Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

by 5:4

The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Until, that is, the final few bars, when—in a bit of instrumentation redolent of Berlioz—a lone piccolo returns to the original melody, almost five octaves above a six-note cluster in the double basses. While Schnittke compulsively clings to a scrap of melody through this opening movement, the rest of the work charts a sharp decline away from such unrelentingly stark definition. The brief second movement (Allegro moderato) shows more inclination towards excitement, but its material is almost entirely gestural: gymnastic crotchets, a fast rising flourish, loud and dissonant chords, increasingly dense clusters—none of it allowed to become something substantial, treated in an off-hand, even schizophrenic fashion. Just one idea seems to grab hold, sharp, repeated notes becoming increasingly rapid, but even this has been passed over before the end.

The opening of the relatively huge—over 15 minute—slow central movement suggests music of real substance might finally emerge: a rich melody in the violins, with echoes of late Mahler. Its tonal clarity is gently blurred by clusters in the other strings, but this effect also makes the melodic direction less clear, and before long there’s a distinct sense of the music having lost its way; a wind episode doesn’t help at all, and when the strings re-enter, they play as though groping their way through darkness. A timpani roll on a low F gives impetus for a fresh start, both violins and wind sounding temporarily more certain, but all of the cadences are again clouded by the lower strings. By now, the continuous forward motion of the melody (if that’s the right word for it) is infuriating—where is it going? why is it bothering? what’s the point? Superficially, there’s the deep, ponderous quality of one of Shostakovich’s large-scale symphonic slow movements, but Schnittke is exploring a radically different sound-world, dogged and inscrutable, lost at sea. Having descended through the strings, the movement switches from Lento to Largo for a while, introducing a brass chorale; while the rest of the orchestra initially looks dumbly on, they are roused sufficiently to join together for a single tutti bar—a crescendo that gives way, pathetically, to its dynamic opposite: a solo celesta, echoing the brass in an undertone. The rest of the movement is a return to the symphonic brownian motion of earlier; music happens but goes nowhere—a momentary foray into rich triads has zero impact—and at the last doesn’t so much conclude as just stop, an obdurate 12-note cluster hanging in the cellos and basses. By now, the end’s very much in sight, and while the fourth movement (Allegro moderato) is infinitely more sprightly than pretty much everything heard so far, it’s just as cluster-bound and, ultimately, in search of ideas. At the entrance of the glockenspiel, it looks like it may have found one, but this Symphony has cried wolf before, and it lapses into the same material that achieved precisely nothing in the second movement, finishing as that did, with the repeated note idea. It passes seamlessly into the closing movement (Lento), which consists solely of a slowly growing cluster, founded above a G, rising into the heavens, its luminosity made to twinkle by the celesta and (making their first appearance moments before the end), two harps.

In his comments about the piece, John Tusa spoke of Schnittke contemplating his own mortality in this symphony, of a struggle with death; if that’s true, it’s a profoundly tired, even spent kind of struggle, with little resistance demonstrated. It’s almost a senile music, doubtful and disoriented; all is obfuscated, trying to work what it should be doing, moving in a pained downward spiral from one genuine idea through gestures and shapes to an amorphous mass which, depending on your outlook, may or may not be comforting.

Part two began with the Concerto Grosso No. 2, for violin, cello and orchestra, composed in 1982. Its opening movement (Andantino – Allegro), is a far superior example of the kind of thing Schnittke might have been aiming for in the Grieg Hommage. Ill-matched styles are thrown together into a pot that, to some extent, succeeds in melting them into something new. A simple, lilting melody (not dissimilar to the carol ‘Stille Nacht’); some avant-garde note-smears; an explosion of mock Bach—all of these are aggressively forced to interact, a ruthless process of hybridisation in which individual senses of stylistic identity are pushed beyond breaking point; towards the end, there’s an amusingly unexpected shift in the direction of pop music, and in the final bars, a brief tutti that might have been lifted from Mahler’s Second Symphony. Schnittke marks the second and longest movement ‘Pesante’, and it certainly opens in that manner, the solo cello laying out a ground bass with widely-spaced staccato pitches. The violin melody that joins it, underlined at the start of each phrase by harpsichord scrunches, establishes a deeply melancholic tone, although immediately other strings begin to jab at it with harsh clusters. The orchestra wades in, sliding all over the soloists, ruining their duologue, and matching their movements; they switch to pizzicato, the orchestra responds with brutal staccatos and thwacked drums; they return to attempts at melody, it destroys the moment by evoking the music of assorted kinds of bands, the drum kit rendering all their seriousness foolish. Instead, the duo resorts to the ‘Stille Nacht’-like melody from the previous movement (trying a little too hard, it seems), answered by retorts on the tubular bells and more banal drum beats. It becomes a mess, which the soloists abandon; only when the instruments finally shut up do they resume—timidly, with out-of-control vibrato—somehow initiating an ethereal coda, projecting bright harmonics into the orchestral wilderness. The third movement (Allegro) begins as this dies away, three flutes and harpsichord striking up more pretend Bach, made unpleasant by a prominent drone, throwing things off kilter and driving them towards dissonant collapse. Violin and cello launch into hectic counterpoint, seeming to establish a more comfortable rapport with the orchestra (who, for once, actually give the impression of accompanying the duo). A growing separation becomes apparent, however, and the soloists quickly find themselves drowning in the ever rising textures surrounding them on all sides, climaxing in a vast Baroque piss-take, the orchestra blowing a tutti raspberry at the pair. This ushers in the final movement (Andantino), beginning in the gentlest way, the quasi-‘Stille Nacht’ melody the basis for both the orchestra’s and the soloists’ material. Left to their own devices for a while, the duo grows in confidence, their music building into an eloquent testimony; the orchestra only obstructs things once, seeing fit to embellish their material with surprising but effective touches: distant timpani glissandi, a shock of glittering chimes. A couple of times the orchestra asserts itself, in short but telling crescendos, but they ultimately allow the violin and cello to prevail, the duo’s closing notes fragile but resolute.

