Articulate Silences

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Recently on counter-melody


Articulate Silences has moved to a new home on For those of you who haven’t found us on the new site, here’s what you might have missed recently:

Shaker Loops, John Adams – The US composer’s piece for strings is a hyper-sensual kaleidoscope of rhythm and tempo in which time is a plastic, sculptable material.

Cello Symphony, Benjamin Britten – Bitterness, memory, and love take centre stage in the British composer’s 1963 riverine lament.

Playlist: (Re)turning from utopia – The turn from lofty idealism to an earth-bound exploration of the uncanny in György Ligeti’s late music.

Playlist: Held tones – The music of Giacinto Scelsi uncovered the enveloping depth and nuance of a single tone.

Playlist: Riot at the opera – Since the 1980s, English-language contemporary opera has been injected with radical potential.

Head over to the new site to read the latest posts from the Articulate Silences team – happy listening!

New posts on counter-melody


Articulate Silences has moved to a new website called counter-melody. In case you’ve not yet found us in our new home, here’s what you might have missed over the last couple of months:

Voices and Piano, Peter Ablinger – The Austrian composer’s large scale “song cycle” for piano and recorded speech maps the liminal spaces between voice and language, sound and music.

Violin Concerto: Concentric Paths, Thomas Adès – From orbit through to perilous flight, the violin carves deep into space in the music of the British composer.

Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt – The music of the Estonian composer is laced through with an obsession with church bells: their unsettling suggestion of the sacred and the profane.

Playlist: Almost Nothing – The impossibility of immediacy in the music of Cage, Ferrari and López.

Head over to the new site to read the latest posts from the Articulate Silences team – happy listening!

Playlist: Imagined futures


The Articulate Silences team has recently moved to a new website on contemporary classical music called counter-melody. We’ll be reblogging our posts here on Articulate Silences for a while so that none of you miss out.

Today on counter-melody: Imagined futures, a playlist exploring emancipatory politics in the musical avant-garde of the 70s and 80s. Here’s a snippet of what we had to say:

Though arguably constituted by an underlying utopian drive, the musical avant-garde has rarely been explicit in its desire for political and social emancipation. Perhaps music’s ambiguity best lends itself to tracing only the sense – an ever-forming outline – of imagined futures, attracting both spurners of didacticism and suckers for romantic futility.

Head over to counter-melody to read the full post – happy listening!

String Quartet No. 1 “Gran Torso”, Helmut Lachenmann


As I noted last week, the Articulate Silences team has moved to a new home on counter-melody. I’ll reblog new counter-melody posts here on Articulate Silences for a while, to make sure none of you are missing out. Today we published a new post on Helmut Lachenmann’s String Quartet No. 1 “Gran Torso”. Here’s a snippet of what we had to say about it:

Imagine stripping all the words out of spoken language, leaving behind only the liminal sounds existing between and around those neatly delimited symbols: clipped breaths forcing air in and out of lungs, the moist sounds of saliva between tongue and teeth – all those uncanny by-products of the mechanical, fleshy actuality of the production of meaning. Now do the same to the rarefied language of the string quartet – with its hallowed tradition stretching back to Mozart and Haydn – and you’ll begin to approximate Gran Torso’s barren soundworld.

Head over to counter-melody to read the full post – happy listening!

counter-melody: Articulate Silences reborn

counter-melodyThe Articulate Silences team is delighted to announce the launch of our new website counter-melody.

As I’m sure any of our more regular readers will have come to realise over the past year, Articulate Silences is no more. Being run by a small team of writers, the blog gradually ground to a halt as other commitments increasingly colonised our spare time. As time went on, we also began to feel that Articulate Silences hadn’t quite lived up to its stated ambition to “provide an accessible introduction to 20th and 21st century classical music”. And, perhaps most importantly, we began to question quite what the words “accessible introduction” meant and represented in this context.

But times and situations have changed, and the team behind Articulate Silences is again writing about contemporary classical music in our new home counter-melody. Our subject remains the same, though our stance – our orientation towards our subject – has changed, if only subtly: less “accessible introduction” with all its overtones of didacticism and more exploratory of, and receptive to, the intersections between music, ourselves, and the world. We hope, anyway.

