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With a name that sounds like sneeze and a body of work that's willfully weird and unsettling, composer Alfred Schnittke was the most unlikely of musical heroes. Yet at the time of his death in 1998, he was the world's most widely performed and recorded living composer.
Considered the next-generation Shostakovich, Schnittke had a distinctive style – or blend of styles – he called "polystylism." I offer here, in this playlist, samples of his sampling, for Schnittke drew from the past like a DJ. He could exude florid Baroque counterpoint and angry atonality. He could be a tragedian and comedian, often just a breath apart. He thrived on spine-tingling dissonance amid moments of great beuty.
In his music, infectious melody, often reclaimed from centuries past, staggers toward a cadence only to decompose into tone clusters that buzz like flies over the corpse. A sweeping musical phrase is smeared with a swipe of strings as aggressive as Francis Bacon's turpentine rag. The deeply heartfelt is immediately parodied, leaving the audience seduced and abandoned.
I'll start with a couple of exciting movements from his 1977 Concerto Grosso No. 1 for two violins, prepared piano, harpsichord and 21 strings. It had been, oh, a couple hundred years since a composer of note wrote six concerti grosso, sort of concertos for more than one instrument and orchestra.
First, the toccata movement … It opens with racing violins, the at 0:53 starts to time travel through Baroque-style counterpoint and contemporary tonalities … a true toccata, it's all excitement and flash.
The rondo movement opens a dazzling violin duo, as the soloists chase each other, then around 2:30 comes a characteristic Schnittke moment: a tango. Schnittke thought the tango was the most banal form of music and used tangos as satire. Since it's a rondo, the opening material returns, sort of …
Perhaps his finest orchestral work, next up is the Viola Concerto. It opens and ends will brooding bookends, but this central movement is the music of a pissed-off Romantic.
About one minute in, the viola voices a soaring Romantic theme, and at 3:50 enters rhythmic central section that transforms at 6:25 into a rhapsody of a great beauty. After a brief cadenza, it staggers in exhaustion.
And I end with his String Quartet No. 3, where the past and the future mingle wonderfully.
The first movement opens with three quick quotes: from Flemish Renaissance composer Orlando di Lassus; the opening of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and the D-S-C-H motive that Shostakovich used as his personal motto. These snippets run through the entire quartet. Schnittke then quickly takes you to ever-expanding sound world.
The second movement is pure Schnittke: excitement, surprises (it is marked "agitato"), and some wonderful sonic effects from bowing techniques.
The final movement opens with dark drama and wanders in and out of the Lassus quote as the music clings to the past like a security blanket while seemingly mourning the present. It doesn't so much end as it collapses.
If you like the music of Shostakovich, you should get into Schnittke. Does this work for you?