The Routledge Handbook to the Music of Alfred Schnittke

PDF The Routledge Handbook to the Music of Alfred Schnittke 31 janvier 2022

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  1. Gavin Dixon
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The Routledge Handbook to the Music of Alfred Schnittke is a comprehensive study of the work of one of the most important Russian composers of the late 20th century. Each piece is discussed in detail, with particular attention to the composer's groundbreaking polystylism, as well as his unique approach to musical symbolism and his deep engagement with Christian themes.

This is the first publication to look at Schnittke's output in its entirety, and for most works it represents either the first ever published analysis or the first in a language other than Russian. The volume presents new research from the Ivashkin-Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths, University of London and the collection of Schnittke's compositional sketches at the Julliard Library in New York. It also draws on the substantial research on Schnittke's music published in the Russian language. Including a work list and bibliography of primary and secondary sources, this is an essential reference for all those interested in Russian music, 20th-century music and performance studies.


The composer Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) was a man of many musical identities. He came to prominence in the West in the late 1970s as a polystylist, a radical eclectic seemingly intent on levelling all musical hierarchies. This contrasted the parallel reputations that he had already established in Soviet Russia, as one of the leading Modernists of the 1960s generation, and as a popular and prolific film composer. In the 1980s, Schnittke’s career continued along similarly diverse paths. His polystylistic works brought ever-greater acclaim in the West, while in Russia his religious works aligned with a resurgence of the Orthodox faith, giving voice to a newly liberated spiritual awareness. And even to describe Schnittke as a Russian composer is simplistic. His family roots were Catholic and Jewish, and he was born and raised in the Volga-German region of southern Russia, with German as his mother tongue. Schnittke spent much of his adult life seeking reconciliation between these disparate identities, and much of his music is as Austro-German as it is Russian. Yet, in spite of these competing influences, Schnittke’s attitude to the art of music remained little changed throughout his career. He was instinctively drawn to musical genres, especially the symphony and concerto, and his works in these forms are often closely related.

The structure of this book acknowledges the diversity of Schnittke’s music while also focusing on deeper connections within individual genres. Chapters 2–8 discuss Schnittke’s music in each of the forms in which he worked. Works are grouped by genre, and each section has a short introduction discussing Schnittke’s relationship with the form. A more general context is provided in Chapter 1, ‘Eras and Techniques’, which offers a broadly chronological survey of Schnittke’s career. The chapter is divided into stylistic periods, and each is discussed with reference to the technical and expressive features of Schnittke’s music at the time. Readers with a general interest in Schnittke’s music are encouraged to read Chapter 1, as well as the introductions to the later chapters. Readers looking for information on individual works can begin with the dedicated section and then explore the chapter introduction for links to other works in the genre, and Chapter 1 (cross-references are provided) for discussion of contemporaneous works, and of Schnittke’s artistic motivations at the time.

This book is not a biography of Alfred Schnittke. The composer himself appears regularly in these pages, but only with reference to his music and how it was shaped by his motivations and compositional strategies. However, separating the musical from the extramusical in Schnittke’s work proves difficult. Schnittke treated music as a language, in which he sought to express definite ideas in abstract terms. These concepts were often highly personal – his search for identity, his grief at the death of his mother, his increasingly devout Christian faith – but were coded into his music as a deep layer of meaning. If there is a single idea that links every period of Schnittke’s career it is this search for subtext, a long struggle but increasingly successful in his later years. Schnittke’s earliest professional works, at the start of the 1960s, were to official commissions. Schnittke would later reject most of these, finding little personal subtext in music that conformed to Socialist Realist conventions. Schnittke’s exploration of serialism in the 1960s also proved frustrating, the technique’s focus on surface detail continually at odds with his search for depth. That helps explain Schnittke’s move to polystylism in the 1970s. Here, the semantic potential of multiple styles, and especially the relationships between them, allowed Schnittke to create many layers of expression and meaning. Monograms derived from musicians’ names provided a more direct, even literal, means of conveying subtext. Similarly, Schnittke’s late style, from the mid-1980s, can be understood as a sonic distillation of the composer’s underlying message. Generic forms are subverted, and the music resists rational analysis, its surface no longer reliant on historical conventions, shaped instead almost purely by intuition and subtext.

The sheer stylistic diversity of Schnittke’s music has proved challenging for musical analysis. Within individual periods of his career, specific analytical techniques have been fruitfully applied. Schnittke’s search for subtext often involves treating musical styles as a play of codes, and analytical techniques have been applied, particularly to his tonal music and his serialism, to demonstrate both the depth of his stylistic engagement and the subversion he employs to create irony and historical distance. Almost every analytical approach in common use today has been fruitfully applied to Schnittke’s work (the exception is Schenker, still a rarity in Russian music studies). The discussion of Schnittke’s music in the present volume assumes a grounding in commonpractice tonality, serial technique and in pitch-class set theory analysis. Schnittke himself was not familiar with the set-theory approach, but it proves particularly useful in discussing his post-serial music, where rigorous serial transformations are often applied to shorter sets, and in situations where pitch distribution can be concisely described as the manipulation of unordered sets. The discussion of Schnittke’s later music also brings in terminology from Neo-Riemannian analysis, although these concepts are explained in the text and require no prior knowledge of the approach.

Many sections of this book have been expanded from earlier published texts. These include programme notes for the BBC Philharmonic and the Salzburg Festival, CD liner notes for the BIS and Somm labels, prefaces for the Alfred Schnittke Collected Works Edition (Schnittke 2010–) and papers published in the proceedings of conferences at the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow. I am grateful to the editors of those publications for permission to reuse the material here.

Thanks also go to the late Professor Alexander Ivashkin (1948–2014), who supervised my PhD on Schnittke’s music (Dixon 2007). This book is indebted to him in many ways.

The Collected Works Edition, a project ongoing at the time of writing, was his initiative, and its scholarly approach to Schnittke’s music, and to the available resources, is a model to which the present publication aspires. The supervising editor for the Collected Works, Aleksey Vulfson, has also greatly assisted my research, helping to trace scores and articles, and patiently assisting in my neverending struggle with Russian cursive script. The Collected Works Edition was made possible by Ivashkin’s collection of photocopies of Schnittke’s manuscript scores. This collection, which is almost complete, now forms the basis of the Ivashkin-Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths. The Archive has been invaluable to the present publication, for the manuscript copies, but also for the compositional sketches and the vast array of secondary literature that Ivashkin also collected. I am grateful to Ivashkin’s widow, Natalia Pavlutskaya, for her help in sourcing many scores and articles and for her permission to reproduce several of the sketches in the Archive. At Goldsmiths, the collection is under the curatorship of Lesley Ruthven, Special Collections & Archives Manager. I am deeply indebted to Lesley and her colleagues for all their assistance during my many visits to the library. Thanks also to Lesley and to Jade Leonard for sourcing information in the Archive after Covid-19 brought library visits to a halt. Another important archive of Schnittke’s compositional sketches is held at the Juilliard School in New York. I am grateful to Jane Gottlieb, Vice President for Library and Information Resources, for permission to reproduce two of the sketches.

Sourcing information on Schnittke’s music has often proved challenging, not least for the many languages involved. I am particularly grateful for the help I received in locating documents and verifying information to Professor David Blake, Dr Elena Dubinets, Aleksander Laskowski, Dr Ivana Medić, the late Dmitri Smirnov, Dr Christian Storch and Dr Hans Brandon Twitchell. Finally, thank you to my wife, Dr Felicitas Dixon, for proofreading the text. Any remaining errors or unwieldy linguistic constructions are of course my own responsibility​
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