We’d love for you to check out the new site, and to let us know what you think in the comment sections. So far we’ve published posts on Galina Ustvolskaya’s 6th piano sonata, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Axe Manual, and Glenn Branca’s 3rd symphony for guitar orchestra “Gloria”. We’ve also started a series of playlists to explore connections, conversations, and, perhaps, counter-melodies between composers and pieces: the series starts with an examination of unhuman composition and China’s volatile relationship to contemporary classical music.

Enjoy and happy listening!

Variations for Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg


The shadow of Arnold Schoenberg – a composer extravagantly praised and damned, but just as often misunderstood – looms over the whole last century of art music. The challenge he laid down, of composition with “twelve tones that are related only to each other,” proved to be among the most controversial artistic legacies of the century: a rupture with several centuries of tonality.  Ironically, while others frequently viewed him as a radical, Schoenberg saw himself as upholding the tradition of Western art music, an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary. In his own words: “I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”

Completed in 1928, the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, is a monumental work that shows the composer in both his guises: as traditionalist and as innovator. It is Schoenberg’s first orchestral work written using his serial technique; as such, its very sound could be strange and disorienting to listeners raised on tonality. However, its formal structure is almost comfortingly clear-cut. Though the Variations can sound mind-bendingly complex on first listen, it is divided into three discrete sections, which are quite easy to follow if you know where the “joints” are. A misty, atmospheric introduction sets the stage; the theme and variations section follows; and an extensive finale wraps things up.

The very lack of traditional tonal modulation drives Schoenberg’s lurid genius to its fullest expression. Deprived of one of the fundamental tools in a composer’s kit, he turns to alternate means of contrast and expression. Thus, the variations at the heart of the piece are distinguished by fantastic shifts of orchestral color, rhythm and texture. Full-blooded orchestral outbursts run up against delicate episodes of chamber music; stridency gives way to calm; a noisy streetscape cuts away to an elegant waltz, the music almost cinematic in its shifts of perspective. Schoenberg’s technique of Klangfarbenmelodie (splitting a melodic line among instruments to enrich the colour or texture), and the ongoing contrast between the full orchestra and smaller chamber-like ensembles within it, make the sheer sound of the Variations a source of constant wonderment.

The finale, coming after the nine variations that lie at the centre of the piece, can be viewed both as an additional, greatly expanded variation in its own right, and as a separate, culminating episode. The presiding spirit, hinted at in the introduction, is that of J.S. Bach – a quite explicit statement of Schoenberg’s respect for the tradition which he saw himself as upholding. This polyphonic finale makes use of both the main thematic material and the so-called BACH motif (in German musical notation, the notes B flat, A, C, and B natural).

Below is a recording of Variations for Orchestra followed by a brief listening guide

The music emerges out of the mists, accompanied by fluttering trills on the wind instruments. It rises to a congested climax where different forces seem to be contending, then relaxes into stasis. We hear passing hints at the BACH theme, which is to be so important in the finale.

After a pause the main theme appears (1:39). In its mid-range, cello-dominated sound, it forms a monochrome image from which pictures of riotous color will shortly be fashioned. It is followed by nine variations, which can be characterized briefly as: (1 – 2:44) nervous, spare and jumpy; (2 – 3:56) calm, canonic, and chamber-like in texture; (3 – 6:14) bright, rhythmically incisive, brassy, as if depicting a busy urban street; (4 – 7:03) elegant and dance-like, with notable contributions from woodwinds and solo violin; (5 – 8:24) forceful and marching, finishing off with powerful percussive blasts; (6 – 10:34) fragile and gentle, with slightly agitated solo work; (7 – 12:15) elegant and calm, underpinned by strong bassoon and oboe tone; (8 – 15:05) hard, frantic, and loud, ending with an industrial clatter of percussion; and the variations finish (9 – 15:41) with another shadowy, chamber-like affair.

The finale gets under way with a misty statement of the BACH theme (16:42). As it develops, that theme is stated repeatedly. Near the close, the music halts, and we hear a reminiscence of the variation theme (22:13), now clothed in gentle, ruminative orchestration, as if meditating on the turbulent events it has passed through. This gives way to a brief, crashing coda.

