You could hear it as one of the great embodiments of musical post-modernism, a defiant and even joyous two fingers to the denizens of stylistic purity who had held sway, in the West at least, during the immediate post-war years. At the other extreme, you might feel that this symphony is among the most nihilistic ever written: instead of even attempting an originality of voice, instead of a belief in the possibility of musical renewal, all that remains is to regurgitate the past as a grotesque cavalcade, an enterprise for which the moniker "symphony" is nothing more than a cynical sticking-plaster, since any pretence of "symphonic" coherence belongs to another musical universe than the surreal space that this piece creates.
I'm not sure. I think Schnittke's First Symphony (he wrote eight, left a ninth unfinished at his death, and there's a Bruckner-style symphony number zero that he didn't acknowledge as part of his canon) is probably both, neither, and more than either of those extreme interpretations. Above all, it's a thrilling and disturbing musical riot if you ever have the chance to hear it live. But it's also a fragment – albeit a massive, hulking planetoid of a fragment – of the whole of Schnittke's catalogue of orchestral, vocal, chamber, theatre and film music, all written in his 63 short years, the last of them scarred by the series of strokes that would end his life in 1998.
Schnittke didn’t enjoy any of those perks and benefits. His works were basically blacklisted. This situation was due to an ongoing rejection of any type of Western influences on Soviet ideology. Since music in the Soviet Union was part of ideology, composer’s works and their lives were under control and scrutiny.
As the years went by, Schnittke remained in my repertoire and one day, planning a concert in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, I decided I would perform all the music Schnittke had written for violin and piano. Working on the programme, I realised some things I’d previously only suspected. First, his works for violin and piano covers every period of his creative life, and could even be an ideal guide to Schnittke’s world. From the dodecaphony of the first part of the Sonata No 1 via the polystylistic No 2 to the flayed, dry, deathly late style of No 3: it’s all there – the film music of Suite in the Old Style, the stylized Gratulations Rondo, the characteristic Schnittkean distortions of other people’s music in Stille Nacht and the well-known polka from The Census List. These few pieces contain his entire artistic trajectory, his whole life.
''He is one of the greatest humanists who ever worked in the art of music,'' the conductor Kurt Masur said. ''His music can have a bitter taste yet confront you with the truth of life, the tragedy of life, the poetry of life, the humor of life.''
It is hard to appreciate the extent of Schnittke's musical triumph when the infinite horrors inflicted by the Soviet system on its own people are recalled in the United States as background images to sell competing cable television services. In less than 20 years, entirely on the strength of his extraordinary imagination, Schnittke has been transformed from an eclectic composer little known outside the Russian intelligentsia to one of the most widely performed composers of our time. Not only has most of his prolific output been recorded, but multiple versions of many works also appear on dozens of labels readily available in America, like Chandos, Bis, Deutsche Grammophon and Ondine.
His mature, serious music can easily be made to sound just as meretricious, as if made to order for a restless Soviet avant-garde that risked thumbing its nose at its pre-glasnost masters. Schnittke's First Symphony (1972) could have been put together using an international avant-gardist guidebook of the period: make lots of allusions to music of the past, to Wagner and Bach, to Haydn and Gregorian chant; then fracture melodies with ear-piercing dissonances and twist harmonies into bizarre contortions. Finally, dismantle concert hall manners by having players walk on stage playing their instruments before the conductor even appears.
This was not the exception. Schnittke's Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) has a cadenza that is meant to be strenuously mimed by the soloist without making a sound. In many of his other pieces, tangos and waltzes slip into anxious cacophony, Bach seems to morph into Stockhausen, and Shostakovich-style sarcasm gets free rein. It's a post-modern playground.
Mr. Schnittke belonged to a rebellious arm of Soviet composition that included Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Part and Edison Denisov. Their nemesis was the Soviet Composers Union, which frowned on Serialism and many forms of experimentation. The premiere of Mr. Schnittke's First Symphony -- a piece the composer described as ''beginning like a circus and ending in an apocalyptic, terrifying way'' -- lost him the union's support in 1972, but he survived on film work and commissions from admiring musicians.
The occasion was the world premiere of "Life With an Idiot," the first opera by Alfred Schnittke, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany, but who counts as Russia's most respected, best-known living composer. The performance at the Netherlands Music Theater of this surrealist, often grotesque and sexually explicit score took place in the presence of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus and was greeted with a fervent standing ovation.
Mr. Schnittke does not have a consistent or identifiable style, and, he might well respond, why should he? ''Polystylistic'' is a word he uses, according to the program notes, for his music of the past 15 or 20 years. Like several composers in the West, he has turned to pastiche, with snippets of Mozart or chant or what have you thrown together in a single work. Fair enough; pastiche has been called the form of our day.
Schnittke is still relatively little known in the west. Between the 1960s and 1980s, millions of Russians heard him as a film composer, in which guise he is much more a witty purveyor of heroic themes and common-time dances than the taciturn creator of astringent, complex absolute music he was elsewhere. In his serious pieces the dance is still paramount, but is clothed in jagged harmony and tone-row melodies that inhabit a pictureless world of pure sound - socialist unrealism, in a sense. His fancy flits between worlds and eras. A favourite instrument is the harpsichord, reeking of pre-revolutionary decadence in his ultra-modern scores.
I had assimilated serial and aleatory techniques and I believed that I had found a rational formula with which to compose good music; but I later realized that nothing had been changed by this approach - everyything remained the same. Good music cannot be created by good intentions. The composer must listen to his inner voice; either he has it, or he hasn't. I sought a synthesis of styles, juxtaposing different elements, that would yet allow each element to retain its individuality.