ALFRED SCHNITTKE (1934 – 1998)

(it seems like yesterday, Part 5)

Alfred Schnittke, genius of the 20th century, did not write a single work for the Bayan, but some creative contacts with him, which unfortunately did not bear fruit, remained anchored in my memory. No result, as scholars say, is also a result. In this case, the contacts for me (and hopefully not only me) were very interesting and informative.

Strange to say, I only vaguely remember the moment of our first meeting, but remember all our subsequent meetings all the clearer. The first creative contact came in July 1974. I remember that as a young teacher I was sitting at a summer exam and waited impatiently for the time scheduled for our meeting with Schnittke in the entrance hall of the Gnessin Institute. He wanted to find out details about the possibilities of the modern Bayan; moreover, he usually wrote for a certain musician and had to be well acquainted with its features, so that he could examine better the artistic possibilities of the soloist, the ensemble or conductor.

Schnittke was punctual. We withdrew with him into one of the classes, and I played for him the Third Sonata of Vladislav Solotaryov. Afterwards we talked for quite a long time, not only about the Sonata, but also about many other things. He liked the first and third movements; he was slightly critical of the Finale (as Denisov was earlier). He was enchanted with the sound of the second movement.

–           “Solotaryov is very talented; it would be good for him to bring his creative thinking into order. He must get involved with religion and read the Bible.”

–           “But he knows the Bible well”, I replied. “He is also familiar with many philosophical works.”

–           “Then he should get more involved with the Indian religion. It disciplines and orders thoughts.”

As a result Schnittke began to think about the possibilities of the Bayan in chamber and film music. It is well known that at that time composers were working on music for cinema films. Chamber music and symphonic works did not pay.

–           “For a solo work I need a definite idea. For the present I have none. Do you know that my very first experience as a composer was a “Concerto for Accordion”? Our family lived in Vienna, Austria, after the war and, apart from an accordion, there was no other musical instrument to hand.”

In the course of the conversation it became apparent that our parents came from one and the same place: his from Engels in the Saratov district, and mine from Balzer (now Krasnoarmeisk) near Engels. The conversation was very friendly, even intimate. In those years there was an exodus among the Jews and consequently also among German Jews. Many musicians and other artists stayed abroad during concert tours. I therefore asked him whether he intended to emigrate, because of the troubles in official circles with the music of composers of the so-called “Soviet Avant-garde”. “No, I have no such plans”, retorted Schnittke resolutely. “I am not facing the problem of

emigration. ! want my music to be acknowledged here first of all, in this country; after that, we shall see – perhaps the question will still become urgent.”

I should mention that Schnittke clothed his thoughts so perfectly (I was more sure of it, as time went on) that even a trivial conversation was conducted at a very high level. His conversation, any utterance, could with certain provisos be published immediately without prior editing. He spoke quietly, softly and quite kindly. A meeting with him always proceeded in a special atmosphere, which led me to higher spheres, which hitherto had been inaccessible to me; I was fully aware that Schnittke had already crossed the boundary of talent, to put himself permanently in the category of “genius”.

When we parted, we agreed to keep in touch. I found it rather distressing, even curious, that I did not know his surname, and I did not know how to address him. When I finally resolved to ask him this, he suddenly stared at me, as if he were about to judge my age or the level of our possible future meetings, and said: “Call me Alik!” When I objected, he answered shortly: “just Alik”. Of course I knew his surname, and Schnittke was for me always Alfred Garrievich?!

In spring 1978 there appeared quite unexpectedly in “Pravda”, the newspaper of the (Communist) Party’s Central Committee, the article by A. Shyuraitis, “For the Protection of Pique Dame (Queen of Spades)”, which began with the sharp words: “Be prepared for a huge campaign now! Your victim is the masterpiece by P.I.  Tchaikovsky, the genius of the Russian classics.” Not for the first time has someone criticised his unique work, “The Queen of Spades”. The excuse is that the libretto does not agree with that of Pushkin. So-called self-appointed “executors of Pushkin’s will”, etc. in this spirit, in short, the complete annihilation of the idea of revision of the well-known opera, which was to be staged in the “Grande 0péra” in Paris. The new version of the opera came from the director, B. Pokrovsky, the composer, A. Schnittke, and the conductor, G. Roshdyesvensky. The whole tone of the article was humiliating (the climax was “Pseudo – Avant-garde – composer”).