The linked performance is by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The Variations, being one of Schoenberg’s most important orchestral works, have been recorded by a number of internationally renowned conductors, such as Boulez, Barenboim and Mehta.

Another impressive take on the challenge of writing variations in an atonal format is Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra of 1955. Schoenberg’s own student Anton Webern applied the serial technique to symphonic processes in his spare, haiku-like Symphony, completed at about the same time as Schoenberg’s piece.

Artwork: Denken, Arnold Schoenberg

by Scott Spires

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Ralph Vaughan Williams


At its premiere in 1935, the 4th Symphony came as a shock to its listeners. The composer, by then over 60, had long been known as a leading figure of the English pastoral and folk revival school; he was also a musical programmist, whose first three symphonies evoked specific subjects (the sea, the city, and the countryside, respectively). But in the 4th Symphony, he broke with his previous approach by composing one of the tightest, most vehement and dissonant symphonies of the century, in an abstract form that lacked any programmatic intent.

With this work, Vaughan Williams stepped briefly into the ranks of the neoclassicists. This trend – principally associated with such European modernist masters as Stravinsky and Hindemith – involved the revival of the classical forms and procedures of Haydn, Beethoven, and other 18th-century composers, rejuvenated by the more dissonant language of the 20th century. None of its major adherents began their careers as neoclassicists: rather, they arrived at it after making their names with other (often quite radical) styles. Thus, neoclassicism is often reactionary in form and radical (or at least modernistic) in content.

It is in fact the form of Beethoven, if not quite his spirit, that is followed most closely here. Vaughan Williams’ structure reflects that of Beethoven’s 5th so closely that it almost sounds like a parody of its model. This is evident in such things as the brusque four-note motives that provide the basic thematic material for the symphony, and the ominous connecting passage from scherzo to finale. The relations of the movements in regard to form, duration and tempo are also remarkably similar. Both symphonies contain extended codas that work out the musical material exhaustively, but while Beethoven’s coda is an exhilarating rush to a triumphant finish, Vaughan Williams’ is a fugue that seems to rage in a confined space.

The overall impression of the symphony, then, is not one of progress toward a goal, but rather an abstract image of tightly channeled power and tension. If, as Goethe said, “architecture is frozen music,” then the 4th Symphony is a Bauhaus skyscraper, a sonic counterpart to those soaring, forbidding glass-and-steel structures. Some early listeners related the harshness of the music to the political state in Europe in the 1930s. The composer himself rejected any symbolic or programmatic meaning, and brushed away such claims with dismissive comments (“I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external… but simply because it occurred to me like this”). What the composer meant – if anything – is likely to be a matter of each listener’s personal interpretation.

Below is a recording of Symphony No. 4 in F Minor followed by a brief listening guide.

I. A powerful dissonance erupts from the orchestra; two four-note ideas arise from it, at 0:07 and 0:11 respectively. (The first motif is a transposed version of the BACH theme: B flat, A, C, B, here starting on D flat.) The hostilities continue with a high-strung, lamenting theme on the violins (1:00), followed by a menacing marching episode on horns (2:15), repeated by screaming trumpets to ratchet up the drama still further. The high level of volume and tension slackens for the first time at 3:32, only to build up again towards a shattering climax (4:21) and a recapitulation of the main material. Finally, the thunderous orchestral engine runs out of steam, and the music slips into an icy, exhausted coda (5:45).

II. The glacial mood continues as the slow movement begins (8:06). With its treading bass, aria-like main melody, and multiple woodwind solos, this austere movement sounds more baroque than classical. It divides neatly into two halves, with the break marked by a bassoon solo at 12:15. On two occasions (from 10:43 and 12:45, respectively) the icy calm is torn by orchestral eruptions, after which woodwind solos soothe the music back to its initial mood. A lonely flute solo (15:30) brings the music to a subdued close.

