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Alfred Schnittke. Complete Piano Sonatas. IGOR TCHETUEV


Text of the booklet "Alfred Schnittke. Complete Piano Sonatas. IGOR TCHETUEV"

There is something incredible about the penetrating, hypnotic force that is characteristic of Schnittke’s music. Today, many still remember the first performances of his works, there were never enough tickets and, in their wish to be present at a concert come what may, the public would take the doors into the small hall of the House of Composers by storm, and would doggedly force their way to the Conservatoire through cordons of mounted police. Each person was aware of the atmosphere of a ‘breaking news’ musical event, everyone knew that at such concerts one might acquire some of the most memorable impressions of one’s life. These concerts had little in common with the usual evenings of classical music: to listen to Schnittke, though not ‘forbidden’, was not recommended. Therefore to be present at the first performance of one of his new concertos, shout “bravo” till one was hoarse, show one’s support of this art, carried the overtones of a political demonstration. Today, having lost their scandalous aura, these same works sound – as they should – like ‘pure music’, they are more serene. Possibly, it is only now that we are beginning to take their measure, that the time has come to have another look at them.

Schnittke had two convictions which, it would seem, account for a great deal in his life and music. Of one of these, he gives a very precise formulation in an article on Edison Denisov. Discussing the nature of musical talent, Schnittke writes as follows: “the deciding factor here […] is, above all, a readiness for intense effort, leading to an increase in one’s powers, to “overfulfillment of oneself”. One cannot, of course, outstrip oneself, here natural abilities act as an insurmountable barrier, but what a lot is implied in the expression to catch up with, be ahead of oneself!”

Might this not be why the young man, born in the Volga region just before the Second World War, an average accordion player, was to develop into a composer of world standing? This most cultivated and intelligent musician, to whose nature careerism and opportunism were totally foreign, and who at the Conservatoire was known as “delicate Alfred”, demanded of himself all his life intense effort and his goal was to be ahead of himself.

Schnittke’s other conviction results in what has come to be known as the “velvet surface” effect: his works possess a hidden depth which is not immediately perceptible and reveals itself but gradually.

To ‘hide’ something in his music, was a conscious desire on Schnittke’s part: “I find it most intriguing to write a work in which not everything lies on the surface”, he acknowledged. “I have come to the conclusion, that the more everything is ‘hidden’ in a piece of music, the more it gains in depth and infinity”. By this statement of his, the composer commits us to a search, and there is no way of avoiding the question that involuntarily comes to mind with reference to each of his works: what, after all, is hidden here? The answer, alas, will always be hypothetical, never complete, but since we have been issued with an instruction to search, to ignore it would be unwise.

If one were to ask the composers’ fans what one should listen to in order to discover the ‘real Schnittke’, some would advise his symphonies, others – his chamber music, yet others – his concerti grossi, but no one would recommend his piano sonatas and pieces. There are not very many of them, they are rarely heard at concerts and therefore little known. But once one has made the acquaintance of this music one discovers in it, too, the ‘real Schnittke’: his style is recognizable straight-off and two strong impressions are immediately forthcoming: one is aware of a high degree of intensity and of a hidden secret in the subtext.

The piano sonatas are late works; they were created at two-year intervals: Sonata No.1 – in 1988, it is dedicated to the pianist, Vladimir Feltsman; Sonata No.2 - in 1990, it is dedicated to the composer’s wife, the pianist, Irina Schnittke; Sonata No.3 – in 1992, it is one of Schnittke’s last works. The « Improvisation and Fugue» was composed much earlier – in 1965. It was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture: the Tchaikovsky Competition was approaching and composers were requested to write something for the competitors. For reasons unknown, no one played Schnittke’s piece at the Competition but, later on, it was given several performances, for instance, by Vladimir Krainev. As its author tells us, the cycle was composed “without any particular pretensions: a virtuoso, polyphonic work, written to a pattern that was totally in keeping with pieces of this sort; recitative and aria, improvisation and fugue”. But when he was asked to talk about the fugue, he admitted it was untraditional: “The fugue is fairly free in its structure, I do not even know for sure how many voices it has. It is more of a motor work, with the contours of a fugue, rather than a fugue proper”.

