Schnittke Symphony no. 0

performed by the Cape Town Philharmonic under Owain Arwel Hughes, available on Spotify

(cover image by Serge Kutuzov)

Strong arguments exist both for and against publishing works that composers either themselves decided not to publish or later withdrew (or perhaps in some cases just forgot about, but that’s less straightforward).

On the one hand, fanboys and girls want as much music from their beloved composer as they can possibly get their hands on. You might feel like you’re nibbling up all the scraps leftover from a finished (or just abandoned) meal when you go listen to all of Schubert’s fragments of sonatas or string quartets or whatever else, and hope that the other composers did justice to what was there in completing them on his behalf.

However, in some cases, there are fully-formed works that the composer decided not to publish. The most famous, and to some people’s knowledge the only, zeroth symphony that exists is Bruckner’s, which actually came between his first and second symphonies. Another of his symphonies, sometimes called the ‘double-zero,’ or study symphony, was a student work he completed before the first. Bruckner himself stated that this later symphony, sometimes numbered zero, “doesn’t count,” so he did not assign it a number, did not publish it, and it was only premiered in 1924, nearly three decades after the composer’s death.

The work was completed in 1957, while Schnittke was still attending the Moscow Conservatory, and it was only ever performed once in the composer’s lifetime, a performance which Dmitri Shostakovich himself attended. If you’ve never listened to any of Schnittke’s work before, it may sound pleasingly akin to, say, well, Shostakovich, or Myaskovsky, if you’re familiar with him, or just like a broadly Russian symphony, even a little bit Romantic, and this may delight you.

If you are familiar with Schnittke’s music, almost really anything but this symphony, you may very well say that it’s wholly uncharacteristic of his style, or at least the style for which he would become (in)famous. So that’s the question: was there a reason Schnittke didn’t publish this work? Did he just decide not to, or forget about it, or did he actively decide he didn’t want to let that represent him? As a Schnittke symphony, it may not be a representative work, but as just… any old symphony, regardless of name, I’d say it’s quite a fine piece.

It’s in four movements, as below, and has a duration of about 40 minutes:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Allegro vivace
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro

Perhaps you could think of this work, then, to Schnittke’s output a bit what Gurre-Lieder is to Schoenberg’s, at least the first two parts of it: a superb display of the composer’s familiarity with and command of an idiom from which he would quickly move on. This is Russian music, and really fantastic, but were you to tell an unsuspecting music aficionado that this work was written in 1920 (or perhaps even earlier than that) rather than 1957, he or she may readily believe you.

The first and longest movement quickly presents what I feel are the strengths of this work as a whole: the melodies are altogether captivating, the structure robust and strong, making for a work that to me is impressive in every sense of the word. The opening bars of the Allegro ma non troppo draw us right in, with magnificence and drive and color, charm and excitement. Sure, we’re not breaking any radical new ground, but I would say this first movement alone shows exceptional skill in the handling of both an orchestra (color, texture, etc.) as well as the musical material (structure, development, etc.). Both are full of contrast and a textbook Russian drama, delicacy included, in this sonata-form movement without devolving into the maudlin. Shostakovich, and maybe a bit of Prokofiev, lingers in the sound of the work, which is not at all a bad thing, and that specific flavor of intensity comes through especially in the closing of this first movement.

Want more really great Soviet music? The scherzo delivers. It has the same quality of the first movement in that it’s a musical idea that is nothing short of infectious. Clarinet introduces it, but the scherzo, the shortest movement of the symphony, builds to a really irresistible momentum, but all the while full of playfulness and color. It’s the kind of thing that sticks in my head, burrows itself into your brain in just the best way possible. It’s masterful, and breathtaking how something that seems so light and limber can also bear such power. Rachmaninoff is unmistakable in the trio, however, at least in certain passages. The return of the scherzo, though, builds to a frenetic, almost frightening, drive that does foreshadow the wildness of the first symphony of more than a decade later.

Does Schnittke just have this bottomless well of arresting ideas, magical themes and melodies that captivate and spellbind? The andante, in contrast with the driving force of the previous movements, is so soulfully melancholy and dirge-like, but in the least tragic way we’ll probably ever hear from Schnittke. It’s not the soul-crushing, suck-the-air-out-of-your-lungs vacuum of despair he does so well, but is imbued with warmth and feeling, a real sense of passion and heartache. This warmth and real human feeling, after some more nervous passages, climaxes in a grand, broad, climax, ultimately ending quietly.

The finale begins in what could be an almost threatening gesture if it weren’t as tongue-in-cheek. There’s a military crispness to this finale, afforded at least by the brass and snare drum, but also a colorful playfulness that we’ve seen elsewhere in this work. There are some very nice contrapuntal passages here, and the movement is generally quite lighthearted. Listening to the final utterances of the work, however, one cannot help but think of that closing sound as perhaps foreshadowing to what would later come in the first symphony. It’s a surprise how the composer decided to finish the work.

I find the symphony to be an altogether outrageously more engaging work than much of what I’ve heard from Myaskovsky, at least in his early days. This work grabs you by the emotions in a very direct, effective way, but while familiar, is still far from banal, to me. Even David Hurwitz, who I find to be often very critical, speaks highly of this work:

The symphony … is a very fine work, boldly scored and full of memorable thematic ideas. The idiom is quite tonal, the treatment of form confident, the rhythmic motion vigorous. I found it much more appealing than, say, Myaskovsky or Vainberg, and as an example of “good” Soviet-era music it’s quite impressive.

Give it a listen for sure, but don’t expect anything else the composer ever wrote to sound this way. I don’t care what anyone else says, this is a good symphony! What we hear later this week will be considerably more challenging, so stay tuned for that, and thank you so much for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Schnittke Symphony no. 0

  1. I’ve loved this symphony ever since I first heard it. Who cares if it bears little or no resemblance to the mature Schnittke? It’s accessible, frequently beautiful and, above all (in an era when not much else that was being was, despite its often many other virtues), memorable.

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