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Following a period of private instruction obtained while in Vienna (1946-48), Schnittke began his serious study of music in 1949. From 1953 to 1958, he studied composition, counterpoint, and instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory. He remained at the Conservatory until 1961 undertaking post-graduate studies. From 1961 to 1972, Schnittke taught courses in instrumentation, score-reading, counterpoint, and composition at the Conservatory. From 1972 until his death in 1998, Schnittke devoted his undivided attention to composition.
Schnittke’s music holds a prominent position in the post-Shostakovich Russian avant-garde school and illuminates him as a particularly distinctive and significant contemporary composer. The composer passed through various stylistic “periods” in his musical development. His early compositions (c. 1960) were cast in a Neo-Classicist aesthetic and are generally programmatic and concerned with topical issues; this was followed by a period wherein his music was predominantly based upon twelve-tone serial organization (1963-66). This, in turn, was followed by a particularly interesting and fruitful period wherein his music began to elaborate forms of a dramatic nature, employing instrumental-theatrical elements, musical quotations from other composers’ works, associative material, and so forth.
Regarding his style of composition, the composer himself provided the following commentary for the program of a concert in Vienna commemorating his 50th birthday in 1984: “My musical development took a course similar to that of some friends and colleagues, across piano concerto romanticism, neo-classic academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis (Orff and Schoenberg), and took cognizance also of the unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial. Having arrived at the final station, I decided to get off the already overcrowded train. Since then I have tried to proceed on foot... In recent days, composing – namely the putting together of structural elements according to a firm plan – has for me been pushed out by what I would like to call ‘de-puzzlement work’: I make an effort to capture the sonorous visions that come to me as accurately as possible in notes.” While employing diverse stylistic trends in his work, Schnittke encompasses these trends, not “in the sense of a synthesis but that of poly-stylism, in which the various styles appear, so to speak, as individual keys of a large keyboard...”
The Sonata for Violin and Orchestra was transcribed by the composer in 1968 from his own Sonata for Violin and Piano written in 1963. In its newer form with orchestral accompaniment, the Sonata received its premiere performance on February 5, 1986 at the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow; for that occasion, Saulus Sondeckis led the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, with soloist Oleg Kagan. In this work, the composer unifies post-serial techniques with the style of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The first movement, Adagio, begins as the soloist presents an a cappella melody based on a twelve-tone row; as the soloist reaches the melody’s last, held-over note, the harpsichord provides halting chords. The strings then, gradually and quietly, lend some support, as the soloist explores the tonal implications of the initial melody. A second theme of repeated notes and arpeggiated figures is then presented by the soloist, who follows this with an inverted image, two octaves-and-a-third higher. A somber line in cellos and basses, to which the soloist adds pizzicato interjections, bring the movement to its conclusion.
The second movement is marked Allegretto. Against a broken accompaniment from the harpsichord and brief strings commentaries, the soloist presents a Stravinskyan theme. Over an agitated ascending and descending pattern from the violas and cellos, the soloist plays the second theme. Promptly, the harpsichord takes over the theme as the soloist plays nervous figurations, which continue over violent chords from the strings. Next, the harpsichord presents a playful third theme which is repeated by the soloist. The disjointed fourth theme is introduced by the soloist playing pizzicato. Eventually the movement’s initial theme is heard again in a fugato section, starting from the bottom of the strings, and building up to a climax where the soloist joins in and moderates the proceedings, decreasing the energy level.
The last held chord of the preceding movement leads directly into the Largo. In this texturally uncomplicated movement, the soloist plays a sad lyrical melody, sustained by the orchestra’s chordal accompaniment, requiring the strings to divide into fifteen parts. After the theme appears in the harpsichord, the movement concludes with the soloist playing stratospheric harmonics.
The finale, Allegretto scherzando, consists of two sections. The first section is given to a jazzy syncopated theme presented by the harpsichord, and developed throughout by the soloist. Suddenly, the orchestra adopts a march-like tempo and the soloist introduces a care-free theme. This is taken over to the end, until the momentum of the movement dissipates, as the orchestra slowly retracts leaving the soloist holding a low G. Over a diminuendo C-major chord, the violin plays a five-note, pizzicato motif derived from previous thematic material, as the sonata quietly comes to an end.
Program notes edited by Ileen Zovluck, January 2000 (courtesy of Columbia Artists Management).