Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Russian

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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The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky

In one of the most frequently recounted episodes of 20th century music, the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ended in an audience riot as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées erupted in protest. To modern listeners, the most striking feature of the Russian composer’s third ballet is its high level of dissonance; jarring, oppressive chords tear through the soundscape in an unrelenting cacophony of clashing sounds. Yet, for those attending its premiere there were a number of other disagreeable characteristics of the performance. Indeed, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, labelled as “uncouth” by one reviewer, contributed as much to the audience’s indignation as the music.

Musically, in addition to its provocative harmonic character, perhaps what was most shocking to the ballet’s early audience was Stravinsky’s abandonment of classical melodic and harmonic development in favour of the foregrounding of the rhythmic and timbral properties of the music. The Rite of Spring proceeds in a series of disjointed miniatures exploring the kaleidoscopic potential of orchestral colour; wildly oscillating timbres contour the ballet’s progression as musty, pungent webs of woodwind are violently ruptured by volcanic masses of brass and searing strings. The music is thrust forward by strident rhythms, perpetually derailed by off-kilter syncopation preventing the establishment of any sense of regular flow. Each musical gesture in The Rite of Spring is nightmarishly exaggerated to form a sinister, uneasily contorted aural world.

Stravinsky’s melodic writing centres around brief interlocking motifs; snippets of Russian folk melodies are densely layered in a fragmentary collage, enacting a collision between the traditional music of his country and the techniques of modernist composition. This juxtaposition of the archaic with the fiercely contemporary imparts a thrilling dramatic tension to The Rite of Spring, bestowing a dialogic depth to its ruthless explorations of rhythm. Equally likely to be described as barbaric or primitive as it is avant-garde or sophisticated, this piece gains as much of its potency from looking backwards in time as it does from forging stubbornly ahead. Remarkable in appealing simultaneously to both the visceral and the cerebral with equal fervour, The Rite of Spring is superficially petulant and temperamental whilst somehow maintaining an aura of austerity.

In his memoir, Stravinsky claimed that the narrative of the ballet had come to him in a horrifying, lucid vision of three years prior: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.” Whether the story of the work’s inception is true or merely a case of retrospective myth-making is an interesting question, but the brutal nature of the ballet’s climactic ritual, combined with the pummelling physicality of the music, provoked early onlookers into a state of frenzied outrage. In the time since the piece was written, rhythm and timbre have become primary concerns in much Western music: from the minimalism of Reich and Glass to the hip-hop of J Dilla and Madlib. The monumental break with tradition that The Rite of Spring represents is thus diminished in its impact today but Stravinsky’s ballet remains a thrillingly direct and engaging piece of music.

Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring followed by a brief listening guide.

The Rite of Spring is cast in two main parts, both of which are further divided into smaller episodes.

Part I opens with the furtive fluttering of a solo bassoon in its highest register, soon joined by the other woodwinds. The insistent motif on pizzicato strings first heard at 2:48 brings the introductory passage to a close, ushering in the obsessive rhythms of 3:11-6:20; although the rhythm remains constant throughout this section, a vitality is instilled as unexpected beats of the bar are stressed. Following a brief volcanic outburst of brass, some semblance of order is retained at 7:38 with a short interlude of woodwinds. A creeping figure in the low strings enters at 8:12 and leads the musical progression until 10:23. Following another brief interlude, the music proceeds in a series of fragmentary passages of increasing rhythmic drive until Part I crashes to a close at 15:06.

Part II begins quietly with a passage of mysteriously lilting woodwinds, strings and distant brass (15:10-20:06). After a melodically expressive section dominated by the strings, a pounding rhythm is introduced at 22:44, thrust forward by the driving percussion. Another moment of respite ensues after which the climactic passage of the ballet begins at 28:38. In this final scene, the chosen sacrifice dances herself to death, accompanied by thunderous brass and percussion.

Being probably Stravinsky’s best known work, The Rite of Spring has been recorded numerous times. The recording above is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, chosen for its fine balance of savagery and attention to detail. For a particularly barbaric, if somewhat scruffy, performance, Valery Gergiev’s recording with the Kirov Orchestra is recommended. Stravinsky himself also conducts a brilliant recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, taking the score somewhat faster than most modern performances.

Both of Stravinsky’s other ballets from this period explore similar musical ideas to The Rite of Spring but in a more melodious, late Romantic setting: 1910’s The Firebird is one of Stravinsky’s major pieces and 1911’s Petrushka is awash with rhythmic vitality. Many other composers of Stravinsky’s generation explored the folk traditions of their own countries. In particular, Béla Bartók devoted much of his career to the research of Hungary’s indigenous music, assimilating his findings into his compositions; his cycle of six string quartets is highly recommended.

Artwork: Three Women, Pablo Picasso

by Thomas May