Hypnotic pieces filled with meaning Music: Despite official disapproval in the Soviet Union, composer Alfred Schnittke became an important and influential composer in the West.

August 11, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Alfred Schnittke was an uncommonly lucky composer.

He lived most of his life in the former Soviet Union, a politically repressive regime in which his music was often blacklisted. That his father was a Latvian Jew, his mother a German Roman Catholic and that he himself was attracted to Buddhism led to a lifelong sense of rootlessness.

The only people he could trust were other artists who suffered for some of the same reasons he did. He was haunted by death, not only because of his own poor health -- several heart attacks and massive strokes left him nearly paralyzed -- but also because many friends, relatives and colleagues disappeared, never to return, into the Soviet gulag. When he died last week after long illness, Schnittke looked much older than his 63 years.

His life helps explain why Schnittke became one of the most important composers of the last 30 years. He was uncannily suited to express the discontinuities and brutalities, and the search for roots and spiritual meaning, that characterize our world as it lurches toward the third millennium.

Schnittke's graduation piece at the Moscow Conservatory, an oratorio called "Nagasaki" (1958), signified his intentions and brought him his first brush with the authorities. An orchestral palette that included screaming trombones to depict nuclear holocaust did not please the commissars. Schnittke found it hard to get his music performed, and for about 15 years, he depended upon movies -- he wrote more than 60 film scores -- to support himself.

This was the beginning of his good luck. His film work left him free to experiment in private. And the bureaucrats who rejected his music nevertheless respected his teaching ability. His career at the Moscow Conservatory flourished and resulted in lasting friendships with several great performers -- violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, and violist Yuri Bashmet.

For a composer, this was a million times better than official favor: powerful champions who performed his music every time they toured the West. Before the 1980s were over, Schnittke was a world figure; his music was ensconced in the repertories of the New York Philharmonic, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet.

By turns flamboyant, ironic and despairingly poetic, Schnittke's music can be described as post-modernist. Like that of Westerners such as John Adams, Steve Reich, George Crumb and John Taverner, Schnittke's music adopts a variety of styles -- the composer's own term was "poly-stylistic" -- from several centuries.

Schnittke also shares with the Westerners training in the densely textured, difficult-to-follow (for the untrained ear), gnomic techniques of the old avant-garde. Also like them, he later rejected such complexity to write music that develops through repetition and which exerts a hypnotic appeal not unlike that found in popular pieces such as the Pachelbel Canon, Ravel's "Bolero" or Satie's "Gymnopedies."

But the music of the Westerners has a tendency to use pop idioms.

Schnittke's more often looks back to the foundations of European art music in Bachian counterpoint and even further back in the music of the medieval church and synagogue. For this reason, the music of Schnittke often strikes spiritual and emotional chords that make that of his Western counterparts seem merely busy and frenetic.

Schnittke wrote music of our moment, but he was not prevented by the temporal from finding consolation for himself (and his listeners) in what was timeless.

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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