegie Hall on 6 February 1994, almost half the audience left during the performance. Those who stayed acclaimed the composer with a standing ovation. There was a strange but definite feeling, put into words by violinist Oleh Krysa, that Schnittke had somehow purified the hall with his music and driven away all the evil forces and everyone who was in some way connected with them..."

There is a lack of irony in this passage - a cultish earnestness - which not only sits uneasily alongside references to Shostakovich but fails to square with the apparent irony of much of Schnittke's work in the 1970s (before his health began to fail and his outlook apparently became shadowed by an obsessive awareness of mortality). The misapprehension that everything in art is normal and nature is still producing its usual supply of geniuses is not exclusive to Russia, of course - but the passionate Russian need for something to believe in often overrides the cynical Russian gift for perceiving that the emperor has no clothes, and such is arguably happening here.

Aside from his unquestioning acceptance of Schnittke's genius, Ivashkin is an able and informed guide to the composer's life and times. Although there is no room in 60,000 words to go into much depth about the music (of which there is a vast quantity, easily surpassing Shostakovich in opus numbers, were Schnittke to use these), the author gives a succinct overview supplemented by a classified catalogue and a basic compact discography along with some general observations about Schnittke's creative intentions and ways of working which will be new to Western enthusiasts.

For example, Ivashkin shows that Schnittke's enormous output of film music during the 1960s and 1970s (around sixty scores), far from peripheral to his style, as in the case of Shostakovich, was the most important factor in its genesis, accounting for its non-developmental discontinuities, its ironic-subversive juxtapositions, and its "polystylistic" multiplicity of idioms. (Something similar is true of the music of Giya Kanche li, although its consequences, in terms of his symphonies, are subtler than in Schnittke's.) Moreover, Ivashkin informs us, many of Schnittke's pieces greeted by Western critics as "absolute" actually derive very directly from these cinema scores: music for films quickly turned into symphonies, concertos, and chamber pieces.

Most fascinating for Shostakovich devotees, though, are several passages in which Ivashkin alludes to the Russian intelligentsia's "resistance" to Communism. (Cf. Igor Shafarevich's as yet untranslated study Shostakovich and the Russian Resistance to Communism.) In a lecture delivered in Duisburg in October 1996, Schnittke himself traces this intellectual "resistance" to the early 1950s:

"The only way to survive was to overcome the real tragedy of the situation by appealing to different things which have their own established form, shape, style and ideas. Of course, the real resistance at that time had no perspective. However, as ever in history, it was possible to make a definite choice between two decisions. Little by little, this resistance was strengthening and growing, transforming into the powerful stream which finally led to the fateful turn in the history of a great century."

That Schnittke imagines the liberal intelligentsia's resistance to have lacked "perspective" in the heyday of Prokofiev and Shostakovich testifies to the fundamental difference between the older generation's experience of Communism and the way it was perceived by those - Denisov (b. 1929), Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Shchedrin (b. 1932), Schnittke (b. 1934) - too young to have felt, let alone understood, the effects of Stalin's Terror at its peak during the 1930s. Given the dearth of published historical materials in the former USSR, it was inevitable that those truly lacking perspective in this matter should have been Schnittke and his contemporaries, who had almost no documentary evidence at hand from which to form an adequate picture of the pre-1956 Soviet past. (It is significant that Schnittke was belatedly shocked by Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which, banned in the USSR, eventually became available in Russia more than a decade after it was published in the West.)

>From the generation after Schnittke's, Ivashkin perforce shares his imprecise conception of Stalinist reality. Referring to the composer's assertion that the première of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto in Moscow on 18 February 1952 had been "the supreme experience of [his] life", Ivashkin writes thus of Prokofiev's funeral a year later:

"He died on 5 March 1953, the same day as Stalin. Schnittke did not attend Prokofiev's funeral - it was almost impossible to go, given that crowds of people were flocking to Stalin's funeral (indeed, many were killed in the crush). Only about thirty people accompanied Prokofiev's coffin, as it was slowly carried along an almost empty street in the opposite direction to the thronging crowds. It seemed to symbolize a movement against the Stalin procession. Among those mourning Prokofiev were some very important figures in the history of Russian music: Dmitry Shostakovich, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Edison Denisov and Andrey Volkonsky. They stood at the beginning of a new cultural resistance to Communist ideology."