III. The scherzo brings back the pounding energy of the first movement (16:41). The opening four-note figures are prominent here, providing much of the rhythmic underpinning. The lumbering trio, a fine example of fugal counterpoint, gets under way at 18:57. The main scherzo material comes back (19:52), but instead of a coda, we hear a rumbling, murmuring bridge passage from 20:56, which builds up a great head of steam, until it emerges into…

IV. …the finale (21:39), announced by three crashing chords. This develops frenetically, into a kind of nightmarish military march. The second subject (22:43), brighter and less strident, comes in on violins. In a sudden strange turn, the music begins to run out of energy (23:35), like a dying battery. The first movement coda returns (24:12), like an interval of desolate sleep between episodes of frantic activity. This, however, soon gives way to an increase in tension, which rushes into the recapitulation (25:40). After further development, a loud declamation of the opening BACH theme transposition (27:04) announces the fugal coda, which sustains the high level of volume and stridency all the way to the end.

The linked recording is the one led by the composer himself, made only two years after the premiere. Of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, the 4th is the one that has proved most popular with non-British conductors, and there are noteworthy recordings by such figures as Bernstein, Mitropolous and Haitink. A personal favorite is Paavo Berglund’s: a swift and forceful version that strongly brings out the neo-classical aspects of the score. Other manifestations of Vaughan Williams’ dissonant, vehement side include his Piano Concerto (which also exists in a two-piano version), parts of the ballet Job, and the 6th Symphony.

The middle of the century brought forth a wonderful crop of neo-classical symphonies. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 are good pieces to explore next. An overlooked gem in the style is Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra of 1948.

Artwork: Job’s Evil Dreams, William Blake

by Scott Spires

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Bohuslav Martinů

queen of sheba

Among Czech composers, none was more cosmopolitan than Bohuslav Martinů. Though born in a tiny town in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in France and the United States, eventually dying in another small town, this time in Switzerland. As a result of his multiple residences and an amazing compositional facility, one can find in his oeuvre the most varied styles and influences: from Czech folklore to hot jazz, from neo-classicism to neo-baroque, from the romanticism of Dvořák to the impressionism of Debussy. Throughout all these changes, however, his personal style remained remarkably distinctive: a mixture of rhythmic vitality, bittersweet folk-influenced melodies, and colorful, percussive scoring.

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca was completed in 1955, during an extraordinary last decade in which he embraced a style of seemingly free-form, yet structured, composition. This orchestral triptych was inspired by Martinů’s viewing of the title paintings in a church in Arezzo, Italy: a cycle of frescoes entitled Legend of the True Cross. Martinů did not intend for his music to be descriptive or programmatic, but rather to evoke a certain mood inspired by the paintings: “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colors creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful and moving poetry.” The sonic world of Frescoes is luminous and fluid, yet punctuated by intense outbursts; Martinů’s vast range of orchestral colors forms a fitting counterpart to the style of the Renaissance painter.

From the point of view of musical structure, what is most interesting is the kaleidoscopic approach that Martinů follows in this work (which became standard for him in his last decade). Usually, a piece begins with a certain theme or motif, and then continues via a series of freely developed, flowing episodes (which may or may not be related to the opening theme), until it reaches a terminus somewhere remote from the opening. At that point, the opening returns to complete the cycle, and is developed further in a different direction, leading to the coda. The return of the opening is reminiscent of the recapitulation in standard sonata-form structure, but due to the distance it has travelled and the fluidity of the musical processes, its return is less expected; the experience is like running into an old friend in an unfamiliar environment. This process plays out clearly in The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Below is a recording of The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca followed by a brief listening guide

I: Andante poco moderato. The opening movement was largely inspired by the painting Procession of the Queen of Sheba. The music begins with two Martinů hallmarks: a swirling, diaphanous orchestral sound, and a long-short-long rhythm that haunted him throughout his career. This leads to a brassy, percussive climax (1:19), which flows into the first of the piece’s characteristic broad, soaring melodies (1:33). The music grows softer and more contemplative (3:00), and delicate solos on English horn (3:33) and other instruments announce the terminus of the initial material. The opening returns (4:24); material is repeated until an abrupt break (5:27) announces that the coda is upon us. A long melody brings this movement to a placid finish.

