The music of Alfred Schnittke, who died in August 1998 at age sixty-three, embodies crucial features of the postmodern fate of art. Its signal quality is an encompassing passion for transformation; its lustful and consuming energy seeks to absorb the entire tradition of music, from medieval chant through classical conventions to punk rock. New transformation, new appropriation, is its formal prerogative, whether in music of repose and silvery calm or in the midst of frenzy. Like Karamazov’s buffoonery and the Idiot’s fit, his music consumes all the energy in the Hall of Music, deranging, zapping, and travestying all the disintegrating forms and ruined or falsified vocabularies resounding in the Hall’s grave air. With its “polystylistic” pastiches and travesties of earlier composers, this music has proved to be widely compelling to audiences in Russia and also in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The reasons for its impact reflect on both the nature of postmodernism and the situation of music in recent decades.
In the nineteen-nineties, two discussions of the composer helped to clarify his impact and influence. In 1996, the larger of these studies appeared, Alexander Ivashkin’s Alfred Schnittke in Phaidon’s Twentieth Century Composers series. Here we learn of Schnittke’s Russian, Jewish, and Catholic German background, his early exposure to Viennese musical culture, the formative impact of Shostakovich’s work, and the influence of his teacher Philip Gershkovich’s conception of a polystylistic music, which would echo and absorb the full range of music from pre-Baroque to Webern and beyond. Ivashkin is particularly interested in exposing the hidden content of Schnittke’s music, its “submerged symbolic element” and “spiritual content.” He argues on the basis of its musical echoes of various liturgies that Schnittke’s music conveys and depends on a particularly Russian form of mystical Christianity. Given the extraordinarily wide range of sacred and profane echoes in Schnittke’s music, it is a bit reductive to zero in on its “mysticism.” More interesting than the putative hidden content here is, I think, the intention itself of hiding content. That there are multiple levels of suggested and obscured meanings is characteristic of its musical formations. The significance of its multifarious form is not that it bears a specific meaning but that it enacts the promise of meaning when no meaning can be “spoken”—when meaning-making has become packaged and propagandistic, a usurped if not obliterated activity.
The capability of music to express the potential for meaning when meaningful utterance is obliterated by a society’s apparatus of cliché is a subject approached ten years ago in Richard Taruskin’s delving study of the crises of identity shaping Russian musical history, Defining Russia Musically. It is Shostakovich’s music which Taruskin sees as offering Schnittke a model of musical “polysemy,” a term for the strategically ambiguous voicing of multiple “subtexts and multivalent meanings,” expressing—or, better, insinuating—potentially and simultaneously both “freedom and constraint.” In the repressive context of Soviet society, music (famously, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) offered “its blessed polysemy, [which] afforded…a consolation no other art could provide.” The dire sense of the Soviet context is most evident in Taruskin’s chapter on Schnittke. In his analysis of the “posteverythingist” composer, Taruskin notes that the late Soviet version of the “’semiotic’ or signaling aspect, a traditional characteristic of Russian music”—say, in the use of “discord”—is transformed by this music into a sort of screen onto which any meaning can be projected in “whatever terms (ethical, spiritual, autobiographical, political) the listener may prefer.” Given its ambiguous and ironic recycling of “prefabricated associations” and bathetic clichés, “the result is socialist realism minus the socialism. It implies dramaturgy and aspires, beyond that, to the condition of philosophy.”
Taruskin is undecided about Schnittke’s realization of this aspiration, and he spends some pages exposing what he perceives to be tasteless and omnivorous exaggeration and bathos: “No other composer so fearlessly recycles cliché.” Yet he also identifies the gamble implicit in Schnittke’s ambiguously transforming into extreme travesty and irony all the bloated entities of musical cliché (whether Soviet dreck or commercialized pablum or academic still-lifes). Where Taruskin perceives the risk of loss—of the failed gamble—Ivashkin hears a quasi-messianic Russian Orthodox strain in Schnittke’s music. Both formulations would do well to acknowledge more generously its key feature: its voracity, a voracious welcoming even of failure and collapse, or especially these, for the lust of appropriation in this music is matched only by its sense of mourning. (In his opera, Life with an Idiot, Schnittke has Proust, Dostoyevskian doubles, and all the others wildly, absurdly waltz about only to collapse in acute pain before our eyes and ears.)
A certain hesitation is understandable in the face of such lustful musical extremity, as we witness the imaginative voracity intensely charging each of his best scores, continually assimilating and transforming musical materials into deracinated and destabilized ambiguity. (One is reminded of Edward Said’s Adornian conceptions—in Musical Elaborations—of transgressive music and of performance as “an extreme occasion.”) Such music enacts a passionate, uncontainable consuming of all music in its path, “without respite, which makes us, the spectators[/listeners], gasp with anguish at the idea that nothing will ever be able to stop it.” These are Artaud words, in “Theatre and the Plague,” describing Giovanni at the climax of “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” Ford’s boundary-violating, genre-exploding Renaissance drama. Schnittke similarly explores a region of transgressive and outrageous travesty, yet it simultaneously ranges into a zone of outraged grief, of mourning for the death of the very forms its so prodigally travesties.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]