I well remember my first impression of this piece: I have a clear recollection of the improvisation, heard at the beginning and repeated at the end, – but between the two there was no fugue, nor even a piece “with the contours of a fugue”; the music appeared to be a continuous, virtuoso jumble from which, as from a conjuror’s hat, appeared now the tense chords of the Beethoven « Aurora», now the intonations of the Prokofiev sonatas. Here a short passage took wing, here a sharp chord fell and broke, here a bass thrust himself forward – muttered an abusive phrase and disappeared… One’s hearing could not keep pace with the quick changes that were occurring simultaneously in different registers of the piano. But getting used to and, as it were, unconsciously adjusting to it, one began to perceive a certain logic in the sound disorder. The « Aurora» chords are repeated many times, the bass phrase, changing its tone, dashes up and down the keyboard, thrice above the teeming mass of passages, a line of dialogue, punctuated by pauses, is declaimed. These intonations sound now separately, now in pairs and the “contours of a fugue” really do begin to take shape, though the fugue turns out to be cunningly ‘hidden’. Continuing to listen to the work, one is overcome by a strange, intuitive feeling: it appears, that even in the erratic passages, which continuously traverse the keyboard, there is a certain concealed repetition. Having said which, it is extremely difficult to say what exactly is being repeated: the rhythm is always changing, the melodies are quite different to each other yet, for all that, in the lavish scatterings of sound there is a clear sense of harmony. This remarkable quality is created thanks to a particular compositional technique – its impact is concealed and it is certainly not intended that in listening to it, we will analyze it. But it is this technique that creates that sense of order of which we are aware, as we follow the apparent musical chaos. It is known as the serial technique, it was invented at the beginning of the 20 th century and became famous thanks to Arnold Schoenberg. At this point in time, the previous tonal system, based on sweet-sounding chords and gentle dissonance, came to seem outdated. Tonality, with one dominant sound – tonic – was replaced by a sort of ‘musical democracy’ according to which all notes were of equal significance. There were now but twelve notes of different pitch. Their ‘equality’ meant that no one note had precedence over another, in other words, they were played just as frequently as all the rest. In order to observe this condition the composer, even before he began writing a piece, copied out the 12 tones in a certain sequence (of his choice) – and then composed the music in accordance with this fixed order. The 12 tones followed each other in strict succession, not one of them could be said to be more important than another, or dominant. All the notes in « Improvisation and Fugue» are drawn from just such a sequence (it is called «a series»). If you are eager to hear the series for yourself, you should direct your attention to the very beginning of the piece, to the improvisation. To start off with, we hear one tone, then – two at the same time, in the next chord there are already three tones, then – four and so on till the twelfth tone. Each subsequent chord absorbs within itself all the preceding notes, and the process is completed by two twelve-tones verticals. From the point of view of technique, all that follows amounts to different ways of repeating the series.

Having tried out this technique in the 60’s, Schnittke was to make use of it later on but for him it was of crucial importance that rational method should be subordinate to the intuitive sense, to the ear.

It is by no means necessary for the listener to know the method chosen by the composer: “All the precise technique, all that is ‘hidden’ in the music – monograms, symbols, proportions, hints, allusions – are perceived, as it is. A work that lacks such a submerged layer cannot have an incisive and prolonged impact”. But if the submerged layer is “perceived, as it is”, is it worth giving it thought? It will reveal little about the composer’s idea. Schnittke compared ‘technique’ to a net into which an idea falls – i.e., in analyzing what is ‘hidden’ in harmony, texture and form, we are studying the net rather than the butterfly that sits within it. But at the same time, in answering the question, “how is it written?”, we are also answering the question, “how should we listen to it?”, and we then arrive at reflections on the theme “what does it all mean?”, with a much enlarged arsenal of thoughts. In speaking, therefore, of Schnittke’s piano sonatas, I would also like to dwell on their “submerged layers”.

