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FastNotes

  • In 1985, Alfred Schnittke was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival to contribute a piece to a program based on a Shakespearean theme. The result was (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Kein means “not” in German, so we have (Not) a Summer Night’s Dream.

  • Contemporary composers have a bad reputation among audiences for thorny and arcane music, but the music of Schnittke, who died in 1998, often is entirely accessible. A composition might include a harpsichord or smatterings of a rock band – nothing is off limits.

  • In the composer’s words “this piece should be played in a concert of Shakespeare settings, though it has no direct connection to Shakespeare.” Still, it can be argued that there are echoes of the Bard’s themes in these melodies.


Composed: 1985
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 4 oboes, 4 clarinets (4th = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, vibraphone), harp, harpsichord, celesta, piano, and strings
First LA Phil performance: November 5, 2005,Vladimir Jurowski conducting

“I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have the tongs and bones.” (Bottom)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene 1

In 1985, Alfred Schnittke was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival to contribute a piece to a program based on a Shakespearean theme. Fragments from Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear and Egon Wellesz’ Prosperos Beschwörungen completed the program. Schnittke’s composition was puckishly entitled (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Kein means “not” in German, so we have (Not) a Summer Night’s Dream. More on the importance of parentheses shortly.

Contemporary composers have a bad reputation among audiences for thorny and arcane music, but the music of Schnittke, who died in 1998, often is entirely accessible. A magpie, he gathers musical styles and direct musical quotes from the entire history of music and mixes them into exuberant constructions. A composition by Schnittke might include a harpsichord or smatterings of a rock band – nothing is off limits. Experts refer to him as a postmodernist of the generation following Boulez or Stockhausen; they call him “polystylistic.” Whatever the labels, Schnittke is anything but obfuscating or off-putting. In the case of the brief (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, he is simply fun.

In the composer’s words “this piece should be played in a concert of Shakespeare settings, though it has no direct connection to Shakespeare.” I don’t believe him for a minute. Notice those parentheses again. The negation of that “K” seems to be an option. Don’t we hear in the elegant little minuet an echo of the courtly Athens of Theseus and Hippolyta? Is the gradual layering of dissonances and transformations of that tune akin to the four lovers’ deeper incursions into the mysterious forest and the world of Oberon and Titania, the kingdom of the fairies?

Do we hear the loveable buffoon Bottom’s tongs and bones, metal and bone instruments for banging together, in the big marching band jollity of the middle episode, along with what sounds like the distinct braying of an ass? And isn’t it something like Theseus’ “iron tongue of midnight” which we hear bringing the action to a close with a return of that innocent opening tune, slightly and permanently altered? Puck’s epilogue:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream…

— Grant Hiroshima