In fact Prokofiev's funeral took place while Stalin's body was still lying in state, although Ivashkin's poetic licence is legitimate. Less acceptable is his suggestion that the small number of mourners for Prokofiev indicates that intellectual resistance to Communism was only then beginning to stir (having presumably never occurred to anyone beforehand) - or perhaps he imagines that, however surreptitious, such resistance prior to Stalin's death was out of the question on practical grounds? Yet these assumptions, like Schnittke's ideas before reading The Gulag Archipelago, are no more than false artifacts of the lack of published information in the USSR. In truth, the Russian intelligentsia's resistance to Communism began in 1918 and did not cease between then and 1991, albeit that it was necessarily masked and oblique.

This generational gap in comprehension accounts for much in Soviet history, not least the way Shostakovich was (mis)understood by the young composers whose careers commenced after the second "thaw" in 1956. Whether they knew it or not, the post-1956 generation had a far less serious situation to deal with than that facing Shostakovich and his colleagues during Stalin's reign. At worst, they were stultified, bored, inconvenienced, restricted, coerced, and blackmailed by their Communist proprietors. Though privately outraged by this, they were never tortured, exiled, sent to the Gulag or an asylum, or shot. None of them was warped by years of fear.

In Schnittke's case, this gap in generational experience comes out most crucially in his personal conception of music and of what it can do. In discussing this, Ivashkin is carefult to insist that there is no such thing as art-for-art's-sake in Russian music; that it always carries hidden symbolic content expressed in a code of motifs. He amplifies these assertions in a passage on Shostakovich's legacy to Schnittke:

"Two events which made the greatest of impressions on Schnittke were the first performances of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony in 1953 and of his First Violin Concerto in 1955. He remembers the official discussion after the Tenth Symphony, when everybody (except the composer Andrey Volkonsky, a student at that time) criticized Shostakovich. The Violin Concerto made a great impact on Schnittke's music. He has admitted that all his own violin concertos have been written under its influence. There is the same feeling of drama, the same sharp, even exaggerated, contrasts between the movements, and the same freedom and space for the cadenza, a monologue of the soloist 'hero'. For many years the concerto concept, inherited from Shostakovich, was most important in Schnittke's music. His numerous concertos and concerti grossi represent symbolically the typical Schnittkean idea of conflict between the individual (the soloist) and the collective (the orchestra). This type of drama is hidden in Shostakovich's music, which in many respects reflects the drama of Soviet life under the harsh political pressure of the Soviet regime. In Schnittke's music, too, there is always something extra-musical which needs to be deciphered, explained or resolved. Although his music is much more varied and wider in scope, in terms of its historical and multi-cultural orientation, it still refers, more or less, to the same type of direct relationship between art and reality, between the individual's mental organization, personal spirituality, and social entropy. Shostakovich, under the burden of Stalin's dictatorship, was much more cautious, preferring to speak indirectly and symbolically. Schnittke's generation grew up in a different situation and wanted to speak more openly and more directly - especially in the late 1950s and early 60s, the time of Khrushchev's 'thaw' - but it was still Shostakovich who made that kind of musical expression feasible."
In a subsequent passage, Ivashkin further elucidates this idea of symbolic individual resistance to the Communist collective in the Soviet concerto as used by Schnittke:

"The concerto is Schnittke's favourite type of composition not only because he had been constantly asked to write concertos for his friends, famous Russian soloists, but because themusical language of all his concertos is indissolubly connected with the personalized and profoundly individual statement of the soloist, who stands in opposition to a featureless and satanic social situation. This undoubtedly reflects the highly paradoxical role of personality and its connections with the social situation in the era of the Communist dictatorship. It is no secret that it was the personal, the individual, the unique, which formed the core of the extremely intensive development of Russian culture under the oppression of Communist ideology."

