Alfred Schnittke—Shostakovich's Heir (cont'd)

II. Schnittke’s Piano Quintet—
Traditional vs. New Language (Stylistic Analysis)

There were two reasons that urged me to write about the Quintet. Firstly, my old friend, the talented Ukrainian composer and Schnittke aficionado, Alyona Tomlyonova presented me with the score explaining that this was absolutely her favourite work; secondly, after listening to the Quintet and acquiring the same impression, I came across a discussion of the piece by A. Ivashkin. This discussion not only surprised me, but also made me think that it is in fact about a different piece of music. For this reason, I am quoting the abstracts that seem the most contentious (my italics – S.G.):

‘The Quintet contains no quotations, no allusions and, with its consonant and traditional harmony, no serial technique. It feels static, like a crystal which turns to show its different sides. We can feel no development in it; it is as static as eternity… For many people the Quintet seemed to be almost a betrayal of his (Schnittke’s – S.G.) principles. From the polystylistic surface of his earlier compositions, Schnittke goes deeper into the sphere of a new musical language in which all the various stylistic elementsarecombined into a single homogeneous whole. Deeply melancholic in mood and refined in musical texture, the Quintet is not based on any ‘common sense idea’. The music generally sounds quite traditional, but it is impossible to say which tradition comes to mind. The only borrowed material is the monogram of pitches B-A-C-H. But this ‘name’ is barely recognizable at the beginning of the second movement, the ‘Waltz’, with its bitter and sentimental music.’8

This discussion creates a rather negative impression about the music (no ‘common sense idea’, betrayal of principles, no development, no clear traditions to follow, etc.). It includes some statements (those italicised) with which it can be difficult to agree when listening to the music, or, at least, which require further explanation. It is also difficult to argue with these statements since the author does not specify which ‘tradition comes to mind’. What is quite obvious is that the term ‘traditional’ should not be used in this context, since there is no answer to the question as to which stylistic elements are considered traditional and which are considered new in the Quintet’s musical language. In this chapter, I will attempt, through polemics, to formulate an answer to this question.

The Quintet is a five-movement cyclic work dedicated to the memory of Schnittke’s mother, who died suddenly following a stroke in September 1972. In his 1980 interview, Schnittke described the origins of this work: ‘My intention of writing a simple but earnest piece of music in my mother’s memory presented me with an almost insoluble problem. The first movement of a piano quintet was completed almost without effort.  It was not until 1976, after I had found a second movement, a B-A-C-H waltz, that I started making progress. The third and fourth movements are based on real experiences of grief that I prefer not to comment… The fifth movement is a mirror passacaglia whose theme is repeated fourteen times, while all other tonal events are only the fading shadows of a tragic sensation that has already fled.’9

My analysis will concentrate on the most important stylistic elements in the Quintet – its texture in conjunction with pitch or tonal material. Texture is the stylistic element that plays a special role in the twentieth century’s decentralised musical language. The first four bars of the piece introduce a two-layer texture with the layers juxtaposed vertically in both the right and left hand piano parts. The next six bars introduce a three-layer texture with the layers first juxtaposed vertically (bars 5–6), then horizontally (bars 7–10). This multi-layer texture is commonly designated as ‘polyphony of layers’. The ‘polyphony of layers’ is the most distinguished feature of the modern musical language. The texture introduces the pitch or tonal material from which the main themes of the work are built.  As now generally accepted, in modern musical language the texture and the tonal material function inseparably, and therefore, cannot be analysed or perceived independently.

The top layer of the introductory theme is based on a sequence of seconds: the first motive has a clear pivot tone – C# - with the two ‘branch’ tones – the minor second up (D) and the minor second down (B#). After the long fermata, this motive is repeated sequentially - with a pivot tone B and ‘branch’ tones C and A#. (As we will further see, C# will play an important role in different passages within the piece.) See Example 1. The bottom layer of texture contains C natural against C# in the top layer, Db against D and Bb against B in the top layer – in spite of its relative ‘mildness’, this harmony nevertheless carries a clearly dissonant quality. Certain chords in the bottom layer resemble consonant triads [the G minor triad on the downbeats of bars 3 and 4 and the C Major triad (second inversion) at the very beginning of the piece], but they are not perceived as such because of the vertical juxtaposition of different layers. The major tones that make up the sound are the tied Gs at the bottom and long C#s at the top, making a tritone, a quite dissonant interval. The following two bars introduce the triads once more –the D minor triad as the bottom layer, the Db Major triad as the middle layer and the broken C# minor triad as the top layer, in the very high register. Again, the chords that resemble consonant triads are not perceived as such because all the three triads sound together creating a cluster chord typical of a modern musical language. The next three bars reveal a total disintegration of elements; semantically, the single notes contained in different layers may convey the idea of disintegration of the human being after death, and of an inability of memory to retain images that began to fade a long time ago…