And to bring my Schnittke Week to a boisterous close, the concert ends with perhaps my favourite of his orchestral pieces, the mischievously-titled and -executed (K)ein Sommernachstraum—”(Not) a Midsummer Night’s Dream”, composed in 1985. The entire source material is sounded out in the opening minute or two; an unaffected theme—a pastiche rejected sketch from either Mozart or Schubert—put forth by violin and piano and taken over by flute and harpsichord. The oblique harmonies thrown up by their canonic treatment of the material give some indication of Schnittke’s intentions for this most twee of tunes; sure enough, in no time the instruments are emphatically overlapping each other, the child-like simplicity of the melody turned into an indecipherable clutch of sonic smudges. It’s the archetypal ‘bull in a china shop’ composition; a melody designed for kid gloves treatment being roughly manhandled with all the grace and tact of a football hooligan. There’s more than a hint of Milhaud at times, in the contorted pan-tonalities Schnittke draws upon (which, although rather familiar these days, are still funny). Most hilarious of all, though, is the sudden descent into circus music, made more ridiculous by the equally sudden return to the delicacy of the salon immediately afterward. Finally, the work’s internal pressure erupts in a cacophonic splurge that leaves the orchestra at sixes and sevens; rest assured, however, Schnittke miraculously ties up all the loose ends into a delightfully straight-faced and perfectly-judged coda. Schnittke may have said of the work, “it has no direct connection with Shakespeare”, but where (K)ein Sommernachstraum is concerned, all’s well that ends well.

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thank you so much for making this wonderful music week available to all – it was a very interesting read too :)


@sparkswillfly The recordings were simply taken from radio broadcasts, & I didn't create .cue files for them, so no, sorry! Glad you've enjoyed the Schnittke posts :-)


Thank you a lot for sharing wonderful music and keeping up a great blog! Hard work, and I think its appreciated by quite a lot of people!

Thanks for the Schnittke posts. Do you know if there are any .cue files for the Schnittke records you've shared?


Thanks very much for the entire Schnittke series, both for sharing the broadcasts and for your, as always, fascinating analyses and reflections. Thanks in particular for this broadcast of the 8th Symphony. I haven't yet heard the 9th, but it's frightening even contemplating where Schnittke might have gone after the 7th and 8th. The first movement of the 8th is a perverse and terrifying piece on its own, but it's that icily depersonalized slow movement that really chills my spine. Very nice description of this symphony in particular and thanks again for the broadcast; the acoustic is much better than the studio recording (Chandos?) that I have.


@Andrew – Thanks for your comment, & for the kind words • i was a little disappointed at the quality of some of the recordings (not sure what's happened to them over the years), but the performances were all outstanding, so hopefully that makes up for it •


Just wanted to say huge thanks to you for putting up such a treasure trove of Schnittke's music. Quite a bit here that I don't know at all and a few more unusual pieces in amongst the more well known works like the Piano Quintet and the Concerto Grosso No. 1. I will be dipping into a fair bit and enjoying it over the next few days and weeks, I think.

Thanks again. Your hard work here is very much appreciated in this Schnittke enthusiast's house.


Simon, I’ve been discovering the symphonies (yes, I know!) of Malcolm Arnold of late. Insofar as he’s remembered at all, Arnold tends to be pegged as a joker (Tam O’Shanter, et al.) and shameless populist (the film scores, his co-orchestration and conducting of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra), but I’ve noticed interesting parallels between his and Schnittke’s nine numbered symphonies, particularly in terms of a similarly lacerating, “My life’s increasingly shit, so why should I pretend otherwise?” honesty from no.6 onwards in both cases, albeit that Arnold provides by far the “easier” listen. The closest comparator to Schnittke 8 is probably the psychologically hollowed-out soundworld of Arnold 9, but possibly the more disturbing listen is Arnold 7: on setting out to write affectionate portraits of his children (one per movement), Arnold finds himself unable to summon up anything nice to say about them, and instead ends up writing some of his most wantonly violent music.

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