Schnittke String Quartet 2 Analysis Essay

In many ways, Alfred Schnittke's entire output bears the signature of tragedy. It is often a bizarre, deeply irreverent tragedy, miles from Greek antiquity. But nevertheless disaster, catastrophe, and lament are everywhere in the thousands of pages which contain Schnittke's name. So when he writes a work inspired by an actual in-the-world tragedy, it adopts a strange multi-layered hue, and offers an unremitting experience.

Schnittke's Second Quartet is the child of such trauma, finished in 1980 to memorialize the composer's close friend, film director Larissa Shepitko, who died from a car accident the previous year. Schnittke confesses that "for me, and for all who knew her, her death came as a severe blow." The quartet that resulted from Schnittke's reaction is a particularly intense experience, and while it employs much that is familiar Schnittke territory, it carries deeper wounds.

For example, Schnittke's hallmark "polystylism" comes through in the use of early Russian sacred music; Schnittke writes that "almost the entire tonal material of the quartet is derived from ancient Russian church song," known for its striking dissonance. But gone is any of the exhilarating funhouse irony which imprints Schnittke's other polystylistic works. Instead, the single model of Russian song is pressed and pulverized with increasingly agonized vehemence; Schnittke treats it monomaniacally as a symbol of the irreparably lost and unrecoverable. In doing so, however, he also writes a work of stunningly sustained creativity. Stravinsky's famous dictum runs that a composition can only arise as the solution to a problem. Schnittke the tragedian offers a counter dictum -- that a great composition can arise out of an impossible search for a solution to an insoluble problem.

The Quartet opens with the cold, isolated sound of high string-harmonics in canon, and at close intervals. Sharp and pale, this music eventually erupts into outburst; Schnittke then quotes, in all its voices, the original Russian hymn on which quartet is based, forming a kind of poignantly hollow center.

Responding to this vulnerable repose, the second movement offers an outraged, depressurizing implosion, an unrelenting explosion of activity warping the Russian hymn's contour in all ways imaginable. It begins with a "refrain" in which the hymn is expanded to four-octave arpeggios in all four instruments, each instrument flying at a slightly different velocity; the remarkable effect reminds one of a globe spinning at self-destructive speed, a kind of unstable atomic delirium barely holding itself together. At various points Schnittke operates like a film director himself, splicing in contrasting scenes of distortive fury; at one brief point this hurtling sphere smolders to a stop and we once again hear the original hymn as it appeared in the first movement. Inevitably, however, the shocked refrain returns, and ends the movement in a choked mid-spin.

This torn-off end leads immediately into the catatonic third movement, marked "Mesto" ("sad"). With equal single-mindedness but a new glacial tone, this movement offers a frozen dirge around a single note, D. Schnittke infuses the sound with a frightening thickness, which eventually swells to a barbaric climax: all four instruments, each bowing quadruple-stops, hammer out seven ffff chords.

The fourth and last movement is a kind of broken epilogue, attempting one last time to capture the missing center. But after a traumatized return to the Quartet's opening bars, Schnittke finally turns away from centers and offers a muted, translucent coda to the whole work. This starlit firmament of string harmonics literally evaporates from sound, ringing out the Russian hymn as it fades. In such a way does the work possess a double memory, of friendship, but also of heritage and history.

The new recording on Avie Records of Schnittke’s String Trio by Ensemble Epomeo is released on October 27th in the UK, November 10th in the USA, but available direct from the Downbeat Store via the link above. The disc also includes string trios by Penderecki, Kurtág and Weinberg

Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio, composed in 1985, was commissioned in celebration of Alban Berg’s centenary. Schnittke later arranged the work as a Piano Trio, and his friend, Gidon Kremer, transcribed it for string orchestra.  1985 was to be the busiest year of Schnittke’s prolific creative life, the culmination of a period of development, distillation and maturation that had begun with the Piano Quintet of 1978. Schnittke’s biographer, Alexander Ivashkin says of this period in the composer’s life that “For many people, the Quintet seemed to be almost a betrayal of his principles…From the polystylistic surface of his earlier compositions, Schnittke goes deeper into the sphere of a musical language in which all the stylistic elements  are combined in a single homogeneous whole.” From the late 1970’s through early 1985, Schnittke was possible the busiest composer alive, and was constantly interrupted by friends, colleagues and scholars. His health, never robust, began to show signs of deterioration. His recurring migraines, which had begun in his early thirties, became more severe and frequent.