Example 1. First Movement, Introduction (piano part).

Bars 1–4 introduce the main theme of the piece (circled are the pivot tones).
Bars 5–12 introduce the disintegrated elements (including triads).

Example 1

In bar 31, after the 30-bar piano introduction (the first exposition of the main motive), the main theme reappears in the first violin part. The second exposition of the main theme begins here. 10 See Example 2. The type of texture the composer uses at this juncture can be identified as ‘micropolyphony’ [a term attributable to Georgy Ligeti11] which means, in combination with very soft dynamics, that the music is perceived as ‘shadow sounds’ [Ronald Weitzman’s term12] – with the rhythmic and tonal quality of the music being almost intangible. The piano part creates its own layer, contrasting to the string parts. From bar 41, the piano begins its first ostinato, with the top layer imitating the percussive sound in the very high register of the piano (in the In Memoriam orchestral piece, it is orchestrated with percussion instruments). [As will be further shown, ostinatos in Schnittke’s works usually portray evil images.13]

Thus, in the first movement of the Quintet, Schnittke uses the combination of the two most common types of texture in music of the mid and late 20th century – ‘micropolyphony’ in the string parts and ‘polyphony of layers’ between the piano and string parts. Also, the first violin clearly conveys the introductory motive – this can be considered a separate ‘melodic’ layer. In bar 50, after a short development of the main motive that brings it to the first climax, Schnittke begins to employ the quarter-tone motives in the string parts – an additional means by which to enhance the ‘micropolyphonic’ effect. See Example 3.

Example 2. The First Movement,

The second exposition of the main theme in the first violin part.
(Micropolyphony—no similar rhythms or audible harmonies in the string parts.)

Example 2

The second movement is marked In Tempo di Valse, with the opening motive based on the BACH anagram (as Schnittke noted – the BACH waltz)14. It is written in 3/4 time and uses the typical waltz texture – homophonic, with the two layers - the melody and the accompaniment. Since the waltz syntax is very much recognisable, the second movement appears at the outset to be quite traditional. The main theme is based on the BACH motive which, in Schnittke’s interpretation, is perceived as a variation on the introductory motive: the similar combination of seconds, with the Bb as the pivot tone, and the A and the C as the ‘branch’ tones; with the top notes of the seconds being intentionally prolonged.15 This adds to the lamentation effect of the BACH motive and explains why an impression is created here of the music being ‘bitter and sentimental’. The BACH motive in the Waltz movement is broadly and naturally assimilated by the Quintet’s musical environment – and this is why it is by no means perceived as ‘borrowed’ material here, but as an inalienable part of the original music.

Example 3. First Movement.

The climax is enhanced by the use of quartertones in the strings.

Example 3

After the short introduction of the BACH motive in the first violin (bars 1–2), there follows a 16-bar exposition of this motive on strings alone. While listening to this episode, the obvious question arises: for how long does the exposition remain traditional? In other words: for how long does the texture remain homophonic? The answer is – for the first eight bars only. In bar 11, Schnittke begins a canonic imitation of the motive in the three string parts; considering that the motive constantly returns to Bb, we actually hear the “interwoven canons which repeatedly freeze in static tones”.16 The name of this kind of polyphony is, again, a micropolyphony that brings to mind the second exposition of the first movement, with the only difference that this time the texture is a slightly more tangible due to the steady accompaniment featuring the ‘waltz formula’.  See Example 4.

