Schnittke: 8 Pieces for piano

performed by Simon Smith (available on Spotify, but not YouTube)

The music of Alfred Schnittke has always delivered on its promise of darkness, but one must occasionally remind oeself [sic] that man could be really funny sometimes; on his misshapen circle, humor is never far from crushing gravity, and that grimacing face retreating from the light can often suddenly sport a clown-nose.

Seth Brodsky, of Alfred Schnittke

(cover image by Daniel Watson)

From all the music, only a few pieces, so far, really, that we’ve discussed of Schnittke’s (the concerto for piano and strings, the first symphony, the quintet, even the early violin sonata) we’ve seen clearly this heaviness, the brutality or darkness of which Brodsky speaks.

There’s a sort of change in today’s work, but there also sort of isn’t. The eight pieces were written in 1971 (or at least completed by then) for the composer’s son Andrey, who was learnign to play the piano. Brodsky says that “they’re great stuff to practice with–simple, each with a basic technique foregrounded, and also amusing enough to surpass a mere work ethic.” So they’re not etudes, really, but… can we call them ‘serious’ performance pieces?

Well, from what I can see, his son (whose name also appears spelled Andre, and seems to favor spelling the family name as ‘Shnitke’) was born in 1965. Think of a six-year-old child playing these pieces in a recital, or even at home. Half of them hover at around only 30 seconds long (1-3, and 6), so yes, they’re diminutive, and at times playful, certainly more than much of the composer’s other music, but… they’re quite heavy, even violent, for a child that young. But then again, imagine having Alfred Schnittke as your father. Maybe it was nothing.

The eight pieces are as follows:

  1. Folk Song (Andantino)
  2. In the mountains (Moderato)
  3. Cuckoo and woodpecker (Vivo)
  4. Melody (Andante)
  5. Tale (Lento)
  6. Play (Allegro)
  7. Children’s piece (Andantino)
  8. March (Allegretto)

The folk song may remind one of the two Bartók folk collections we discussed earlier in this series. It seems to be in a minor key, but peppered with what may seem like ‘wrong’ notes. It’s also not terribly complex, and relies on a pretty straightforward melody for its entire thirty-second duration.

There’s a looming grandness to the second piece, contrasted with a small reply, as if from a climber on the mountain. Also, the level of pastiche here comes through loud and clear.

The third of the set may be one of the most tasteful of the entire set. It’s not a maudlin faux folksong thing, some pastiche of a sound for a young performer’s benefit; that’s not a criticism. I get what Schnittke was ostensibly going for, but the music feels to me like it gets by on much more than that, and goes somewhere. Also, it perfectly embodies the title without being cliche.

The fourth, still less than 90 seconds long, is much longer than the previous three, and really lets the listener, really forces us to, focus on dissonances, what would in another piece be taken for wrong notes, because the composer just sits on them, letting them kind of hang in the air, emphasized by the stillness of the piece as a whole.

In like manner, the beginning of the fifth movement seems for some time as if everything could be played with one hand, but there are some chords that appear. They don’t do much to thicken the texture, though, and there is again (still?) a heavy dose of dissonance, emphasized rather than avoided, and there’s a chant-like quality to the music.

The ‘playful’ nature of the sixth movement seems to channel the dry character and almost maniacal wit of Prokofiev, with its biting but also very textured, almost contrapuntal writing, and the dialogue between registers, another of my favorites.

The Children’s piece is (at least in Smith’s recording, but certainly must be elsewhere) by far the longest of the set, at over three minutes. It is meditative, solemn, with some very long pauses, easily the heaviest of the entire set.

The finale, though, shatters that atmosphere and brings us to a very buoyant, bouncy march, also only eighty seconds long; it is fantastically memorable, also calling to mind Prokofiev in some ways for the almost acerbic hammering quality of the piano in the higher register, and yet ultimately ends sweetly.

So that’s eight little pieces from father to son, and if that hadn’t been the gesture, I’d criticize some of them for being rather hackneyed imitations of certain styles. In fact, Brodsky, who I quoted earlier, continues that same paragraph by saying:

All this being well and good, however, one wonders of Schnittke’s sense of humor got the better of him in these four bitty pieces from 1971. It’s not that these movements, each around a minute long, aren’t finely wrought and head-smacking in the authentic Schnittkean vein, but simply that the stakes are different here…

…and goes on to emphasize that dynamic, being for his son, with elements of practice in them. That is, in fact, one of the more important details about these compositions, and explains the lack of soul-sucking darkness and unendurable struggle we hear in much of his other work. For a set of pieces for a six-year-old, though, again, they are quite intense.

There’s just one more installment left of our petite piano pieces before we move on to much more classical piano music, concertos included, so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading!

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