The piano sonatas resemble each other, they are, as it were, three reflections on a single theme. Once violoncellist, Alexander Ivashkin, discussed Schnittke’s music with Gidon Kremer. He started off the discussion with what might appear to be a paradoxical question: “What do you think, is there some sort of evolution, or is it united, one work?” Listening to the three piano sonatas, one wants to say: it is one work, one Sonata, uttered three times, each time with increased expression. For the first and last time it is in four movements: lento – presto – lento – presto. The second time it develops in a different way: moderato – lento – presto. All the slow parts are VERY slow, and it would seem they are dominant. Each time the composer indicates one and the same tempo – Lento; each time one looks at the five harrowing, ascetic in terms of texture Lenti, one notices that even their name is reminiscent of the waters of Lethe. (Who knows whether Schnittke had in mind this allusion? Probably not, but it was he, after all, who set us off on the search for ‘submerged’ meanings). All the Lenti are written in a style that one can hardly say belongs to the piano: they are either one-voiced recitatives or chorales. In the second sonata, the Lento is the center of the form, its core; it is written in chorale style, clearly to be heard in it, is the rhythm of the French sarabande: the melody has three beat-bars, with an accent on the second beat. It is not clear, what the image is here: heavenly beauty or infernal temptation? The Lento follows the romantic, slightly ‘Scriabinesque’ first movement, and develops into the aggressive finale, with its ‘double vision’ due to imitation theme and boulevard dance rhythm. The music of the Lento is the most enigmatic in this sonata; it will be the “last to go”, appearing after the ecstatic cries of the finale, but it will leave us in doubt: is this false, or genuine, light?

The Lento themes in Sonatas Nos.1 and 2 are also unusual. In Sonata No.1, the slow one-voice melody is created from the monogram of the surname Feltsman – Vladimir Feltsman to whom the sonata is dedicated, and from that of Schnittke: the notes f and e indicating F-e ltsman, the notes es, c, h indicating S-c-h-nittke. While the names of both musicians are evidently encoded in the same sounds: Vl-a-d-imir, A-lfre -d, in both we find a and d. Gradually, a melody takes shape interweaving both of these names and surnames: a-d-es-c-h-f-e. It develops into the through theme of the sonata, appears in the second movement and completes the fourth. The thoughts, expressed in Sonata No.1, seem to be elaborated in those that follow – the Third is simply the shadow of the First. Igor Tchetuev comments on this as follows: “In the First everything is still alive. But the Third is from the other world, it is already dead. Time is absent, feelings are absent. Then – some hallucinations, very brief, developing into hysteria and incredible fear”. If the First sonata opens with a monogram, at the beginning of the Third, we get the primeval matter: a one-voice chromatic scale rises as if from the bowels of the earth (the notes are in the order that they are on the piano; this is not yet music, but the raw material out of which the composer works, clay as yet untouched by the sculptor). Listening to the last movements, one discovers echoes of the mysterious chorale theme from Sonata No.2 – the same melodies in the same rhythm. What did Schnittke hear in this music? All three sonatas end tragically. The First breaks off in a chaotic cluster, like the snapping of piano strings; the Second ends with the desolate dying away of the chorale; the Third - with a nervous, muddled passage, lost without trace in the final chord. It seems that, looking at these three works, Schnittke might have reiterated the words of the poet Georgy Ivanov: “The mirrors reflect each other, mutually distorting the reflection. I believe not in the invincibility of evil, but just in the inevitability of defeat”.

It is not fortuitous that these sonatas are played so rarely: these “waters of Lethe” are difficult to penetrate. Schnitke’s world, like Solaris, puts the person who wishes to enter it to the test and does not admit everyone. But once one has understood this music, once one has submitted to its aim, it is impossible to return to one’s previous point of equilibrium; one is aware that the issues raised by the composer, continue to live on in one, and persistently demand answers as if they are of direct concern to one. At a certain point, one realizes that the enigma is one’s own personal enigma, the answer, at any rate, lies not without, but somewhere within one – as Vladimir Feltsman said: “Schnitke’s music leads one to oneself”.

Anna Andrushkevich, translation by Amanda Calvert

Text of the booklet "Alfred Schnittke. Complete Piano Sonatas. IGOR TCHETUEV"


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