Alfred Schnittke—Shostakovich's Heir:
Schnittke's Piano Quintet vs. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15/String Quartet No. 8

Dedicated to Olga Nivelt, my favourite conservatory teacher, and her daughter, the Ukrainian composer Alyona Tomlyonova, who inspired this paper

I. Introduction. Schnittke and Shostakovich (Critical Reception)

There was a festival in Lucerne, Switzerland in September 1989 entitled “Directions in Russian Music – from Glinka to Schnittke” (translation from German). The poster advertising the festival included four pictures - of arguably the most important composers in the history of Russian music: Glinka, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Schnittke. It is now generally accepted that Alfred Schnittke, whose life untimely ended 10 years ago, on August 3, 1998, was the most significant figure in late 20th century Russian music, especially in that he continued to develop musical traditions established by Shostakovich, including both the musical language and the social and spiritual significance of his music. As Solomon Volkov noted, ‘while there was no real friendship between Shostakovich and Schnittke, Shostakovich is often considered Schnittke’s direct predecessor, not only musically, but spiritually as well.’1 Schnittke felt a spiritual affinity with the older composer and admitted that Shostakovich’s music had a great impact on his own musical works. In his book dedicated to Schnittke, Alexander Ivashkin noted, ‘Schnittke does not seem to be a mere imitator of Shostakovich, but he seems to have accumulated a kind of inner energy which he was to reveal fully in the 1970s and 80s when many critics started to regard him as Shostakovich’s heir. Schnittke never merely copied the language of his great contemporary but tried to understand the ‘hidden’ foundations of his style, the symbolic meaning of his music.’2

According to the expression of Yevgeny Yevtushenko (a contemporary of both Shostakovich and Schnittke, and of course whose Babi Yar inspired Shostakovich to write his 13th Symphony), ‘the poet in Russia is more than a poet’ – this means that most significant Russian poets down the ages were often considered political figures. This is also true in respect of Shostakovich and Schnittke. As Solomon Volkov observed, ‘Establishing himself as Shostakovich’s heir created additional moral and psychological tension for Schnittke. Even abroad, Russian artists find themselves overtaken and suffocated by the motherland’s sorrows and demands. The notion of sparing oneself, of saving and measuring out one’s creative energy, is an alien idea’.3 However, the two composers approached their social and political missions differently: ‘Shostakovich, under the burden of Stalin’s dictatorship, was much more cautious, preferring to speak indirectly and symbolically. Schnittke’s generation grew up in a different situation and wanted to speak more openly and more directly – especially in the late 1950s and early 60s, the time of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ – but it was still Shostakovich who made that kind of musical expression feasible.’4 ‘Schnittke’s commitment to the art of composing is extraordinary. Shostakovich once said, “If they cut off both my arms, I would still write music – holding a pen with my teeth”. In many ways, including this amazing resolve, Schnittke made himself into Shostakovich’s heir.’5

There are several critical sources devoted to the phenomenon of kinship between the musical styles of Shostakovich and Schnittke. Critics have often discussed different aspects of the composers’ musical language. A. Ivashkin specifically highlighted the succession of Schnittke’s violin concertos to Shostakovich’s works in the same genre. ‘Schnittke has admitted that all his own violin concertos have been written under the influence of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto… For many years, the concerto concept, inherited from Shostakovich, was most important in Schnittke’s music. His numerous concertos and concerti grossi represent symbolically the typical Schnittke idea of conflict between the individual (soloist) and the collective (orchestra), a conflict which very often ends in disaster, with the death of the hero (as in Schnittke’s Viola Concerto of 1985).’6

Another important aspect that connects the two composers’ individual styles is evoked by the same author in his article Shostakovich and Schnittke: the erosion of symphonic syntax. The article discusses similarities in both composers’ symphonic works, specifically Shostakovich’s late symphonies and Schnittke’s orchestral works of the 1970s and 1980s. As A. Ivashkin states, ‘Shostakovich’s late cycles are open (my italics – S.G.) – the idea of ‘closedness’ is foreign to them in principle [the notion of openness within musical form, and particularly in the symphonic works, began in the late Romantic era - for instance, in some slow and gloomy finales of Tchaikovsky and Mahler symphonies - and became commonplace in contemporary music. Closed forms were common mostly in the Classical era and were realised through happy and bright finales in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s symphonies – SG]. Sometimes the composer introduces a direct and unambiguous image of time running away, ending a symphony with it (Symphony No. 15*) or a concerto (the Second Cello Concerto).’ Structurally, the idea of openness is realised through codas in the finales: ‘Codas in general embody the most important idea of the music of the eighties – its openness. An entire movement of a cycle can become a coda – for example, the finale of the Third Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony of Schnittke, the finale of his Faust Cantata’.7

There is also a chamber work by Schnittke that conveys the same idea: the Piano Quintet written in the course of years 1972-1976 (hereinafter referred to as the Quintet) (or its orchestral version – In Memoriam – composed in 1978).

» Next: Schnittke’s Piano Quintet—Traditional vs. New Language (Stylistic Analysis)


* The similarities between Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony and Schnittke’s Piano Quintet will be discussed later in this article.

1 S. Volkov. The ABC’s of Schnittke. Annotation to the recording of Schnittke’s String Quartets.

2 A. Ivashkin. Schnittke. Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.

3 S. Volkov. The ABC’s of Schnittke, p. 6

4 A. Ivashkin. Schnittke, page 61.

5 S. Volkov. The ABC’s of Schnittke, p. 7

6 A. Ivashkin. Schnittke, page 61.

7 A. Ivashkin. Shostakovich and Schnittke: the erosion of symphonic syntax. Shostakovich Studies, ed. David Fanning; Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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