There is one more question to answer: how traditional is the ‘waltz formula’ in the second movement? Harmonically, we might expect this formula to be based on the authentic cadence (‘traditional’ D-T relationship). In actual fact, in examining the triads (the essential part of the accompaniment - bars 197–227), we can clearly see the preponderance of chromatic second relationships between them. The left hand part consists mainly of parallel fifths, and the right hand part consists of parallel triads (the two layers – fifths in the left hand part and triads in the right hand part – belong to different chords thus creating a dissonant effect). As a result, the waltz formula is provided essentially not by traditional harmony, but by the rhythmic patterns of the genre.

Example 4. Second Movement.

The BACH Waltz—exposition and the beginning of development
(bar 11, canonic imitation). Circled is a pivot tone in the BACH theme.

Example 4

In bar 19, the piano part initiates the second exposition of the waltz theme. The theme is now developed beyond the BACH motive: for the first time in the Quintet, the melody extends beyond the second, rising from Bb to G, delineating the major sixth which will gradually become the essential interval in this and the following movements. In bars 55–57, when the string parts ‘freeze’ on the tied notes, the two succeeding major sixths (F#–D# and E–C#) appear in the piano part – becoming the new, very distinctive melodic element in the Quintet. The middle section of the second movement remains mainly ‘frozen’, with the exception of the short development reaching its climax in bars 148-154 (forte dynamics and expressive marcato imitations of the strings). The next section (beginning in bar 161) re-establishes the waltz formula thus anticipating the recapitulation; but the BACH theme does not return; this section is actually a development of the waltz motive. The waltz formula remains throughout the development section reaching the dynamically highest point in bar 227 (forte-fortissimo). Again, Schnittke employs the quartertone motives in the string parts as an exclusively turbulent means with which to add to the strongly dissonant effect. See Example 5.

The third movement does not bring any new musical material. First to be introduced is a variation on the introductory motive in 5/4 time, consistently changing to 6/4, 3/4, 4/4. Changing meter adds to the ‘micropolyphonic effect’ of the opening episode. What is new to this effect are the expressive sixths that can be clearly heard in the first violin. The piano enters in bar 12; the cluster chords delineate the main motive in the high register while the strings retain the tied tones - the ‘polyphony of layers’, again, is quite evident in this section. There is a rapid and strong accelerando and crescendo in the strings that quickly reaches a climax before immediately descending to piano-pianissimo tied tones (bar 28). The ostinato in the piano part is reminiscent of its analogy in the first movement (i.e. the imitation of percussive instruments); bars 35–36 are a reminiscence of bars 5 and 6 of the introduction to the first movement. The ostinato remains throughout the coda and creates the base for the strong climax in the strings (subito forte, marcato, vibrato). Bars 47–50 of the third movement (fortissimo, marcato) form the next strong climactic zone. The strings playing tutti delineate the introductory motive once more. Clusters consisting of sevenths and ninths then produce a strongly dissonant effect. This episode is short Xand stops suddenly followed by the Ab Major triad in the piano. See Example 6.

Example 5. The Climax of the Second Movement.

The climax is enhanced by the use of quartertones in the strings.

Example 5

Semantically, the two major musical ideas of the Quintet are juxtaposed here side by side – the tormented soul bemoaning the death of a loved one (represented by the dissonant clusters) on the one side, and the sudden strong light symbolising the appearance of a ‘higher power’ (represented by the consonant triad) on the other. According to Schnittke’s beliefs, this ‘higher power’ comes into being to relieve suffering and pain in the world. In the third movement, this action is not completed; in the short coda, the ostinato returns reminding us of reality: the dead cannot be resurrected.

