The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Viola

About the Work

Alfred Schnittke Composer: Alfred Schnittke
© Thomas May

"They build bridges nowadays of metal and plastic - everything human beings have invented. Schnittke is like that - he uses everything invented before him. Uses it as his palette, his colors." So remarked Rostropovich in an interview in 1990 about his compatriot Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). "And it is all so organic," he continued. "I regard this as unbelievably individual."


Slava didn't get to know Schnittke until the last decade of the composer's life, but the friendship that quickly developed made up for lost time. As usual with Rostropovich, his personal connection with the artist soon led beyond the desire to perform preexisting works and resulted in an outpouring of new creativity. Schnittke, who was able to resettle in Hamburg in the 1990s, wrote such significant compositions for Rostropovich as the Second Cello Concerto (1990), the Sixth Symphony (commissioned for the National Symphony in 1992), and his first opera (Life with an Idiot), among other works.


It was an encounter with Schnittke's Viola Concerto that first alerted Rostropovich to this composer's stunning imagination, prompting him to request a cello concerto in turn. The highly prolific Schnittke wrote close to two dozen solo concertos, the majority for string instruments played by musicians he knew personally. The Viola Concerto stands out not only as a major addition to an undernourished repertoire but as possibly his most-admired achievement overall. Moreover, this work holds an uncannily significant place in the composer's life story: within weeks of completing the score in the summer of 1985, he suffered a severe stroke that left him comatose. It was even thought unlikely that Schnittke would survive, but he recovered partially and, despite deteriorating health and additional strokes, continued to compose. The Viola Concerto thus marks a stark dividing point. Schnittke himself wrote that "in a certain respect the piece has the character of a - temporary - farewell," after which he slowly entered "a second phase of life - a phase through which I am still passing." (It was during this phase that he and Rostropovich became friends.)


Schnittke and Rostropovich came of age in the same generation, when following their artistic consciences wasn't merely an abstract issue of the pursuit of beauty but could have life-changing consequences. Schnittke was born in the Volga Republic of the U.S.S.R. to parents of mixed German-Russian lineage (with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father), and a sense of "otherness" that takes the form of a complex irony permeates much of his later music. Like so many of his peers, Schnittke grappled with official disapproval and for a long period had to support himself by teaching and churning out film scores. The composer, who eventually adopted a form of Christian mysticism, wryly observed that his development passed through stages of "piano concerto romanticism, neoclassical academicism, and attempts at eclectic synthesis (Orff and Schoenberg), and took cognizance 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."


Schnittke wrote his Viola Concerto at the request of the virtuoso Yuri Bashmet, whom he met in 1977. Applying a strategy he uses in several other compositions, he transposed the letters of his dedicatee's name to generate a musical theme. The German spelling "Baschmet" (leaving out the "m" and "t") yields a potent six-note idea that plays a central role in the piece: B-flat - A - E-flat - C - B - E.


The inspiration Schnittke found in Bashmet's artistry is apparent throughout, but the Concerto presents a multifaceted portrait of the instrument itself as well - an instrument so often typecast as the melancholy "inner voice" occupying a space somewhere between the immediately recognizable sonority of violins and cellos. Schnittke treats the viola as a protagonist in a wrenching existential drama. "Like a premonition of what was to come," he writes (referring to his stroke soon after finishing the Concerto), "the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement)."


Schnittke recalibrates the familiar three-movement format into a progressively expanding sequence: each movement increases in length, with the third nearly as long as the preceding two together. Moreover, he reverses the stereotypical arch form of two fast movements flanking a slow, "meditative" middle.  In the opening, quasi-introductory Largo, the violist starts with a questing declamation against a quiet low hum of strings, leading to the "Bashmet" theme. (Schnittke bans the brighter sound of violins from the orchestral strings throughout.) The full orchestra joins in with a violent outburst comprising all of its notes played simultaneously. The response: a subdued, ironically courtly gesture consisting of a trill followed by a turn. Like guests being introduced at a party, all of these elements come into play in the music that will unfold.


A melodramatically churning perpetual-motion figure launches the second movement. The Allegro's abrupt, almost unhinged shifts of mood only add to the underlying sense of terror. Schnittke had earlier evolved his so-called "polystylistic" manner of drawing at will on the thesaurus of the musical past. But the references that enter the picture here seem to do so under duress -a whole life passing before one's eyes. A snatch of the biting chords from the Rite of Spring gives way to tawdry dance hall strains and a lengthy, phantasmagoric transformation of the "courtly" phrase in one of the score's most imaginatively scored passages (bittersweet chirps from the piccolo and then a haze of vibraphone, flexatone, and celesta). New iterations of the driving perpetual motion music lead to the viola's cadenza. A nightmarish forced march by the ghost of Shostakovich takes over but fades eerily.


The protracted final movement returns to the tempo of the opening (Largo), but now the viola's opening monologue, enhanced by a solemn chorus of trombones, sinks into deeper desolation after beginning with a baroque majesty. Schnittke's process at times suggests a reversal of Beethoven's at the beginning of the finale of the Ninth: here the search for the consoling theme that will bring it all together becomes lost in sifting through the fragments. The "courtly" theme acquires powerful new connotations as the descant over a funeral march. Schnittke builds to a frightening climax, but now comes total collapse. In one of the most moving post-Mahlerian farewells in the orchestral literature, the viola obsesses around a sob-like motif as the music grows increasingly paralyzed and dies out on a resigned A minor chord.