To listen to Schnittke’s music is akin to hearing the teetering songs at a wake, songs of rabid and consuming drunkenness. It is as if wild voracity becomes a sign of grief. One searches for the appropriate critical language in order to evaluate the unstable “situation” of expression and reception into which such music draws the listener. Partly this difficulty of critique results from the extremity of that “situation,” that of apocalyptic and at times tortured witness to the endangered process of making meaning itself. To analyze the paradoxical effect of moral and emotional witness in Schnittke and the model he offers music at the start of the twenty-first century, a useful guide is provided by Theodor Adorno’s idea of negative dialectics, of thinking against itself, against the grain of its own founding assumptions. Particularly relevant is Adorno’s use of such critique in his analyses of Mahler’s beautiful, desperate, massive symphonies in Quasi Una Fantasia and Mahler. Adorno’s conception of Mahler’s symphonies can be linked also to Shostakovich’s concerto and symphonic works, and we will see that the musical ideas both composers develop find their inheritor in Schnittke, in his exposure and explosion of symphonic and concerto forms.
Like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or Shostakovich’s concertos for string soloists, Schnittke’s Fourth Symphony and his First Concerto Grosso and his Viola Concerto expose and travesty a fundamental assumption in certain uses of symphonic and concerto forms. That is their capacity to project the potentially totalitarian communal power of massed orchestral forces, all concertedly sounding together, whether in early modernist Vienna, in mid-century Soviet Russia, or in our own brave new century. These orchestral forces move toward obliterating the struggling individual voice of viola or violin, and the agon between individual and collective is marked in such music by a markedly exposed and disintegrating extremity. The music of Schnittke, like that of Mahler or Shostakovich, witnesses and estranges society’s gestures of power and expressivity, and—in Adorno's phrase from Minima Moralia—reveals those gestures to be, with their rifts and fissures, as indigent and distorted as they would appear in a transfigured, messianic perspective. This conception of aesthetic and ethical witness helps us to clarify why—as Ivashkin and Taruskin assert—Schnittke is the postmodern inheritor particularly of Shostakovich’s mantle.
To see Shostakovich in relation to the idea of witness is to recognize both auspicious expectations of his work and their ironic defeat. One aspect of Shostakovich's paradoxical struggle—in the Eighth String Quartet or his Fifth Symphony, for example—was to absorb into public, Soviet musical conventions certain otherwise abhorred features of early modernism: the Mahlerian symphony; the Neo-Classical transmutation of Bach's contrapuntal example; and the development of chamber music further into the region discovered in Beethoven’s late quartets, in what Schoenberg termed the "progressive" chamber works of Brahms, and in Bartok’s quartets. Subversively assimilating these modernist prerogatives, Shostakovich's major quartets and symphonies express a self-challenging awareness of the ways in which ethics and aesthetics can articulate or collide.
Shostakovich's complex sensitivity to the tension between aesthetic and ethical elements in modern art has often been interpreted in reductive terms, which ascribe either dissident or Stalinist motives to the composer, as he struggled to advance the Western musical tradition within the oppressive and totalitarian context of Soviet Russia. Given the range of his putative motives, to assert that his music is ambiguous does not merely celebrate its modernist autonomy—its brilliance as self-sustaining form; it is to point also to the music’s capacity to evince and even to liberate a range of interpretive responses in the face of a society dominated by assumed and preformed interpretation. Taruskin argues this same point in Defining Russia Musically. He shows how the motifs of the march or of grief in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony can become infused with ironic transformation to the point of interchangeability. In the familiar material of that symphony, the first movement's sensitive, inward, grieving second theme becomes transformed into the development section's violent, manic march theme, the same theme ironically yielding now a terrifying display of power. There is the inversion of this ironic transformation when the Scherzo's manic travesty of carnival music makes way in a sudden, breathtaking caesura for the Largo's dire requiem—or when the Allegro finale with its catastrophic and brutal march yields suddenly the grievous stagnation in the final few minutes before the rousing and punishing coda.
These transformations render, from within the totalized society, the ironic extremity and the interchangeability of inner complicity and of witness, the sensations almost simultaneously of assimilation into and victimization by the power at work in such a society. At the first performance in Moscow of the Fifth Symphony, the audience of party bureaucrats and musical aficionados was enveloped in a mutual catharsis, drawing from them open weeping and a sense of uplift rousing the audience literally to its feet. This symphony had given subjective voice to the simultaneous sensations of inner complicity and of agonized witness, but not only in the Soviet Union circa 1950. Shostakovich's rendering here of the interpenetration of power and grief is—in Taruskin's words—“an act of witness that gives voice to the silenced cost” from the perspective of the subject within a totalized society.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 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. 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, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. 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. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a 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).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]