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Alfred Schnittke - His 80th Birthday

Regardless of how post-modern or abstract Alfred Schnittke’s is composed, as the pianist Maria Lettberg once said, one always senses something profoundly humane in it. On 24 November 2014 we shall be commemorating the 80th birthday of Alfred Schnittke, who died in 1998 in Hamburg. In particular, many Hamburg residents will remember this composer, who spent his final years - marked by serious illness - as a professor at the Hamburg Music Academy and thrilled audiences with many sensational concerts and world premieres. One need only think of ’s collaboration with the choreographer John Neumeier, which led to the spectacular ballet productions “A Streetcar named Desire”, “Othello” and “Peer Gynt” at the Hamburg State Opera. The last of his three operas, “Historia nach D. Johann Fausten”, was also given its world premiere at the Hamburg State Opera, just a few years before Schnittke’s death.

Schnittke’s statements and introductions to works often make a confusing effect, but one can learn a great deal about his thinking from the labyrinth of his descriptions. For example, he once said the following about the development of the music of his time: “It is a consciousness that there was always something still ahead of you that always existed, and that the whole individual development of music is a continuation of the path that had already existed for a long time - a path that is much broader than your own path. You can follow this path, in the same direction or another, but it is always a slight deviation from the major path.”
The prejudice that new music is too abstract, only indirectly conveying its emotional message, was repeatedly disproven by Alfred Schnittke. He wrote a kind of music that often moved people deeply, exploring extremes and always creating a connection to the past, to more or less customary sound worlds - but always modified by the composer.

Alfred Schnittke was born on 24 November 1934 in Engels on the Volga River. The son of a German Jewish father and a Volga German mother and brought up in the Soviet Union, he noticed the lack of a “homeland feeling” already in early years. He began his musical studies in Vienna at the age of twelve. He soon sensed a strong desire to become a musician. In 1953 he changed to the Conservatory in Moscow and took a teaching post there beginning in 1961. In 1968 he then developed the compositional principle of polystylism - composing in different styles - that is so crucial in his early works. Schnittke himself commented on it as follows: “We enter into a dialogue with the past (…). The present-day composer cannot ignore the musical past which presents itself each day. (…) We are able to live in different times.”

Many who witnessed those times perhaps still remember the moving farewell concert given by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow in 1998, where Schnittke’s body was laid out. On that occasion, Rostropovich played the spherical epilogue from Schnittke’s ballet music “Peer Gynt” composed for John Neumeier in 1986. He left the hall in silence, and a moving silence continued to dominate the hall of the Conservatory for minutes.
According to the cellist Alexander Ivashkin, a personal friend of the composer, Alfred Schnittke was perhaps the most emotional composer amongst the modernists of the late 20th century. And the French composer Henri Dutilleux added: “What I especially appreciate in Alfred Schnittke’s music is the intensive pulsation that animates his scores, amongst frequently vehement, even alarming passages that sometimes appear to have been dictated as if from a hallucination.”

With the exception of an early attempt in 1956/57, Alfred Schnittke began to extensively occupy himself with the symphonic genre for the first time during the years 1969 to 1972. Already in his Symphony No. 1 we find all the characteristics and attainments of his compositional style within the narrowest space, in a first compact compression. So-called polystylism is a part of this, as well as the use of direct quotations. Schnittke’s unusual spatial-sonic solutions clearly emerge here.
A tendency towards terseness and a simple, transparent treatment of the orchestra can be observed in Schnittke’s last works, including his final Ninth Symphony which remained unfinished. Nonetheless, as Schnittke himself formulated it, these late compositions are still about the “entire infinitely restless world”. Symphony No. 9, the numeration of which has been burdened by mystically high expectations for centuries - especially by the respective composers themselves - must have excessively burdened Schnittke shortly prior to his death and is said to have greatly agitated him on his deathbed.
Alongside instrumental works, vocal music, especially for choir, occupies a key position in Schnittke’s oeuvre. Just a few years ago, the oratorio “Nagasaki” for mezzo-soprano, mixed choir and orchestra composed in 1958 was given its world premiere posthumously in Cape Town. Frequently performed vocal compositions of Schnittke also include the Requiem, the Concerto for Choir and “Stimmen der Natur” (Voices of Nature) for ten women's voices.

On 6 November 2014 the NDR presented a memorial concert with choral and chamber music of Schnittke at the St. Johannis Church in Hamburg-Harvestehude. The International Alfred Schnittke Academy in Hamburg together with the Hamburg Music Academy will then present a three-day Schnittke symposium under the motto “Schnittke in Hamburg” from 27 to 29 November 2014. Alfred Schnittke’s cycle Hymnen I-IV will then be on the programme of a chamber concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 25 January 2015.
The cellist Olga Dowbusch-Lubotsky, the pianist Irina Schnittke and the violinist Mark Lubotsky, all companions of Alfred Schnittke and interpreters of his music, have issued a CD with the Violoncello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 as well as the Piano Trio of Schnittke.

An updated catalogue of works has been issued by our publishing house on the occasion of the Alfred Schnittke jubilee. It contains many supplements and corrections reflecting the present state of Schnittke research in each detail. The popular, frequently performed “Suite in the Olden Style” has been issued in an adaptation for string orchestra by Jolán Berta and authorised by Alfred Schnittke, as has the Second Piano Sonata in a newly revised edition (SIK 1749).

Copyright of the photo: Yngvild Sørbye


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