Theodor Adorno wrote of the String Trio’s dedicatee, Alban Berg, that “his entire oeuvre was directed toward…reshaping music as a metaphor of vanishing… music to say adieu to life.” Schnittke, who had spent his entire adult life in the Soviet Union, was of Jewish and Volga German descent and had spent a formative part of his childhood in Vienna. He shared with Berg a sense of fascination with decay: “I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts,” he said of his own music.  The String Trio shows the searing influence of late Shostakovich, but also Schnittke’s deep absorption with the Viennese masters, particularly Mahler and late Schubert, an affinity shared with Berg, who according to Adorno “assumes a position in extreme antithesis to that which the musical tradition calls healthy, to the will to live… as had Schubert before him, as had Schumann, and perhaps also Mahler.”

The Trio is in many ways a strikingly Classical work. The first movement (Moderato) is in Sonata form, and the work has a strong tonal centre of G minor. Schnittke is extremely economical in his material, developing a few key ideas with striking facility and originality. A great deal of the work’s rhythmic and thematic material is derived from the gentle melancholic dance theme which opens the trio.


The second thematic group (Meno mosso) is based on a lamenting theme first heard in the viola alternating wide dissonant intervals:


And a mournful melody heard first in the violin and cello:


This would later become one of the main themes of his First Cello Concerto


However, the most important and pervasive musical idea in the String Trio is a harmonic relationship Schnittke refers to as “common mediants,” or chords which share their third, such as C minor and B major. In the String Trio, Schnittke seems to put this relationship to every possible use, including using it as a chord progression, as in the massive fortissimo outbursts that occur twice in the first movement and once in the concluding Adagio:


He also uses it as a sonority, stacking the two chords on top of each other as he does in the dissonant choral that returns several times.


He also will re-harmonize a melody, for instance playing the same tune once in G minor then again in G-flat major.


Finally, the common mediant relationship replaces the normal tonic-dominant relationship as the main tonal constructive device—the exposition of the first movement ends not in D major (the dominant of G minor), but in the common median key of G-flat major. Likewise, the first movement ends in F-sharp major (the common mediant of G minor) before moving without pause into the Adagio which begins with four bars in the dominant before settling back in the tonic of G minor.

For all its structural clarity, the opening Moderato is one of the most dramatic (and physical) movements in the chamber music literature—for this performer, it always feels like a life-and-death struggle.


As in the Penderecki Trio (also on this CD), the second movement (Adagio) of the Schnittke is essentially an extension of, and in this case, a meditation on, the ideas of the first. If the first movement is life-and-death, this movement seems to be only the latter- the lilting opening dance theme of the Moderato now inverted and transformed into a bleak funeral march. In the final pages, Schnittke begins to pull together the themes of the work for a final summation. After a final titanic outburst, and a return of the dissonant chorale (both versions of his “common mediant theme), and a volcanic final statement of the theme from the Cello Concerto the viola sounds the elegiac trumpet call for the last time:


Finally, the opening dance melody returns for one final, complete statement in the home key of G minor.


After one final cadence on a pristine C major chord, the work collapses into the abyss- the cello and viola sound a death-knell, and the violin seems to depart the corporeal world.


Schnittke’s String Trio was premiered on 2 June, 1985 at the Moscow Conservatory. The musicians involved, Oleh Krysa, Fyodor Druzhinin and Valentin Feigin, described the work as possessing “unusual, grim, almost alarming notes—perhaps premonitions…” Only a few weeks later, on a very hot 21 July, Schnittke collapsed while socializing with friends. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced clinically dead three times before recovering consciousness.


More on the Schnittke at Vftp

Composer Kile Smith on the Schnittke String Trio

Review- Epomeo Play Scnittke at Scotia Festival of Music

Early thoughts on Schnittke from Vftp

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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