Today would have been Alfred Schnittke’s 80th birthday. He didn’t live to see it of course; he died in 1998 following a decade of desperately poor health. But he’s still with us in spirit. His music has gone up and down in popularity since his death, but it has never disappeared. In fact, a handful of his works, covering a variety of genres, have achieved central positions in the repertoire. His historical status is secure.
Schnittke has always been a controversial figure. In the years since his death, the new music world has increasingly polarised into conservative and progressive tendencies. Composers of tonal neo-Romantic music have been embraced by the establishment (at least in the English-speaking world) and no longer feel the need to make excuses or highbrow theoretical justifications for what they do. Schnittke is not among that company, but for many of his critics, the concept of polystylism is just such a justification, an intellectual disguise for reactionary tendencies.
He really belongs with the Modernists. But today’s advocates of Frankfurt School progressive values are increasingly besieged and isolated, and have little time for a composer who was very consciously at the edge of that world. In fact, Schnittke actively sought to destabilise the progressive paradigm, to challenge its insularity and claims to superiority. So perhaps it is of little surprise that he has ended up largely excluded from what remains of it.
Schnittke came to global attention in the mid-1980s. He was the right man at the right time for the classical music world. Just as organisations – orchestras and record labels in particular – began to acknowledge the cultural stagnation they were causing through the continual recycling of an Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, Schnittke provided a revealing, and damning, self-image through which to play out that Angst. The whole phenomenon was a process, a fast one at that, and transience was inevitable. Another problem was the marketing line that presented Schnittke as the heir to Shostakovich, a valid comparison in some ways, but one with little relevance past the fall of the Soviet Union.
The fact that Schnittke lived and worked through the Soviet times has added an extra dimension to the debates about progression and reaction, populism and artistic worth. The American scholar Peter J. Schmelz argues that Schnittke’s advocates push his dissidence too far, and that his use of tonal idioms aligns Schnittke’s music with state cultural policy. Put crudely, polystylism is Socialist Realism.
It is a provocative polemic that contains a good deal of unhelpful exaggeration itself. Listening to Russian academics railing against this view brings back unwelcome memories of the Shostakovich Testimony debate, though it is unlikely to come to that. But Schmelz’s argument demonstrates how difficult it is to untangle the cultural politics of music written in Soviet times. Schnittke’s own political views were conservative, though he would probably use the term “traditional” himself, but his artistic outlook was not. He was much like Stravinsky, determined to retain and promote established cultural values, but in radical ways.
Perhaps that is why Schnittke’s reputation is so complex today, and so different in different parts of the world. In Russia, he is still a central figure in new music, but different generations approach his music with different agendas. However indifferent he himself felt about the political struggles of the 1980s, his music became a symbol of resistance, and many in Russia still hear it in those terms. That has caused a generation divide, with many younger musicians treating Schnittke as music of the Soviet past, with little relevance to the new Russia. On the other hand, the explicitly religious music he was writing (often covertly) from the 1970s parallels the resurgence of the Orthodox Church, creating a continuity into modern times.
In the West, Schnittke remains closely connected with the Russian diaspora. His global reputation was established by leading Soviet musicians touring his music in the 1980s, particularly Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet and Mark Lubotsky. Another important name here is Mstislav Rostropovich, already living in the West, but as keen as any of his colleagues in Russia to promote Schnittke’s work.
Many performers of Schnittke’s generation continue to champion his music. Their recorded legacy is also formidable. Almost all of Schnittke’s major works have extensive discographies, and in many cases the benchmark recording is the first, with the dedicatees providing versions that have yet to be surpassed.
Younger performers needn’t lose heart though. Schnittke’s music demands interpretation, it needs performers who can give individuality and emotion (another factor that puts it at the peripheries of Modernism). There are many significant textual issues with Schnittke’s scores, because whenever a performer suggested a change in rehearsal, he invariably said yes. He wasn’t interested in performers simply giving a presentation of the notes on the page, he expected them to live the music and to reimagine it in every performance. As a result, the recorded legacy of the music’s first performers is not definitive, whatever its quality. Performers continue to be drawn to Schnittke’s music for just this reason, and every new performance and recording has something different to say about it.
Some lament the passing of Schnittke’s period of extreme popularity, and it is a great shame that his orchestral music is not played more. But, from the sheer number and quality of recent recordings, it is clear that his solo, chamber and choral music is as popular as ever. Schnittke’s legacy remains complex, with scholars and commentators likely to debate its significance and value for years to come, but the music itself lives on because it continues to inspire and engage musicians from one generation to the next.