II: Adagio. The inspiration for this slow movement was Constantine’s Dream, in which an angel assures the future Roman emperor he will triumph in battle by following the sign of the cross. It opens with a march-like theme on woodwinds. The music begins to “swirl,” taking on an air of mystery. A viola solo (1:18) marks the piece’s sole explicit programmatic element: according to Martinů, it is intended to depict a trumpet announcing the call to battle. Around 1:40, the music reaches a rapturous climax on the march theme, crowned by brilliant trumpets. From here, after the march dies down, we pass through a series of highly contrasting episodes: an interlude of calm (3:22); a radiant polyphonic fantasy (3:47); and another long, romantic melody (4:20). A quiet coda, featuring harp and English horn (5:28), expires with soft taps on the timpani.

III: Poco allegro. A choppy melody in woodwinds launches the final movement, which expresses Martinů’s response to two paintings showing scenes of battle. The music slows, and another radiant “endless melody” takes over (0:56). A sense of crisis develops (2:22), with a quick increase in dramatic tension; a trumpet call caps this episode. As in the first movement, the opening returns (3:17), and the material that followed it is repeated until the coda begins. A powerful climax, marked by roaring brass and luminous strings (4:08), gives way to a feeling of rapture as the music fades out.

This recording of Frescoes is by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. The classic recording of this piece was made a few years after its premiere, by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic; it is available on the Supraphon label.

Other masterpieces of Martinů’s last decade that display this rhapsodic, kaleidoscopic style include his 6th Symphony (Fantaisies symphoniques), the orchestral work Parables, and one of his very last works, the Nonet. For another attempt to capture the essence of painting in sound, listen to Hindemith’s symphony Mathis der Maler, an essential 20th-century orchestral work inspired by the art of another Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald

Artwork: The Queen of Sheba (Scene 2), Piero della Francesca

by Scott Spires

The Well-Tuned Piano, La Monte Young

Ding Yi Shi-Shi

The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.

So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informative articles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.

The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.

Below is a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano followed by a brief listening guide

To accompany a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano with any sort of systematic listening guide would perhaps be somewhat antithetical to the music’s sense of stasis and lack of narrative development. It doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the piece in one sitting (a herculean task) and its steadily shifting textures do not demand – although they generously reward – attentive listening. The piece oscillates, albeit slowly, between sparse inactivity and frenetic activity, with Young conjuring expansive tone-clouds from the piano (the first beginning at around 5:50 in the first video above).

The recording above is performed by La Monte Young in 1981, released on the Gramavision label. Sadly, this edition is now out of print and no recording of the piece is currently available.

La Monte Young is often labelled as a minimalist composer, along with numerous other American composers of his generation. For more conventional examples of minimalism’s repetitive, yet steadily unfolding, musical structures, try Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964).

Artwork: Shi-Shi, Ding Yi

by Thomas May

Piano Quintet, Alfred Schnittke

Aleksey Savrasov - Winter

Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet was completed in 1976. Coming one year after the death of fellow Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Schnittke’s work shares much in terms of atmosphere and compositional strategy with a number of the former’s late works (particularly the Viola Sonata and 15th String Quartet), which impress as apparent meditations on the composer’s looming demise. The impulse behind the quintet was, however, a death that had already taken place: that of the composer’s mother. In this, Schnittke hearkens back to Anton Webern, who composed his Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) early in the century as a reflection on his own mother’s death.

Though he passed through several phases in his career, Schnittke was probably most famous for his polystylistic approach, creating stylistic clashes by mixing musics of different genres and historical periods. In the quintet, however, his approach is quite restrained; there is little to break the obsessive, dissonant gloom of the five movements. In its overall structure, the quintet charts a progression from dark, almost impersonal despair to an ambiguous evocation of memory, life, and perhaps faint hope.

The five movements of the quartet contain very little fast music. It begins moderato and ends moderato, with the third and fourth movements marked andante and lento respectively (that is, two varieties of “slow”). What passes for sprightly music here is also the quintet’s main nod to polystylism: in the second movement, a distorted waltz comes crashing into the desolate music, only to dissipate its energies as it becomes louder and more insistent.