It was actually meant for all three: “That is a deliberate campaign to destroy a monument to Russian culture … Have the bodies responsible not shown enough patience with regard to this mockery of the Russian classics? All those, to whom the great heritage of Russian culture is dear, must protest against the immorality in dealing with the Russian classics and condemn the initiators and authors of the mockery of the masterpiece of Russian opera.” So ends this article. It must be said, that, after the notorious Party resolution in 1948, where the whole flower of Soviet composers under the leadership of D. Shostakovich was smashed, this was the most grievous blow to the creators of musical culture. Nobody could understand why        A. Shyuraitis, Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, took the initiative for this article. He did not at any time make public appearances, nor published articles. I heard later that this pamphlet was drafted on orders “from above” (M. Suslov) and Shyuraitis was “asked” to sign it. After I had finished reading the article, I simply had to ring Schnittke. “Now it cannot be at all easy for him; he needs some assistance and moral support”.

… It was the longest and warmest conversation of the whole duration of our friendship. At that moment he was really cast down and needed sincere words of support, and I felt how glad he was to have my call. Certainly many of his close friends rang him up, but how many opponents rejoiced at his problems? I remember some words of sympathy like “clever people understand everything” or “try not to take it all to heart”. He said he didn’t want to alter a single note of Tchaikovsky’s, but simply to come as near as possible to the authentic source, namely Pushkin. As intermezzos collages from the opera would be heard on the harpsichord. “Furthermore”, said Schnittke, livening up, “Roshdyestvensky intends to write a reply in the press. He counted up a number of cuts, which Shyuraitis himself had permitted in operas”. The reply from Gennady Nikolayevich (Roshdyestvensky) was, of course, not published anywhere ( – note by Friedrich Lips). Gradually the conversation came round to our proposed work for Bayan. “I have a lot of commissions; I am booked up in advance for a few years.” After a short pause Schnittke suddenly and decisively made the following suggestion. “You know, I have a list, where the order of commissions is noted, in which I have to work. It is here in front of me. At the end there is the viola concerto for Yuri Bashmet, planned for 1983. In order to pass from conversation to deed, I will put you down for 1984 with a Bayan concerto. Besides, when Yuri sees me, he reminds me from a distance: “1983!”. When we parted, Schnittke requested: “Ring me up more often! Why do you ring me so infrequently?”

I answered rather foolishly: “I feel a subordination between us, which does not allow me to trouble you more often.” “Pardon?” he reacted emotionally, “subordination is a military term from a soldiers’ dictionary. Do ring me!”

When I informed other Bayan players that Schnittke had put me on his list for 1984, some grinned: “What is that, a waiting list? Why so long?” They understood nothing … just foolish.

I was very conscious of the magnitude of Schnittkte’s personality and, being simply in love with his music, was prepared to wait as long as necessary. And in fact, until 1984 there was nothing much else left … Soon after that there was the première of “Stories of Dr Faustus” in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and then the “St John Passion”. There was such power, such a spiritual presence; from the platform there irradiated such a flow of energy, that it even captivated the audience! With each of his new works Schnittke went down convincingly in the history of modern music. Beginning with his “Hymns”, which led me in my student days into the Great Hall of the Composers’ House, to hear them, a very close spiritual world opened up to me. As with the music of Vladislav Solotaryov, it was in absolute harmony with my feeling about the world. It was always full of special artistic freshness and unexpected artistic devices. The modernity of his musical language was never expressed in superficial complexity. There were even Tango rhythms inserted, which I very much appreciated. Irrespective of the natural complexity of his composition, this music was easy to listen to.

The year 1984 arrived. Schnittke completed the Choral Concerto on a poem by G.  Narekazi as well as the Viola Concerto. “I overdid it in these works,” he said later. The intensive effort on such big works affected his health. He overworked and suffered his first stroke. If only this fateful illness had not happened … From that moment he was already working for posterity. I felt he could no longer return to the idea with the Bayan. The period began in his life, where “one must come to the right moment …”

In 1988, on the initiative of the director of the Boston Opera, the conductor, Sara Coldwell, the Festival of Soviet Music took place, “Making Music Together”. The leader of our delegation was R. Shedrin. Besides him, the composers included: Schnittke, S. Gubaidulina, B. Tishenko, W. Silvestrov, K. Kachaturian, Kanchelli, N. Korndorf, G. Dmitriev. Each composer was allowed to invite his/her own performer to America. Gubaidulina suggested that, together with V. Tonkha, we perform her music at this prestigious festival. At her Author’s Evening “Ten Studies” for cello, “De Profundis” for Bayan, and “Seven Words” for cello, Bayan and strings were played. The concert was a brilliant success. The newspaper “New York Times” appeared with the headline over the whole page: “America Opens the Genius of Gubaidulina”. This was a true recognition at international level, which she had long earned; at last this was her finest hour. After the concert we were waiting, together with Alfred Schnittke, for transport to our hotel (I was waiting for my American colleague, Peter Soave, who had travelled from Detroit specially for this concert). He had promised to invite me afterwards to a Japanese restaurant – that is another story, which I still remember today.

