Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bells, glockenspiel, marimba, 2 tam-tams, vibraphone), electric guitar, harp, celesta, harpsichord, 2 pianos, organ, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere).
Where Prokofiev dipped his toe into the pool of musical eclecticism for the classicism of his First Symphony, Schnittke dove head-first and headlong into the deep end, mixing everything that could be mixed in his musical output. He composed electronic music, serial music, tonal music, atonal music, works for every conceivable combination of instruments, and music in all sorts of forms. This potpourri was only natural for a composer who grew up moving around Europe and who was, as a result, deeply influenced by both Russian and German culture.
Schnittke was born in Engels, in the Ukraine. His mother was a German teacher at a middle school, and his father was a journalist and translator. During a visit to Moscow in 1941, Schnittke entered a music school, but the outbreak of war interrupted his education. In 1946, the family moved to Vienna, where Schnittke’s father had gotten a job at a newspaper, and Alfred began his formal musical education. After the family returned to Moscow, Schnittke continued his studies at the October Revolution Music Academy there, entering the Moscow Conservatory in 1953. After his graduation in 1958, he remained at the Conservatory, first as a postgraduate, then as a faculty member, teaching composition, counterpoint, score-reading, and instrumentation.
Schnittke left the Conservatory in 1972 to become a free-lance composer. He had already begun to move away from the topical orientation of some of his earlier works, such as the oratorio Nagasaki (1958) and the cantata Songs of War and Peace (1959), during his last years at the Conservatory. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Schnittke’s experiments with form and compositional style produced several important works: the Violin Sonata “Quasi una sonata” (1968), the First Symphony (1969-72), the Suite in the Olden Style (1972), and the Requiem (1975). It was during this period that Schnittke composed In memoriam…, which he adapted from his Piano Quintet (1972-76). The composer described the work as follows:
“In the early hours of September 17, 1972, my mother Maria Vogel died of a stroke. My intention of writing a simple but earnest piece of music in her memory presented me with an almost insoluble problem. The first movement of a piano quintet was completed almost without effort. After that, I was unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from imaginary spaces defined in terms of sound and put it into psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance and consonance. There were many variants and ideas that remained buried in the shadow-world of unrealized sketches, while others would be developed later.
“It wasn’t until 1976, after I had found a second movement, a B-A-C-H waltz, that I started making progress. However, it was difficult to make transitions between the unearthly waltz (which was always turning into a sad meditation) and the element of real tragedy that was constantly breaking into the meditative serenity. I finally found the solution after three years. I had changed so much during the time that I spent searching for a solution to the Quintet that I experienced life more strongly as I composed. Thus I finally succeeded in completing the second movement.
“The third and fourth movements are based on real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature and words could only cheapen them.
“The fifth movement is a mirror passacaglia whose theme is repeated fourteen times, while all other tonal events are only the fading shadows of a tragic sensation that has already fled.
“When Gennady Rozhdestvensky heard the Piano Quintet, he immediately wanted it for orchestra. I found the solution by translating the piano sound into the sounds of the winds and percussion. At the same time, I kept the strings in their original function. The work was premiered in December, 1979, in Moscow, with the Moscow Philharmonic under Gennady Rozhdestvensky.”
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He currently lives in Berlin, where he is writing a dissertation on the 18th-century German opera audience.