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