–           “You understand,” said Schnittke, continuing our long-standing conversation, “everything that is heard on the Bayan is rooted in popular music. Only Gubaidulina succeeded in achieving a new quality; in her case one feels nothing of the popular style.”

I began to offer resistance:

–           “The Bayan is a versatile instrument and can be used in very different ways. Naturally, folk music can be heard, but it can also sound like an organ, a harpsichord, a woodwind quintet, a Bandoneon … It has many faces!”

–           “That is just what confuses me, it can actually be everything: it sounds like a harmonica, an organ or harpsichord, but where is its own true face? The Bayan’s lack of a face of its own frightens me.”

We fell silent, each trying to think up new arguments. Schnittke continued his reflections and suddenly found a new turn:

–           “But cannot the lack of a face of its own just be its actual face?! Do you know, until now no idea has yet occurred to me; take my “Two little Pieces” for organ and make a transcription for Bayan.”

(Some years later I brought the draft of these pieces for Bayan in my recital in Amsterdam for their première, and afterwards prepared the transcription, at the request of the Austrian publisher, “Universal Edition”, for publication and sent it to Schnittke for authorisation. The “Two Pieces” were then published in Vienna and later in Moscow by the publisher, “Muzika”.)

… For some reason the transport, and just at the right moment Peter Soave drove up with Lana Gore. I asked him to take Schnittke to the hotel first. Peter was delighted to make Schnittke’s acquaintance and did this favour for us joyfully. Naturally, the discussion continued in the car …

I met Schnittke next at the Chamber Music Festival in Huddersfield (England), where among well-known composers from various countries were also Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Takemitsu (Japan). I had a recital there and a performance of “Seven Words” with V. Tonkha and G. Roshdyestvensky. Our meeting was so friendly and warm.

… At some time in the late 1980’s/ early 1990’s Schnittke and his wife, Irina, emigrated to Germany. They lived near Hamburg, where he was constantly under medical observation, because his health was deteriorating steadily.

In 1990 the musical agent ”De Ijsbreker” in Amsterdam organised a Bayan-Accordion festival, to which many well-known Bayan and accordion players were invited: M. Ellegaard, M. Rantanen, M. Dekkers, J. Macerollo, among others. My concerts and master classes were not ignored; soon afterwards the Manager of “De Ijsbreker” invited me again to give a recital. The concert was so successful that the agency proposed commissioning some composer to write a Bayan work for me. I asked them to contact Alfred Schnittke immediately. When after a certain time there was no reaction from him, I rang Schnittke myself from Spain, where I was working at the time. During our dialogue I was acutely aware of the after-effects of the strokes: he spoke slowly, searching for words. In responding to the agency’s idea, he asked me: “Friedrich, in which halls do your concerts take place?” I began to count them up: the Great Hall of the Conservatory (Moscow), Santory Hall (Tokyo), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Lincoln Center (New York), among others. He answered: “That’s not bad! That is wonderful! That, of course, changes the whole situation!” I understood his wish to have his music played in the world’s major halls, but during this latest telephone conversation his melancholy was clear to me: it is all too late. He was already very ill.

A few months before his death he was awarded the “Gloria Prize” for 1998 in Moscow. M Rostropovich handed the prize over to his wife (the composer himself was confined to his bed), and G. Roshdyestvensky conducted the premère of the Ninth Symphony by Alfred Schnittke. I had the impression that a balance was thus struck for the 20th century. The Ninth Symphony turned out to be the last for Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, Mahler (he certainly still had the time to start the Tenth) … Now it was the same also for Schnittke. Probably the Ninth Symphony was also to be the last in his life, although, in my opinion, it was not his best work.

Alfred Schnittke often stressed that two cultures exerted a great influence on his view of the world: the Russian and the German. Shortly before his death an interview with him was published in a newspaper, with his words quoted in the headline: “I am a German composer from Russia”. Regardless of the fact that he had spent his final years in Germany, his remains were interred in Russian soil (he was buried in the Novodyevichy Cemetery in Moscow). Naturally I came to his funeral in the Great Hall of the Conservatory, where his premières were huge triumphs. Probably no-one had had such a send-off since the time of Shostakovich.

I am infinitely sorry, indeed, I feel to some extent to blame, that my inadequate activity (I had nothing to add; I was unable to inspire, interest, convince him!?) did not achieve the desired result: sometimes 1 feel despair and stand powerless before the obvious fact of history: Alfred Schnittke, genius of the 20th century, wrote not a single work for the Bayan.

The German translation of this article came from Dr Herbert Scheibenreif and is authorised by Friedrich Lips. The English translation by Barbarta Harrison comes from Dr. Scheibenreif’s German version with the author’s permission.