Presented by Richard Kisling at “Thanksgiving and Remembrance:
Commemorating German-Russian Victims of Genocide”, July 9,
2004 American Historical Society of Germans from Russia
Dialogue Between the Past and the Present
35th International Convention, Modesto California
Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934 in the
city of Engels.
He was a prolific composer, and produced an enormous
catalogue of works.
His musical style, while completely at home in
the 20th Century because of his training, was firmly grounded in
more traditional concert music.
He was not celebrity performer, and his work is largely unknown
to German Russians in North America. However, if one follows concert
music — even a little — it sometimes seems that Schnittke’s
music is being performed almost everywhere around the world.
Alfred Schnittke’s mother was Maria Vogel, whose people were
from the Bergseite Roman Catholic village of Kamenka, in the Volga
region. Maria left the village and moved to Engels, to take advantage
of educational and vocational opportunities in the capitol city
of the Volga German Republic. There, she became active in the leadership
of the youth organization the “Young Pioneers” and later
she became a German teacher, and then proofreader at Nachrichten,
the official newspaper of the Republic. Nachrichten stopped publication
in August, 1941, but after the war, when the central German-language
newspaper, Neues Leben, began publication in Moscow in 1956, Maria
Vogel was selected to serve on the editorial staff. She was the
only ethnic German to be chosen. Maria Vogel died in Moscow in 1972.
Alfred’s father was Harry Schnittke. Harry’s people
were German-speaking Lithuanian Jews, who permanently lived in the
Soviet Union after 1927. Family members were involved with publishing
and writing. Harry Schnittke’s mother, Thea, edited German-language
books for the publishing house “Progress” in Moscow;
his younger son Victor (Alfred’s brother) was an accomplished
translator and poet. Harry Schnittke met Maria Vogel when they both
worked in the newspaper offices of Nachrichten in Engels.
Alfred Schnittke, then, was born into this German-speaking household.
Alfred always considered Volga German dialect his mother tongue,
and in fact, as an adult, when he visited German relatives in Kazakhstan,
he was surprised to learn that they spoke only Russian. The Schnittkes,
however, were not deported along with the rest of the Germans in
1941, because they could show Jewish ethnicity.
After the war, Alfred studied and then taught at the Moscow Conservatory
of Music, and he spent most of his adult life in Moscow. He was
held hostage for many years by the Soviet musical establishment.
Even though his music became so popular that some concerts of his
music were mobbed like sporting events, his first visit to the West
to attend a premiere of one his works came only about 20 years into
his career, in 1977. After 1985, during the Gorbachev era, Schnittke
had easier contact with musicians in the West, and he was able to
attend more and more premieres of his works in Europe and in North
America, where his work was becoming increasingly popular. After
1989, he lived in Germany. He died in Hamburg Germany 9 years later
Schnittke’s Output is Prodigious: he wrote
a total of sixty-six film scores, 9 large symphonies and numerous
other orchestral works, concertos for solo instruments and for ensembles
of instruments, chamber music for many familiar and unusual combinations
of instruments, piano music, choral music, much of which is religious,
art songs, operas, incidental music for plays, occasional pieces
and so on. It is a huge catalogue.
His publisher, Sikorski, attributes Schnittke’s popularity
to the fact that he was not an avant-gardist. In fact,
everything he wrote was thoroughly grounded in the past, but it
was always original… and typically Schnittke.
1 He wrote in traditional forms like sonatas and concertos, but
he filled these forms with new content.
2 He wrote for traditional instruments such as violin, piano,
and so on, but he made unusual demands on the performers.
3 His music is highly emotional like older music, but emotional
in a way that reflects 20th Century experience. Considering the
stifling repression in the Soviet Union, and the uncertainty and
anxiety experienced everywhere during the post-war era, it should
not be surprising to discover that “terror, threats, dread,
mourning… are part and parcel of the music” of this
4 Music lovers will certainly hear some of Alban Berg and Gustav
Mahler in his music; casual listeners may experience it much like
Schnittke is best known for the way in which he sets different
historical musical styles side-by-side, and then allows them to
interact. His publisher Sikorski says that “Decisive
for Schnittke is that the music of the past, quoted or evoked in
many of his works, should be constantly confronted with the musical
language of the present. The important thing here is the dialogue
between the past and the present, as Schnittke experienced it.”
This dialogue is often expressed in the music by allusions to the
music of earlier centuries. “Do I know that music?”
the listener might ask, upon hearing something that resembles a
recognizable chorale or march or dance tune. This experience repeats
several times, and each iteration of the “old” style
expresses homage to that earlier music. These evocations of memory
are embellished, interrupted and often overwhelmed by Schnittke’s
own 20th Century material. The result? Both styles of music can
be heard in a new context, and these layers of associations, suggestions
and interpolations become subtle and powerful expression that probes
deeply into the listener’s emotions and psyche.
Just how popular is Schnittke’s music? A
simple internet search reveals dozens of performances since the
turn of the century, and these are taking place in every region
in North America:
1 Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington;
2 Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Houston;
3 Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver;
4 Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Most of these performances are by major arts institutions, such
as symphony orchestras, where as many as 10,000 concert-goers might
attend a series of concerts.
The same is true for European music centers. The Gewandthaus
in Leipzig, Germany, for example, will feature 5 significant Schnittke
performances in the 12-month period that began in May, 2004.
For hundreds of thousands of concert-goers around the world, Alfred
Schnittke’s biography in the printed program notes is their
only source of information about German Russians.
This evening we will hear 3 very short piano pieces,
which date from 1990, late in Schnittke’s life, when he composed
with fewer and fewer notes, but at an ever-loftier spiritual level.
These are 3 movements from Five Aphorisms for solo piano.
In the first, Lento, tone clusters — chords with
all the notes filled in — make the piano growl, but these
passages are alternated with freely melodic, almost vocal sections.
In the second, Senza tempo, carefully constructed chords
are allowed to sound for extended periods of time, and are only
barely interrupted by the merest tendrils of melody.
The third piece, Grave, comes close to expressing Schnittke’s
dialogue between the past and the present, but in this case he uses
just a single tune alternately dressing it in traditional and in
20th Century clothing. I would like to point your attention to the
eight iterations of the opening melody, each of them handled in
a different manner.
One of the most striking compositional techniques in these pieces
is the use of 2-octave tone clusters. These clusters require the
performer to play a 2-octave span, but fill in as many notes as
possible. They occur only twice, but the effect — as you will
see — is dramatic.
These pieces originally were written to be performed, as we are
doing this evening, with poetry read between the movements.
Alfred Schnittke was born 1934 in Engels, the
capitol city of the Volga German Republic; his mother was Volga
German, his father was from a family of Lithuanian Jews.
He produced a huge catalogue of works.
His music is best known for the way in which he
creates interaction between old and new musical styles in his compositions.
His music is being performed almost everywhere.
Including, this evening, Modesto, California.
I hope you enjoy hearing a few moments of the music of Alfred Schnittke
Constantin Floros’ biographical essay about Schnittke on the
Musikverlag Hans Sikorski webpage, 2003
Alexander Ivashkin, Alfred Schnittke, London, England:
Phaidon Press Limited, 1996
Alexander Ivashkin, editor, A Schnittke Reader, Bloomington,
Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002