Schnittke String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Kronos Quartet, or below by the Quatuor Molinari

The treatment of the instruments and the formal process aim for the impression of a quasi-improvisation in which the “uncertainty” is continually increasing. In the second movement it explodes the periodic metre; in the third it leads to the abolition of metre and breaks through and rings out in a quasi-aleatoric passage. Only after this does an attempt at a reprise, to complete the first movement, seem possible.

Schnittke, as quoted by BIS

(cover image by David Clode)

Today’s piece is the first of Schnittke’s three pieces for this week that’s really outright avant-garde, or modern, or whatever you want to call it. The booklet for the BIS release with the Tale Quartet says that the piece “created great interest in informed circles.”

It was written in 1966, and premiered the following year in Leningrad by the Borodin Quartet, the dedicatee of the work. The piece is in three movements, as below, and has a playing time of about 17 minutes (or 19, in the case of the above recording):

  1. Sonata
  2. Canon
  3. Cadenza

If the sound of the music itself didn’t remind you perhaps of Webern, the above movement titles should. There’s such a striking contrast between how uncompromisingly modern, even radical, Webern’s music is, and the traditional labels and forms given to these works. String quartet, symphony, passacaglia, cantata, etc. all make an appearance in his output. It seems like Schnittke, at this point in his early 30s, is doing a similar thing, and it is likely equally as challenging for the casual listener to find, as it were, what Schnittke intends to accomplish or convey with these labels.

For one, though, we’re entirely outside of the realm of Shostakovich now. This is the world of Schoenberg and Webern, and Bartók. “The formal descriptions,” as BIS says, “are not to be taken too literally,” but we can see something of their traditional meanings. For one, the sonata has two very different passages, the first beginning when one instrument moves and the others follow, in the still, eerie, creaking opening. In stark contrast with this is the frenetic pizzicato that emerges. There is no recapitulation, and I’m inclined to think that there’s not even much of a development section, but the first movement moves without pause to the second.

The ‘canon’ is, as BIS says, “based on free imitation, wishing to obtain the effect of an echo without holding on too firmly to exact repeats of the melody.” This echo, though, builds, unlike an echo that would fade away into nothingness, which this movement eventually does after a climax of its own, with a pause before the ‘cadenza’ finale.

It’s “a collective cadenza for the four instruments,” and is really not too flashy or showy. The four parts seem almost completely independent, building to greater complexity and sounding more frighteningly intense until suddenly… we have what appears to be a recapitulation, with a recall of those first creaking gestures from the first movement. It’s something like Dutilleux’s use of memory in Ainsi la Nuit, in the sense that, at least after having listened to it a few times, it’s like a memory that wafts past, not long enough to enjoy, and just barely long enough to identify. For me, it’s an interesting, and kind of confusing, full circle.

Lots about this piece, from what I’ve read, is ‘free’, such as the use of the ‘twelve-tone technique,’ as well as the imitation in the canon, and obviously the sonata structure. Something so satisfying about Webern’s work is to sit down and, even as rudimentary as I am with analysis, crack open the score and find his motivic ideas, or palindromes, things like that, because he is outstandingly rigorous in his applications of these ideas. Is Schnittke the same way? It seems not, but there are still things here to look out for and at least try to appreciate.

It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, and much more along the lines of what we can expect from Schnittke as we move into his more mature work. The second string quartet comes more than a decade after this, but he only has four (barely able to be considered enough for a cycle, and thus only barely qualifying him as an Editor’s Choice member), so we’re not going to blow through them TOO quickly.

As I’ve said, this coming week, we’ll be seeing the rest of Aulis Sallinen, and then we have one more Editor’s Choice composer to feature before moving on to something entirely different, so please stay tuned for all of that and thanks so much for reading.


One thought on “Schnittke String Quartet no. 1

  1. Definitely still “apprentice” music, this – much more of the “mature” use of Modernist techniques, obviously, but also a sense that Schnittke has still yet to find the individual voice that would come about (perhaps ironically) via the deliberate aping of others’ styles.

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