The fourth movement is the shortest of the first four movements. Dramaturgically, its function is to bring the major conflict between good and evil to its climax. The first 17 bars constitute yet another exposition of disintegrated elements, most likely depicting the image of death – extremely soft, barely perceptible, without any recognisable shape. In bar 18, for the first time in the Quintet, an astonishingly expressive violin solo takes up – semantically, this can be interpreted as the voice of a human being, possibly a Holocaust survivor, exclaiming: “Listen, I am here, I am still alive!”17) (Here Schnittke adopts a commonly-used violin timbre that is associated with the human voice.) See Example 7. This short episode is one of the most expressive in the entire piece. It argues that death is not omnipresent; the human soul is still alive and struggling, and can be heard pleading for survival. The short development reaches a climax in bars 37–38, where the introductory theme is heard in a very high register in the first violin. After two bars of disintegration, the open, dynamically very strong conflict between the new ostinato (evil) in the piano part and the outcrying human souls (the strings) quickly develops, reaching the highest point in the final bars of this movement. See Example 8. There is an obvious pivot tone in the ostinato formula – C# again, which is supported by strong dynamics, syncopated rhythm and strong articulation (sff, marcato). Starting from bar 56, C# is ‘left alone’ in the piano part; and from this point onwards, it seems that the conflictual forces are gradually being exhausted. On the border between the movements, C# becomes Db (its enharmonic equivalent), which is to become the tonic of the next, final movement.

The fifth movement of the Quintet is a coda of the entire cyclic piece. As was previously mentioned, this kind of coda creates an openness of the cyclic work that most likely corresponds to the notion of the immortality of a human soul that finds its piece and quietness after death. Even though there is no pause between the movements, the final movement is perceived as strong stylistic modulation.18 Almost every stylistic element has been changed here through the exhaustion of the conflict; the two textural layers (piano and strings) seem now to agree especially given that a perceptible reality has changed to a virtual reality [the terms of Maria Kostakeva19]. Structurally, this movement is a passacaglia on a ‘pastoral’ theme which is repeated 14 times by the piano. See Example 9.

The application of the passacaglia form can be considered traditional in the sense of the form’s clear association with a certain musical epoch – namely, the Baroque period. Although the theme itself is not common for Baroque passacaglias – in most cases, they bear more serious, sometimes dramatic or even tragic meaning (for instance, in passacaglias of Bach, Handel, and in the neo-Baroque period – those of Shostakovich).20 Considering modality, the passacaglia movement is a rare evidence of a tonal episode (with the key signatures indicated) in Schnittke’s music (especially in his original, not ‘borrowed’ music). This music sounds quite traditional until we closely look at the passacaglia theme: it consists of the four tones only (Db–Eb–F–Ab), combinations of which contain mostly the perfect consonances – the fifths, the fourths, and the octaves. This is why the pastoral theme, with its quietness, softness and stagnation, seems to be imitating the ‘angels’ songs’ at the gates of a paradise: the struggling souls have finally found their peace. Simultaneously in the strings, one can hear quickly changing musical images of previous movements (bar 44 – the introductory theme, bar 79 – the waltz (BACH) theme, bar 110 – the opening theme of the third movement). The final image of the Quintet arrives in bar 128 – and this is the introductory theme again! (This is probably why Schnittke designated this structure as a mirror passacaglia.) The circle (or possibly, the gates of the paradise) has closed. At this point, the statement ‘it is as static as eternity’ makes sense – it is about the final movement only.

Example 6. The Cliamax of the Third Movement.

Circled is the Ab Major Chord (Symbol of a 'Higher Power').

Example 6

Example 7. Fourth Movement. Violin Solo.

Example 7

Example 8. Fourth Movement.

The Major Climax Reflecting the Major Conflict of the Piece (the strings—'human'; the piano ostinato—'inhuman')

Example 8

Example 9. Final Movement, Passacacaglia Theme.

Example 9


 The Quintet is a rare example of Schnittke’s very ‘original’ work since it does not contain any ‘extra-musical’ or ‘polystylistic’ allusions. In that sense, it is important to draw the listener’s attention to the question of what kind of musical language is in fact employed in the Quintet (the work that begins a new period of Schnittke’s life and music). One of the crucial dilemmas that arise in this regard is how traditional or innovative stylistically the music of the Quintet actually is.

