Schnittke: Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra

Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra

Alfred Schnittke was born on November 24, 1934, in Engels, in the German Volga Republic of the Soviet Union, and died on August 3, 1998, in Hamburg, Germany. He completed his Violin Concerto No. 4 in 1984, on commission from the 34th Berlin Festival. It was premiered on September 11, 1984, in West Berlin, with Gidon Kremer (its dedicatee) as soloist and Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Alexander Barantschik was soloist, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, in the only previous San Francisco Symphony performances, in January 2003. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for three flutes (third doubling alto flute), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani, xylophone, bells, marimba, vibraphone, tubular bells, four bongos, flexatone, tam-tam, harp, celesta, harpsichord, prepared piano, and strings. Duration: about thirty-three minutes.

Paradox and unusual turns of fate stalked the life and music of Alfred Schnittke. He was born into a German family in a German community in a city named after a German social theorist (the co-author, with Karl Marx, of The Communist Manifesto), but he was not born in Germany. Engels was the capital and second largest city in the German Volga Republic of the Soviet Union, separated from the largest city, Saratov, only by the Volga River itself. The German settlers had moved there from their own country in 1763, in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, at the invitation of the Tsarina Christina II. Nearly two million ethnic Germans were living in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, but their overwhelmingly Lutheran microculture began to unravel shortly thereafter, done in especially by the political strains of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

When Schnittke was born, in 1934, his family had settled into a workable solution of biculturalism. His father was employed in Engels as a journalist and a German-Russian translator, his mother as a teacher of German and a member of the staff of the German-language newspaper Neues Leben (New Life). In 1946 the family moved to Vienna so his father could accept a position with a Russian-language newspaper. That’s where Schnittke began studying piano, and it agreed with him so well that two years later he returned to the Soviet Union to enroll in the Moscow October Music School, majoring in choral music. He began experimenting with composition, and in 1953 he entered the Moscow Conservatory to study with Yevgeny Golubev. Given Schnittke’s own first-hand acquaintance with Vienna, it seemed natural that he should also become friendly with Filipp Gershkovich—who, as a former student of Berg and Webern, was at that time the only direct link in the Soviet Union to the harmonic frontiers of the Second Viennese School.

Schnittke graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1958, stayed on as a graduate student through 1961 (when he joined the Composers’ Union), and then remained at the school through 1972 to teach orchestration, composition, and counterpoint. A 1962 visit by Luigi Nono to the Soviet Union further flamed Schnittke’s interest in the European avant-garde, and his ensuing espousal of serialism—an affinity he maintained for several years—put him on the outs with Soviet officialdom. Denied performances as a result, he scraped by as a film composer, writing non-serial scores for more than sixty films between 1962 and the mid-’80s. This involvement with film has been cited as critical to the development of Schnittke’s style, which can indeed be considered “cinematic” in its rapid crosscutting of references and suggested images. But that’s only one of many sources of influence we can spot in his prolific output. If any composer deserves to be called polystylistic, it is Schnittke. He absorbed lessons from Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Berg, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, transforming everything he consumed into something distinctly his own. A persona non grata in the Soviet Union, not until the advent of the Gorbachev regime in the mid-1980s did Schnittke begin to enjoy any measure of popular prestige in his own land.

Ironically, it was just then that Schnittke’s health failed. In the summer of 1985 he suffered a serious stroke, which prevented him from enjoying the freedom of travel created by the cultural thaw. He must have been cheered in some measure by the recognition he began to receive in the 1980s. By 1990 he was able to move to Hamburg and assume a teaching position at the Music and Theater Conservatory. But a second stroke hit in 1991, and another in 1994. He died in 1998.

The composition of the Violin Concerto No. 4 may have been started as early as 1982, but the work was completed and published in 1984, about a year before Schnittke’s first medical crisis. Schnittke’s biographer Alexander Ivashkin finds that the composer’s works of that time (say, from the late 1970s through the ’80s) tend to reflect a world-view the composer had developed through deep acquaintance with a certain questing strain of Russian and German literature, including various transformations of the Faust legend (including Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus) and the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in which (says Ivashkin) “he found the kind of contradictions and irrationalism which seem modern and unusual, even for a twentieth-century mode of thought.”

He continues: “A struggle between polarities, or irregular pulse, a Faustian multiplicity of meaning: that is the quintessence of his music in this period. . . . Schnittke has said: ‘I need to start from the assumption that the world of spirit is ordered, structured by its very nature, that everything which causes disharmony in the world, all that is monstrous, inexplicable and dreadful . . . is also part of this order.’ ”

