Schnittke Quintet for Piano and Strings

performed by Boris Berman and the Vermeer Quartet, or as below (with the composer’s wife at the piano)

I had to take what I wrote from imaginary spaces defined in terms of sound and put it into the psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance, consonance, and assonance.

Alfred Schnittke

(cover image by Alexander Popov)

What would your grief sound like?

We began the month (and the year) with a symphony that I told myself at first listen years ago I would never come to understand or give any time to; it made me angry. But then, once I warmed up to it a bit, and having listened to much other modern work, I came to appreciate it. For some people, the only thing they’d grieve is that the work is more than an hour long.

That was Schnittke’s first symphony. His first work on the blog, now the year before last, in 2016, was his piano concerto. His first symphony is certainly a challenging piece, and I’d recommend the piano concerto as a first foray into the composer’s work, but around the time of that post, someone suggested to me that today’s work, his quintet, is yet more approachable, but it certainly isn’t because of any light subject matter.

In contrast with the wild, cacophonous nature of the first symphony, with its unabashed, harsh hodgepodge of styles, musical quotes, improvisation, applause and all the rest, today’s work, from only a few years later, in 1976, is a direct, very personal response to the death of the composer’s mother in 1972, the same year the first symphony was premiered.

I’d already chosen the cover image for this article when I read the below quote, from Seth Brodsky at AllMusic, but it was indeed very fitting:

His Symphony No. 1 (1972) and other contemporaneous works are brazenly extroverted stylistic carnivals, full of fantasy, denunciation, and dark humor, and are largely artistic statements on art or cultural critiques on culture itself.

It’s such a contrast to that work, but so close in proximity to it that the difference is quite surprising. This small work, in five movements, of about 25 minutes, apparently took him longer to compose than any other. It’s easy (or easier) to do something outwardly that makes a statement you’d like to make, no matter how polemic it might be. Meditating, responding to, something so personal as the death of someone so important in the composer’s life as his mother, however, turned out to be a very different compositional process for him, and we can hear it in this work. Familiarity with Shostakovich would make this a recognizable, less challenging idiom, but that’s not to say it isn’t absolutely bereft and desperately mournful.

  1. Moderato
  2. In tempo di Valse
  3. Andante
  4. Lento
  5. Moderato pastorale

As the opening quote discusses, Schnittke found it very difficult to proceed after having written the first movement. This, I think, is rather interesting, because, at least to my ear, it’s not as if the first movement lays out a big, developed argument that must be followed up. Rather, the first movement is pained, muffled, even a bit claustrophobic, shut-in. It’s made up of groans and sighs. One might even hear the toll of bells in some repeated notes in the piano. These will reappear later. Overall, there’s an emptiness, a stifling, suffocating void of nothingness.

In near-grotesque contrast with this is the second movement, a ‘waltz’. This is what really brought the carnival image to mind. In the above titles for the movements, we have two real standouts, the Valse and the pastorale. There’s nothing light or cheery about anything in this work, as we shall see.

The second movement does indeed resemble a waltz in places, but it’s overwhelmingly bleak. The static, stifling smoke chokes out any sunlight or glimmer of hope. Brodsky says that it is “the only ‘polystylistic’ concession in the entire piece, and throughout the movement consistently descends back into torturous clusters.” It’s broken, diseased, and even the waltzy passages sound like a battered, worn-down music box, a haunting distortion of what it once was or should be, almost to an unnerving degree.

The central and longest movement is the andante. Speaking of the third and fourth movement, Brodsky says “each movement suffers its own shocked outburst and epiphany.” It too is made of static tones, buzzes, and is unrelentingly destitute, barren. The strings finally do have their ‘outburst’ but it doesn’t last, and doesn’t go much of anywhere. Almost throughout this entire work, there’s no real trace of a melody. There’s a closing repeated note, and a tap or light, dull thump of some kind, like the pedals of the piano.

The fourth movement gets the slowest tempo marking, lento, but is interestingly perhaps the most eventful. It is again mostly static, in sighs and groans, but it feels like we actually go somewhere. This feels like the climax of the entire work, and while I wouldn’t call it resolve, per se, but by the time this movement is over, we have just about gotten as much of a conclusion as we’re going to get.

The ‘pastoral’ nature of the finale is, at least to my ear, only in a chime-like ostinato, repeated 14 times in the piano. Here, it is as if the piano and strings are in two separate rooms. Maybe they have different ideas about grief, or what its result should be. Maybe they’re voluntarily ignorant of each other, or have already parted ways. In any case, by the end of the piece, as everything fades away, I personally hear reluctant acceptance, perhaps surrender to the inevitable, but the emotional interpretations are as varied as the answers to the question with which I opened this article.

What would your grief sound like?

Perhaps it depends on the circumstances, or on how you’re feeling at the very moment, but there are so many different shades of the complex emotion, including things like regret and anger, the latter of which we hear almost none of in this work. I would also suggest that even in the irony of some of the titles, there isn’t much in the way of the bitterness or sarcasm we might hear from Shostakovich or Prokofiev. Overall, it’s a very intimate, very uncomfortably personal work, but a reminder that moving music doesn’t always have to be pretty music. It can be uncomfortable and still be powerful.

We’ll swiftly move on from discussing such bleak music, but next week’s posts will also be from Russian composers, so do stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.

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