Program Notes

ALFRED SCHNITTKE (1934 – 1998)


Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934 in the Soviet Union but first studied music in Vienna, where he was introduced to the Austro-German musical tradition. From the 1930s until after the death of Stalin in 1953, the arts in the USSR were under strict state control with artists forced to adhere to the tenets of “socialist realism,” which strongly discouraged experimentation. However, during the Khrushchev thaw in the late 1950s, Schnittke gained access to scores by Western avant-garde composers such as Stravinsky (a fellow Russian who had been living abroad prior to World War I and the Bolshevik revolution and only returned to his homeland in 1962) and Schoenberg, which set him on a path that ensured he would never enjoy steady, state-sanctioned employment as a musician.

In fact, most of Schnittke’s music was banned at home, but he was able to support himself writing film scores (over 60 in 25 years). His experiences in that field led him to the concept of “polystylism” — using different styles from different sources in composition — and in 1971 he published the seminal essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music." Among the composers Schnittke considered polystylists were Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Berg, Boulez, and Stockhausen. Meanwhile, despite the low regard in which his music was held by the government, world-renowned Russian musicians such as Mystislav Rostropovich and Gennady Rozhdestvensky were devoted to him and performed his music outside the Soviet Union; through their efforts Schnittke’s work became well known in the West.

“Moz-Art,” written in 1977, a quirky and humorous piece for two violins, is a perfect example of polystylism. Based on the first violin part from Mozart’s unfinished “Music to a Carnival Pantomime,” with morsels of his 40th Symphony, “Moz-Art” is also a play on words in German meaning “Sort of.” Musicologist David Fanning says about the piece, “Schnittke often treats Mozart with the detached bemusement of a visitor from outer space confronting an artifact from a dead civilization.”