This idea may help us understand the perplexing processes of the Violin Concerto No. 4, which does indeed implode on itself repeatedly in a sort of negation. The notes of the opening six measures are derived as a sort of musical monogram based on letters in the name of Gidon Kremer, the violinist for whom the work was composed. The first group of four notes is G-C-D-E; the second group is G-D-E-E (an octave lower). It is the second of these that traces the monogram, using only the letters that correspond to the names of musical notes: G(i)D(onkr)E(m)E(r), and Schnittke then extrapolated from that to devise a musical theme he could use. The theme returns to play an important role in the movement as it evolves. Following this, the orchestra--essentially the wind choir, with pizzicato punctuations from the strings—offers a stately, triple-meter, sarabande-like theme of classical consonance. But after nine measures, this music is interrupted at the soloist’s entrance by a shocking dissonance (sforzando, with strings now bowing, for greater force). Now the measures alternate between 2/4 and 3/4 time. This proves a brief section, too, for after thirteen measures the consonant “monogram” music returns, enriched via brass crescendos, into a seemingly Wagnerian texture. After a cadenza-like flurry from the soloist, the “Wagnerian” material becomes Kurt Weill, thanks to a snazzy riff from the alto saxophone. At the movement’s end ominous timpani rolls emerge as the dominant sound. This all occurs over the span of perhaps five minutes, during which Schnittke repeatedly confounds the listener’s expectations through reversals of style, a process that can indeed be understood in light of the composer’s comment “that everything which causes disharmony . . . is also part of this order.”

The violin traces pattering sixteenth notes to open the second movement. The violin is accompanied at first only by chords of the prepared piano; but the pattern soon reverses, and the soloist plays chords while the orchestra murmurs in sixteenth notes. A basic structural pattern repeats throughout the movement, in the style of an ancient chaconne or passacaglia, turning the piece into a series of variations, bristling with energy but each sporting a distinctive character. The percussion section is kept busy here: Schnittke calls for a team of six players on a rich variety of instruments. The solo violin’s music turns positively maniacal towards the end of the movement, when the orchestra takes up its violent contours. At just that point, the score leaves off identifying specific notes for the soloist to play. For a while it still suggests the basic contours of the figuration, but after some measures of such ad-libitum violinistry the composer marks his score, “Improvised in the same manner, gradually without sound but very passionate (Visual cadenza!).” The music has obviously taken a curious turn, a turn one might be tempted to say inherently denies music; but then we should recall that music involves not only sound, but also silence, and that, in the concert hall, gesture is itself an important factor of performance. The violin has been effectively silenced by the orchestra, but its presence remains palpable. Now think for a moment about Schnittke’s biography, and particularly of the fact that in the early 1980s he, too, was virtually silenced in his own land. Gradually the violin regains its voice.

We find Schnittke in a neoclassical mode as the third movement opens, with a harpsichord adding its gentle pulsations to an orchestra mostly of solo cellos. The ghost of Stravinsky hovers nearby, but the violin’s extended melody, at first haunting, grows increasingly Romantic. The piece briefly threatens to turn into chamber music as solo cello and violin emerge from the orchestral strings (the latter as an echo from deep in the second violin section). Brass instruments, muted but nonetheless biting, announce a change in the proceedings; in retrospect we learn that they are announcing a return of the concerto’s opening material, the “sarabande” tune of the first movement. This passes quickly, leading to a recapitulation of the third movement’s principal theme. But this is quickly swept away in music of perverted jollity.

The Gidon Kremer “monogram” is again summoned to launch the final movement. The concerto’s four movements all seem to grow progressively out of each other, even if they are not actually marked attacca. The result is that the fourth movement feels rather like an extended coda, especially following as it does the intensely lyrical emotionalism of the Adagio. Yet it is in no way an afterthought, and it offers splendid ideas all its own. One can scarcely resist focusing on Schnittke’s beautiful orchestration in a passage where the violin’s melody (each note trilled) is accompanied by celesta, harp, bells, harpsichords, and vibraphone. As we build to a climax with the sarabande theme, the soloist is again overwhelmed by the orchestra for what turns out to be another vigorously demonstrative “visual cadenza”, after which the violinist returns quietly to the world of sound.

One often senses that an essential subtext lurks beneath the surface in Schnittke’s music. Our interpretation is likely to change with repeated hearings and deeper acquaintance. Schnittke was not in the habit of providing definitive answers, but his hints can provide fruitful points of departure for contemplation. This is what he had to say about his Violin Concerto. No. 4:

My Fourth Violin Concerto was commissioned by the Berlin Festival and is dedicated to my dear friend Gidon Kremer as a token of my immense admiration and extreme gratitude . . . . The musical material of this four-movement work is derived from the monograms of Gidon Kremer and myself—and, in the final movement, from those of three other kindred spirits, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt. The result is no artificial Babel (apart from the perpetuum mobile passacaglia in the second movement), but an attempt to produce a sense of melodic tension from note to note and from note to rest, freely using “new” and “old” techniques. Two beautiful plush melodies (one recurring throughout the piece, . . . the other appearing in the third movement as a false resolution) are no more than what I might call two painted corpses. On a few occasions—notably in the Cadenza visuale in the second movement—we risk a glance behind the veil that normally shields us from the hypnotizing silent world beyond music, the world of the toneless sound (otherwise known as the rest). But these are mere moments, brief attempts to escape—the sense of failure as we sink back into sound is unavoidable. Or is it? 

—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Gidon Kremer, the work’s dedicatee, is soloist with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Teldec)  |  Oleh Krysa, with Eri Klas conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (BIS)

Reading: Alfred Schnittke, by Alexander Ivashkin (Phaidon)  |  A Schnittke Reader, edited by Ivashkin (Indiana University Press).