As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, this is an attempt to answer questions provoked by A. Ivashkin’s discussion of the Quintet’s music. In this regard, possible answers to those questions follow:

  1. ‘Consonant and traditional harmony’: the analysis showed that the ‘harmony’ used in the Quintet cannot be considered traditional if this term implies the Classical, functionally centralised harmonic system. As with a large number of the 20th century compositions, Schnittke’s modality and pitch material cannot be considered separately from the texture that consists of several vertical layers, as opposed to a more homogeneous ‘classical’ texture. There IS an important tone in the Quintet’s music that can be considered a central (pivot) tone - C# in the first four movements which becomes Db (its enharmonic equivalent) in the final movement. However, the essence of a central tone in modern musical language is quite different from that of a tonic: the perception of a central tone is created by ‘lateral’ or ‘secondary’ stylistic elements working together, such as texture, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, not by the modal functional system itself as in ‘classical’ harmony. Consonant triads in Schnittke’s texture represent different layers and therefore, taken together, sound in a quite dissonant fashion.

  2. ‘Refined musical texture’: as analysis shows, the types of texture used in the Quintet are common for modern musical language; there are two major types of texture: ‘micropolyphony’ in the string parts, and ‘polyphony of layers’ between the strings and the piano;

  3. Structure (‘static: no development’): each of the first four movements of the Quintet has an inner thematic development that reaches localised climactic zones. These climactic zones become stronger with each movement:

    1. in the first movement – 4-bar climactic zone (bars 50–53, dynamically – f, then ff);

    2. in the second movement – the whole development section starting from bar 161 (Tempo I), with the climactic zone starting from f and gradually reaching ff (bar 221), then fff (bar 227);

    3. in the third movement: the strong climax in bars 43–51 – tutti strings (ends with the Ab Major triad – the symbol of a ‘higher power’);

    4. in the fourth movement: the development quickly reaches the climactic point in bar 37 – this is the beginning of the strongest climax in the piece (the climax of the entire piece) where the introductory motive, the most important motive of the Quintet, is stated very strongly both dynamically (ff) and texturally (tutti strings alone, no conflicting piano part), followed by the 22-bar climactic zone where the conflict between the strings and the piano ostinato reaches its highest point (dynamically – fff, then sfff in the strings, sff, then sfff in the piano part), thus finally exhausting the conflict.

  4. Interpretation of genre (‘music sounds quite traditional’):

    1. In the second movement, there is a ‘BACH waltz’, following the genre of a Romantic origin, recognisable here by the meter/rhythmic formula (3/4 time) in the accompaniment, rather than through harmonic relationships (unlike the typical waltz formula based on the T-D relationship, there is mainly chromatic second relationships between the triads). A ‘micropolyphonic’ effect in the texture of the strings adds to the ‘melancholic’ effect of the music - the sustained tones and ‘interwoven canons’ render this waltz in a very reserved manner – quite atypical for this most familiar dance.

    2. In the final movement, there is a passacaglia – a genre emanating from the Baroque era, and here quite recognisable through its ostinato motive in the piano part. Once more, however, an atypical interpretation of the genre can be found here – the use of a ‘pastoral’ theme rather than a more serious, dramatic or even tragic theme common in the Baroque passacaglia.

  5. Conceptually (no ‘common sense idea’), as was shown in the analysis, the music of the Quintet clearly conveys a state of conflict that is quite typical for Schnittke – one between good and evil, where ‘good’ (human) is conveyed through the timbres of the strings, and ‘evil’ (inhuman) is conveyed through ostinatos in the piano. In the final movement, the composer resolves this conflict by a sudden stylistic modulation: after death, struggling human souls ‘have been transported from the depth of horror and despair into a realm of hope’.21 They become ‘fading shadows’ (quick and barely legible self-quotations from string passages found in the previous movements) that totally disappear toward the end of the piece.

Given that Schnittke was a composer belonging to the second half of the 20th century, the term ‘traditional’ may be used in the sense of employing compositional techniques that had already become common at the time (for instance, the use of ‘micropolyphony’). The term ‘traditional’ therefore should not be used in the sense that it might convey pure ‘classical’ musical traditions. After a closer look at the stylistic elements that may at first appear ‘traditional’ in Schnittke’s work, it becomes clear that the composer always employs a ‘modern’ vision of the ‘traditional’ style.22

» Next: Schnittke's Piano Quintet vs. Shostakovich's 15th Symphony/8th String Quartet

« Previous: Introduction. Schnittke and Shostakovich (Critical Reception)


8 A. Ivashkin. Schnittke, p. 133.

9 The entire quotation can be found in the annotation by Jurgen Kochel (translation) to the World Premiere Recording of Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and the In Memoriam, 1992.

