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Alfred Schnittke

Violin Sonata No. 2 "Quasi una Sonata"
Violin Sonata No. 1
Suite in Old Style
A Paganini

Valery Gradow, violin
Inna Heifetz, piano

Catalog #S022579CD [DDD]

Program Notes

Alfred Garrievich Schnittke was born in Engels near Moscow on November 24, 1934. He studied piano in Vienna (1946-48), where his father was a correspondent of a German-language Soviet newspaper. On the family's return to Russia he studied conducting at the Moscow Music College (1949-53). Later he took courses in composition with Golubev and in instrumentation with Rakov at the Moscow Conservatory (1953-58). After serving on its faculty from 1962 to 1972, he devoted himself fully to composition. He pursued many trips abroad, and in 1981 was a guest lecturer at the Vienna Hochschule fur Music and Darstellende Kunst. In 1981 he was elected a member of the West German Akademie der Kunste. In the late 1980 he became a member of the Academies in Berlin, London, Stockholm, Jena, Munich and Hamburg. In 1989 Schnittke also started to teach composition at the Hamburg Hochschule fur Music, replacing Gyorgy Ligeti who had just retired from this position. A year before the final collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1990, Schnittke had received his last "farewell" from the Communist empire. He was officially nominated for what used to be the highest state award - the Lenin prize - for his Concerto for Mixed Chorus and his Cello Concerto No. 1. In fact, Soviet officialdom was belatedly trying to equal the West, where Schnittke was receiving more and more awards. Schnittke sent a letter to the Lenin Prize committee explaining that he could not accept a prize named after Lenin: "Perhaps it is easier to tell the truth now than to hide it as we had to twenty or thirty years ago, when everyone fell ill or died for telling it". In the 1970s and 80s Schnittke enjoyed enormous and unusual popularity in Russia. As one Russian critic expressed it: "His music was our language, more perfect than the verbal one". All performances of Schnittke's music were important events for Russian listeners: in it they found the metaphysical ideas and spiritual values which were lacking in life during seemingly endless years of revolution, terror, thaw, Cold War, or stagnation.

From 1959 to 1964 Russian composers and musicians were given a brief opportunity to absorb the technical achievements of Western composers. It finally became possible to obtain the scores of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Stravinsky; indeed many scores and recordings were sent directly to the young Russian composers (including Schnittke and Denisov) by Stockhausen, Nono, Ligeti and Pousseur. Some of these scores , now in Schnittke's private collection, are covered with notes that Schnittke had made - he was seeking to evaluate the true potential of a strict technique like serialism, a type of technique that he used in his own works of the 1960s. In the latter years of the decade, he came to realize that serialism (or any other strict technique) is, in its way, an attempt to formalize the process of real life - to put them, as it were, into a universal formula. He dislikes that kind of procedure, being convinced that all life processes are dynamic and unpredictable, and irreducible to any kind of "pattern". He consequently made less and less use of serialism as a compositional technique. In the early 1960s Schnittke started to use broken rhythms and random sequences of sounds. As he put it, "music is no longer a poem but prose".

The main instrument Schnittke used in his compositions of the 1960s was the violin, an instrument that was carefully avoided by many avant-garde composers, who regarded it as less "modern" and too "subjective". From 1963 onwards all the most important ideas in Schnittke's music were born on the violin - from the First Violin Sonata of 1963 to the Second Violin Sonata of 1968. The warm and emotional, almost human, voice of the violin ensured that its sound was related to the kind of personal context with which Schnittke's music always associated.

The First Violin Sonata was written for Schnittke's great friend, the violinist Mark Lubotsky, who played it for the first time in Moscow in April 1964. The four-movement Sonata's opening Andante is built around a twelve-tone row which is first announced by the violin. The second movement is an intense Allegretto which is followed by a slow third movement reminiscent of Shostakovich's wartime Piano trio. The Largo is a variation movement and its' theme (motto) is the four notes: C, B, D, C sharp. The finale is brilliant and full of irony. Toward the end the Largo's theme is recalled.

In 1962 Schnittke started to write music for films. Musically he found a really new, open-minded world where he could be completely free in his ideas, a world full of interesting and independent people. Film directors were the first people to recognize the true value of Schnittke's individual genius and he has been described as the best film composer since Prokofiev and Shostakovich. During the twenty-year period beginning in 1962 almost two-thirds of Schnittke's compositions have been exclusively for the screen. What is striking about his film music, and what makes it different from film music by other composers, is that it both fits the film perfectly yet can in most cases exist as an independent, natural piece of music. Much of Schnittke's incidental music explores new types of techniques. Schnittke used random, serial and sonoristic elements in his very first scores of the early 1960s, written for thrillers. At this time he was unable to introduce such elements into his "serious" music. If he did so, officials of the Ministry of Culture or of Composers' Union would immediately condemn him for "formalism" or "cosmopolitanism".

