Alfred Schnittke and the art of grief

As we begin to look toward August, I will release program notes from this summer’s repertoire (tickets on sale June 1st) starting with Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet.

Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998)

This summer we’ll feature two piano quintets that are a study in contrast. The ebullient Schumann Quintet couldn’t be more different from Schnittke’s tortured work. Distraught over his mother’s death, Schnittke started the piece as an “instrumental requiem.” It took him four years to complete. Schumann composed his buoyant quintet, dedicated to his wife Clara, in four weeks.

The Schnittke practically bleeds with pain: “I was unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from imaginary spaces defined in terms of sound and put it into 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’s striking headstone:
A fermata over a rest in fortississimo

The strings in the first movement (Moderato) sound in denial of the impossible while the piano cruelly strikes unceasing quarter notes on a repeated high G# – real, terrible, and relentless. The waltz-like second movement (Tempo di Valse), accordingly to Schnittke, contains references to events in his mother’s life through a filter of sadness.  The third (Andante) and fourth (Lento) - all movements in this work move seamlessly one to the next without pause - are based on what Schnittke described as “real experiences of grief.”


What happens next, at the start of the fifth movement (Moderato pastorale), is unexpected. The stillness following a long moan of despair comes as a shock - the cry leaving an aural outline not unlike the ghostly image burned on one’s retina after a blinding flash in the dark. And then, a soft upward-looking solo piano melody emerges, repeated again and again and again, a kind of beacon, like a hand gently guiding us out of darkness. Where there was despair, there now is hope.

Alfred Schnittke: Piano Quintet

A meditation on sadness but also healing, Schnittke described this last movement as “fading shadows of a tragic sensation that has already fled." People talk about “moving on” from a great loss but not everyone can and some don’t want to, the grief seeming like the last remnant of one who has passed. Rhina P. Espaillat expresses it clearer than I could ever hope to do:

The Widow Considers Grief

Should this grief abate-
As I’m told it will-
Let that happen late,
When I’ve mourned my fill.

Let no comfort fall
on my lips like rain
until I’ve paid all
the full toll of pain

levied on our dust
for its first desire
and pronounced it just,
were it even higher.
Rockwell Kent: “Lone Man”

Why listen to sad music? For some, it is in understanding that someone else has been where you’ve been. For others, it might be a safe way to revisit big emotions from the vantage point of one who has survived; going back is a way to retroactively put an arm around the version of you that struggled at the time, and to say “you’ll be ok.” The arts take us places we don’t visit in day-to-day life. Some are beautiful, others are painful. From these we emerge, blinking and strangely comforted, more alive than when we entered.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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