Another dramatic stroke is provided by the obsessively repeated passacaglia theme in the finale. It is hauntingly non-specific: is this an echo of folksong, of some kind of mechanical music, or of something religious? (The orchestrated version of the quintet, titled In Memoriam, suggests the last possibility by setting this tune for organ.) This theme comes as a slight shock after the third and fourth movements, which chart a process of disintegration as the music steadily becomes more fragmented and athematic. Schnittke seemed to view these two movements as the dark heart of the work; he said that they “are based upon situations of genuine grief, about which I wish to say nothing because they are of a highly personal nature and can only be devalued by words.”

Despite the passing, flickering signs of life, the overall impression left behind by the quintet is one of gloom and quiet despair. This mood was destined to become more and more dominant in Schnittke’s work, reaching its apex in his own late works of the 1990s. Composed while Schnittke had been disabled by a series of strokes, they reach extraordinary depths in their bleakness and sense of disorientation – a feeling embodied most starkly in the fragmented rumblings and shrieks of the quintet’s fourth movement.

Below is a recording of Piano Quintet accompanied by a brief listening guide.

I. The piano opens the piece playing solo, with a 5-note theme that will recur in every movement. The strings only enter with the same theme (2:31) after the piano has developed it thoroughly. Another structural element, in the form of a single repeated note on the piano, makes its initial appearance (3:26). The music grows in density until it reaches a climactic “plateau” at 4:15, then gradually fades on the repeated note.

II. Weakly, the strings drag the incipient waltz theme up from the depths (6:40). It becomes clearer, then yet more so when the piano enters. An increasingly dissonant exchange between piano and strings leads to a break in the tension at 7:50, and a momentary respite from the waltz. The 5-note theme returns (9:00) and is developed to a climax;  it is joined by the waltz theme (9:48); a climax is reached (10:54), which then fades until the end of the movement.

III. The 5-note theme is back, this time stretched out slowly (12:28). The piano enters; a subdued mood prevails, though the strings begin making an odd buzzing noise, like flies (13:30). A stark theme, playing off high versus low registers, plays on the piano. The buzzing leads to a climactic plateau (15:30), then fades away. The obsessive single note returns, followed by a shriek in the strings. The single note continues while the cello intones the 5-note theme in a low register. High strings at loud volume mark the last climax of the movement (17:06); the single note takes over again, and the movement ends with the repeated thudding of the piano pedal (18:34).

IV. The grim, static opening on strings (18:49) highlights the athematic character of this movement. The piano enters. At 19:47, string pizzicati evoke the quartets of Bartok or Shostakovich. Loud strings, still lacking any thematic material, scream in a void (20:15). An increase in volume leads, finally, to an iteration of the opening theme (21:28). From about 21:50   onwards, we hear the climactic point of the entire piece: a contest between the ferocious buzzing of the strings and thunderous piano chords, followed by the obsessive repeated piano note. Which fades into

V. the passacaglia theme of the finale, intoned on the piano (23:19). Played 14 times, this theme now provides an unchanging background for a procession of the main ideas from previous movements. The main theme comes in at 23:57; the waltz then puts in a brief appearance (24:32); the distended opening of the third movement is referenced at 24:50; then the static of the fourth movement (25:00); and the procession ends with the opening theme again, played in a high register, with strained effect (25:22). The piano closes the proceedings with the final, fading iterations of the passacaglia theme.

The YouTube performance comes from the 2011 Utrecht Chamber Music Festival. The Piano Quintet is one of Schnittke’s most-recorded works, and a variety of recommendable versions exists. For those who want to put a toe in the Schnittke waters, budget label Naxos has two different recordings of the piece.

The Piano Quintet also exists in an orchestration entitled In Memoriam. Many of Schnittke’s later works, such as the 3rd and 4th String Quartets, the ballet score Peer Gynt, and his final three completed symphonies (6-8), inhabit much the same world of feeling, and use many of the same techniques, as the Quintet.

For another take on grief and remembrance from that part of the world, making use of many of the same effects at Schnittke, listen to Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa (1999), written for his recently deceased wife.

Artwork: Winter, Aleksey Savrasov

by Scott Spires


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