Sometimes a certain musical form represents a whole film. The film "The Adventures of a Dentist" (1965) was comprised of different movements similar to the contrasting sections of a Baroque suite, each written for a different combination of instruments, representing the hero at different ages. In 1972, the film score was transformed into the Suite in Old Style for violin and piano (or harpsichord).

In the late 1960s, Schnittke dramatically changed his way of writing music. The Serenade, the Second Violin Sonata and the Second Violin Concerto mark the beginning of a new period. Schnittke still occasionally used certain "Western patterns", but his main concern became the dramatic shape of the whole piece. There are shocking contrasts of opposing images, clashes of styles, and paradoxes in logic and development. Following Luigi Nono, the Russian tradition and his own understanding of music, he came to believe that modern music should not merely be rational, well-structured and therefore sterile. This belief was also based on his idea that a composer does not create his own music. A composer, in Schnittke's opinion, should be a medium or a sensor, whose business it is to remember what he hears - namely music, from "somewhere else" - and whose mind acts as a translator only. Music comes from some sort of "divine" rather than "human" area.

In 1968, Schnittke started his work for Andrei Khrzhanovsky, the director of Russian cartoon films. Khrzhanovsky discovered Schnittke's music by accident, hearing his First Violin Concerto played on the radio. It was precisely the type of music he wanted for the film he was then planning. Khrzhanovsky was working on his film "Glass Accordion" (1968), in which he used ready-made artifacts. It was an unusual collage, mixing together fragments from different works of art: paintings and drawings by Leonardo, Raphael, Pisanello, Dali and more, and buildings from the Italian Renaissance and German Baroque. Khrzhanovsky, a highly intelligent and musically gifted man, the friend of many famous performers, was looking for a musical parallel to his ideas. His new film was to "speak" without any verbal language (it contains no words at all). It was to use changing allusions to and images from the history of music and art, and the only visual material in "Glass Accordion" is "quoted" and borrowed. In the 1960s this was a revolutionary idea, not only in cartoon film but also for the cultural situation in general. Schnittke's music for "Glass Accordion" became the basis for his Second Violin Sonata - his most innovative and unusual polystylistic piece of the late 1960s.

The unifying musical idea of the Second Violin Sonata is the monogram "B-A-C-H" (B flat-A-C-B natural), a musical symbol of the European tradition, in so far as J. S. Bach's music is a primary source of that tradition. Schnittke wrote: "We know that Webern understood the basic principle of sonata form as a contrast between Strict and Free [Fest und Locker], and I found that idea convincing. I thought that such a contrast might also be possible between Tonal and Atonal (or Serial). In this case Tonality would be 'free' and Serialism 'strict'. I tried it out, and it seemed to me that a certain condition of music history was reinstated on a new level (perhaps the opposition of two styles can be experienced in a similar way to the interaction of two themes in a sonata form)". This is the key to understanding the sonata's subtitle ("Quasi una sonata"). There are two opposing elements introduced at the beginning of the sonata: the piano's opening G minor chord and an answering chord in the violin which defies tonal interpretation. The tension between the two elements remains unresolved throughout the piece, although its' single-movement structure is reminiscent of a three-movement design: sonata form, adagio, fugue (finale).

In 1971 Schnittke wrote his paper, "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music", which he read at an International Music Congress in Moscow. It created something of a sensation. Schnittke argued that polystylistic elements had existed throughout the history of music, but "subconsciously", in variations or parodies where borrowed material was clearly recognizable. These elements were equally to be found in theater, in opera and in symphonic music, in their dramatic contrasts or in their less obvious stylistic hints and allusions. The polystylistic approach becomes more and more important in the twentieth century because of the tendency to broaden musical and stylistic space, to create a wider view embracing all centuries. A Paganini for unaccompanied violin written in 1982 is a great example of Schnittke's polystylistic work.

The complex aesthetic of Schnittke's music is palpably linked with many traditions. From Stravinsky he has inherited the following of many stylistic tendencies while retaining the music's integrity. From Ives he derives the unexpected combination of the glaringly heterogeneous, the high and the low, layers of banal sound, spatial effects and theatrical elements. The nerve center of naked expression comes from Mahler, the intensity of internal musical play and the concentrated spiritual discipline from Berg; but the fundamental significance and symbolic plane of Schnittke's music is closest of all to the work of Dmitry Shostakovich. It was Alfred Schnittke who filled the gap in Russian music left by Shostakovich's death in 1975.


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