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Schnittke Backgrounder

Of the three composers whose work we’ll present during our November 15 concert, Alfred Schnittke is likely to be the least familiar to most members of our audience. We hope the following backgrounder will help place Schnittke’s spectacular Requiem in context.

“I am constantly aware that I have a German half. This has nothing to do with how much German I know, or the fact that I spent two years of my childhood in Vienna. It is predetermined by the fact that my German forbears, who lived here for two hundred years, remained Germans.”-- Alfred Schnittke, from A Schnittke Reader, edited by Alexander Ivashkin

Alfred Garyevich Schnittke (1934 - 1998)

Born in Engels in the Volga-German Republic of the Soviet Union to a German-born Jewish father of Russian ancestry and a mother who was a Volga German born in Russia, Alfred Schnittke was always keenly aware of his German ancestry. He spoke clearly of his cultural connection with Germany, and the influence of German music on his own work:

“I have in every respect experienced an enormous influence from German culture, German literature, and of course the strongest possible influence from German music. Given this, it is clear that without any effort on my part, the German side of my character remains a second powerful force. This second side of my being cannot be defined by answers to a questionnaire; it is predetermined by nature itself. So for me this interaction of Russian and German music is fundamental and final. It is what I came from and what I came to. For me there is no other solution to the whole of this problem. It is this that predetermines all my difficulties in trying to evaluate national or nationalistic preoccupations and passions from one side or the other.” (from A Schnittke Reader, edited by Alexander Ivashkin, 2002 – from Schnittke’s conversations with Alexander Ivashkin, 1985-1994)

Schnittke’s Requiem from the music to Schiller’s drama Don Carlos [1975], which Boston Secession will perform on November 15, illustrates the influence of German music on Schnittke’s work. His music from this period sounds very different from the serial extremism of the 1960s, when he wrote almost exclusively instrumental chamber works. He had now found a new language, combining structural ideals and extra-musical elements, yet remaining natural and homogenous – obvious quotations and allusions were disappearing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Schnittke began to expand the space of his music and wrote symphonies, concerts, and cantatas – substantial works in which he sought to discover his relationship with time and define his own dramatic ideas.

The idea of writing a requiem first came to Schnittke when he was writing his Piano Quintet (1972-76). The Quintet was dedicated to his mother, who died in 1972, and he wanted one of the movements to be a small instrumental requiem. The composer had already made sketches for all the major themes of the requiem, but they seemed to be more vocal than instrumental in character so they were not used in the Quintet.

He finally implemented the idea of the Requiem when he came to write the incidental music to Schiller’s play Don Carlos to be staged at the Moscow Mossovet Theatre in 1975. The producer wanted the play to be acted to a background of Catholic church music and Schnittke chose to write the full Requiem. It is worth remembering that in Soviet Russia it was forbidden for any sacred music to be played, so this was the only way for Schnittke to write a requiem and to hear it performed.

There are fourteen movements in the work, and they follow the traditional order with only a few exceptions: there is no Libera me or Lux aeterna (specifically and traditionally the last movement – redemptive eternal light). Schnittke chose the last movement to be a repeat of the first. Most of the themes and images of the work are contemplative and spectral.


Buy tickets now to hear the Schnittke Requiem in concert on November 15.
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