Schnittke Symphony no. 1

performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam, or below by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky

While composing the symphony for four years, I simultaneously worked on the music to M. Romm‘s film I Believe…. Together with the shooting crew I looked through thousands of meters of documentary film. Gradually they formed in my mind a seemingly chaotic but inwardly orderly chronicle of the 20th century.

Alfred Schnittke

(cover image by Ariane Hackbart)

What is a symphony? What is music, absolute or otherwise?


I raised this question, in a way, in an article a few weeks ago about a fantastic, unique symphony, the second of Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. While it may not seem at all like it, these works have a few things in common.

For one, they both incorporate at least some elements of the very traditional, Aho with his triple fugue, Schnittke with his four-movement form, as well shall see, but they also, in very different ways, have some sort of connection to Shostakovich. At least they do in my opinion.

Aho’s bleak, modern but classically strict soundworld calls to mind the feelings of Shostakovich, but here, in a massive, ambitious, raucous Russian-composed symphony informed by rich German tradition, Schnittke could, in many ways, be thought of as Shostakovich’s spiritual symphonic successor.

As for those aesthetic, even philosophical, questions about music, I won’t be answering them; they’re rhetorical, but Schnittke’s first symphony demands that you think about your own answer to them, that you form an opinion one way or another. That may perhaps be this work’s greatest, undeniable universal strength.

Schnittke jumps head first into the opposite end of the pool from absolute music. Everything in this wildly daring symphony is contextual to an extreme. If you had to find the symphonic equivalent to Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegans Wake, I posit that you could do no better than Schnittke’s first symphony. Nothing in it is as it seems, or is it? Let’s take a look and find out.


As the opening quote references, the work developed over a period of about four years. I haven’t read Ivashkin’s biography of him, although I do intend to eventually, but short of that, I can’t find much about the actual composition of this piece. Seth Brodsky describes it eloquently as:

one of the later twentieth century’s great self-immolating anthems: an icon-smashing icon, a symphony after the death of symphonies, culture rising from culture’s ashes. It is a consummate work of neurosis, never doing what’s best, never going where it ought, punishing itself for its own irresistible naughtiness. The Symphony catches itself in a perpetual spin-cycle of suicides and resurrections, amidst the junk and jewels of two musical millenniums.

There’s so much to discuss in the work’s immensity, its chaos, its detail, that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of actual discussion of the compositional process aside from the above quote from the composer.

Was there a eureka moment, in viewing snippets and scraps and echoes from the cutting room floor? Or perhaps the experience of Ives (to whom Schnittke is here likened by some) hearing two different bands playing across a public square? Regardless, what we have is an enormous four-movement form, full of quotes, not only quoting or disfiguring famously recognizable snippets of classical music history, as if ambling through the annals of history, with ‘exhibits’ calling to mind Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, jazz… and even with a kind of “choreography,” where a la Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ symphony, the performers leave and return. In almost every way, then, be it the aleatoric, spontaneous elements, the cheers from the orchestra, leaving and returning, the jazz improvisations, distorted, mangled classical music quotes and riddles… this is a tricky, challenging, and certainly polarizing work.


The first movement immediately sets the tone for the piece, in some ways answering questions we don’t even know to ask yet. Is there a sonata-form here? Are there themes to be developed? Well, one thing you wouldn’t notice unless you were watching a performance is that, as Brodsky mentions, at the beginning of the piece, there’s only one person on stage. The bells that peal out, crystal-clear and also immediately chaotic, there’s no one else on stage. Performers file in and begin improvising their parts, as if warming up, and only when the conductor enters does the piece ‘begin’ in earnest. Do you hear that?

The two elements that perhaps, in all of the chaos, stand out to a listener the most, if a listener can pay attention to this enormous concoction, are the tolling, relentless peal of those bells in the first and final movements, as well as this towering, C major chord that, in among the cacophony of everything that’s going on, itself seems shocking. In this landscape, especially at the end of the work, having heard the work in its entirety, been subjected to Schnittke’s juxtaposition of hugely disparate elements, a gleaming, crystal clear straightforward simple C major chord is nothing short of revelatory, and maybe even a little out of place.

By the way, the four movements are as follows:

  1. Senza Tempo. Moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Lento
  4. Lento. Allegro

There are some highlights to look out for, like a quote of Beethoven toward the end of the first movement, the pleasantly, even disturbingly charming main theme of the allegretto, in a kind of funhouse, grotesque clown kind of way. It shows the actual talent and skill that the composer has for composition, and should be enough evidence that everything here is a conscious choice, whether you like the style or not. In wild contrast with that very classical sound, there emerge jazz improvisations between piano and violin. We also get other quotes throughout the movement. Try to pick them out.

The third and fourth movements, to me, are the most powerful, when everything comes to a head, not in a contiguous ‘developed our motifs’ kind of way, but the peak of intensity.

I’m jumping right to the end of this symphony, or talking about its beginning and end because the work’s progress, what takes place in between, can really only be experienced. This work, somehow, is more than the sum of its parts. It’s nothing that would bring me to tears, but in its unabashed uniqueness and harsh contrasts, there’s a kind of beauty that emerges.


Yeah, I think so.

You could look at it in a number of ways, and I’m not sure exactly where I fall with it. In one sense, there’s something beautiful in the enormous mass of sound, something liberating, freeing in the apparent sheer chaos of constant contradictions and new material coming one right after the other.

In a less artistic or eloquent way, I’d liken it to, say, a train wreck, in the proverbial sense, not actually being fascinated by human carnage. There’s something absolutely fascinating about the work in the same way, this madhouse of a piece that probably has more underlying messages than I’m aware of, but the result, as some have commented, and as the cover image today alludes to, it is as if a distant society, nonhuman, is receiving broadcasts from earth, a slideshow in 72 minutes of jump cuts and mashups of the history of music, of the artistic, political, social climate at the time. It’s a powerful, impressive expression of all of this from a unique vantage point, a Russian (Soviet) composer with ‘Vienna in his blood,’ or whatever he said about how he feels about the musical tradition there.

You may feel that Schnittke is just a scrapbooker, a collector of ideas, a musical blender mashing together others’ ideas; you may feel, with some more listening, that in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, the work begins to exert some power over you, to convince you of some of its merits. Is it parody? Homage? Does the work mean anything if you’re not catching Schnittke’s myriad references and allusions? Is there anything wholly relatable in music, truly universal and identifiable, completely free of context, absolute?


These are the kinds of questions that I alluded to at the beginning of the article, but I really don’t want the article to be about those kinds of philosophical questions. Perhaps the most attractive thing about this work is how challenging it is, that it makes you think, constantly. It’s one of the composer’s most (in)famous works, and is maybe not indicative of the rest of his output, but it does show us what he’s capable of, in so many ways.

And it also perhaps reminds us of something even more important, a good thing to keep in mind in life, especially nowadays, and that is that no matter how much chaos there is, how absurd things seem, there is still beauty to be found, and finding it makes everything that much nicer. I hope you will stay tuned for another year of posts, because there’s a lot of excellent stuff coming. Thank you so much for reading.



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