This, though, is true, too, of Shostakovich's concertos, as well as of Prokofiev's "Soviet" concertos and of the concertos of (for example) Myaskovsky, Vainberg, and Boris Tchaikovsky. Indeed there is no obvious difference in directness here between Shostakovich and Schnittke, Shostakovich being every bit as explicit in using the concerto in this way. Where Schnittke differs most from Shostakovich, according to Ivashkin, is in his non-concerto music - his symphonies, operas, and chamber music. In these, it seems, relatively direct resistance was replaced by something more oblique: a focus on the irrational as opposed to the rational order of Communist dictatorship. Yet, as a post-modernist, Schnittke inevitably felt compelled to intellectualise his historical position, consciously striving to "universalise" his attraction to the irrational into something between a pass-key to Western culture and a kind of personal religious philosophy. Hereabouts, amid vague references to the Qabalah and the I Ching, some readers will feel that things get every bit as silly as they did among the Western intellectual avant-garde during the 1960s and 1970s. (Naturally all lasting art will contain elements beyond objective analysis, but to assume that these must therefore be "irrational", and hence intrinsically chaotic or mysterious or even diabolical, is to overlook the fact that huge areas of intellectual and emotional activity remain sufficently shared and recognisable to be conveyable to others with force and precision, despite being, in a strict sense, irreducably subjective. That there is more order than disorder in inner experience is not only the basis of human communication but also the assumption behind any art capable of transcending its time.)

Interacting, however partially and inaccurately, with their Western contemporaries (in a way impossible for the internationally isolated Russian intelligenty under Stalin), Schnittke's generation and their successors have grown up in the current global post-modernist atmosphere of half-baked posturing about the impossibility of stability or certainty in art, ethics, philosophy, identity, or communication. Like Valentin Silvestrov, Schnittke is drawn to the sort of theorising about "the end of music" which results in pieces composed in a condition of perpetual slow coda and collapse. Such self-important pseudo-creativity is far removed from the incisive ironic realism of Shostakovich, who would have detested it. (Conceivably this is why, despite the efforts of mutual friends to bring the two composers into a suitable "father-son" relationship, he kept his distance.) The truth is that, without Stalin to deal with, the post-1956 generation had room to indulge their egos and thus drifted into vain pretension. Introversion replaced subversion, vagueness supplanted sharpness, theory ousted experience. Indeed, Ivashkin's peroration inadvertently suggests as much:

"Schnittke's music absorbs and augments historical meanings. In it we can sense the spiritual efforts of many generations without the experience of these generations being directly referred to or recreated... Shostakovich gave unique expression to the thoughts and feelings of those generations of Russian people whose fate it was to live under the yoke of totalitarian power. Schnittke, the most important composer to arise in Russia after Shostakovich, is often called the 'man in between'. A very strong pulse of latentenergy is undoubtedly inherent in the music of both composers and common to both is extreme pessimism: many works by Shostakovich and especially Schnittke are 'dying', dissolving in the world, fading into the distance of time..."

While something akin to this temporal dissolution is present in the codas to certain works of Shostakovich, his expression, if sometimes hallucinatory, is almost always grounded in the concrete reality of shared human experience: the non-"dissolving" mundane world. - Hence its electric vitality, to which Schnittke's music can only respond with agitation, and its tragic feeling, which Schnittke too often matches with mere hysteria. (Or so it seems to this reviewer, who would gladly swap the trenchant vigour of Gavriil Popov's Sixth Symphony, a piece in the true Shostakovichian tradition, for the whole of Schnittke's garrulously amorphous oeuvre put together.)

If Schnittke's merit is to be contended over and not, as here, accepted as a foregone conclusion, Ivashkin is nonetheless to be applauded for expertly presenting us with the raw material for the debate. Despite writing (or overseeing a translation) in a foreign language, he is rarely other than lucid and his insights, if provisional, are often penetrating. As the first study of its kind to have reached the West from the former Soviet music community, Alfred Schnittke is worth reading on this score alone.

This review originally appeared in DSCH Journal No. 7 (Summer 1997).

Schnittke on Kancheli. CD Review. Chronology . Back to Other matters.