10 Structurally, the presentation of a double-exposition – firstly, in the piano part, secondly, in the string parts, or vice versa, as in the second movement - can be considered ‘traditional’ in some degree: this tradition comes from Mozartian classical concertos (the first exposition is usually presented by the orchestra, the second – by the soloist).

11 Micropolyphony is a type of a 20th century musical texture involving the use of sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time. The term was first ‘coined’ by Gyorgy Ligeti, the Romanian born composer, and best described the texture of his pieces Atmospheres and Apparitions composed in the 1960s. Ligeti explained micropolyphony as ‘the complex polyphony of the individual parts, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape. Out of the four elements of music — melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre - the first three are almost completely abandoned concentrating on the timbre of sound.’ The string parts in Schnittke’s Quintet can be associated with the typical ‘micropolyphonic’ texture of Ligeti’s choral piece Lux Aeterna whose text is based on the Latin Requiem. (It seems interesting to note that Schnittke started to teach composition at the Hamburg Hochschule fur Music, thereby replacing Ligeti who retired from his teaching position in 1989.)

12 R. Weitzman. Schnittke and shadow-sounds. Seeking the Soul: the music of Alfred Schnittke. Guildhall School of Music & Drama, January 2001.

13 Russian critic Maria Kostakeva wrote about this important feature of Schnittke’s individual style: ‘At the centre of this variegated musical universe stands the opposition between good and evil, which is of great importance in Schnittke’s oeuvre. In every one of Schnittke’s works, we can observe this confrontation, which manifests itself through different thematic layers appearing often simultaneously’. (M. Kostakeva. Artistic individuality in Schnittke’s overture and his new political mythology. Seeking the Soul: the music of Alfred Schnittke. Guildhall School of Music & Drama. January 2001.) In many of Schnittke’s works, this conflict is personalised instrumentally – in orchestral or chamber works, the strings personalise the human (good), the wind, percussion or piano personalise the inhuman (evil). In the concertos for string instruments, the solo usually personalises the human, and the orchestra personalises the inhuman.

14 Schnittke once admitted that the BACH theme pursued him as an obsession (he frequently used this motive in his works through his lifetime).

15 The interval of a second signifies a very special meaning in Schnittke’s works – it is clearly associated with the very individualised, ‘humanised’ expression of disturbance or discomfort (most often expressed through the timbre of strings) which is a result of a prolonged and unresolved conflict between the individual (good) and the surrounding world (evil).

16 See annotation by Jurgen Kochel (translation) to the World Premiere Recording of Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and In Memoriam, 1992.

17 Schnittke, who was half-Jewish, once admitted: ‘My Jewish part gives me no peace’. The sensation of Jewish spirituality permeates many of Schnittke’s works in different periods of his life; this is why the assumption of the depiction of the voices of Holocaust victims appears appropriate in this context.

18 The term that best characterises Schnittke’s ‘polystylistic’ works (the complete change from one set of stylistic features to another). In the Quintet, there is just one complete stylistic modulation – on the border between the fourth and fifth movements (though with a common tone – C#–Db).

19 The words of Maria Kostakeva:‘Two realities are assimilated – the first is a perceptible reality, very strongly constructed by the composer; the other is a virtual reality that comes into being like a reflected face, a phantom, an illusion’ (M. Kostakeva, p. 18)

20 Interestingly, composed almost simultaneously with the Quintet (1976), in Schnittke’s Gogol Suite the coda is, again, a passacaglia on the Ukrainian folk song (nine repetitions) that does sound mournful, even tragic, ‘under the pressure of dissonant counterpoint’ (see the annotation by Jurgen Kochel to the BIS recording of Gogol Suite and Labyrinths, 1994).

21 As S. Volkov noted in this regard, ‘Schnittke considers this passage from darkness to light especially important’, even if the light comes after death (S. Volkov, The ABC’s of Schnittke, p. 6).

22 As S. Volkov noted, ‘Schnittke wanted to be constantly up-to-date on all of the latest musical techniques, and aspired to having his work be a part of the contemporary cultural world.’ (S. Volkov, The ABC’s of Schnittke, p. 3)

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