Alfred Schnittke, Nagasaki

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born Nov 24, 1934, in Engels, Russia
Died August 3, 1998, in Hamburg
Composed in 1958
Broadcast premiere in 1959 by the Moscow Radio Symphony
Public premiere on Nov 23, 2006, in Cape Town by the Cape Philharmonic conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes with soloist Hanneli Rupert
Performance Time: Approximately 37 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 4 oboes, 1 English horn, 4 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 9 French horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (triangle, wood block, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, glockenspiel, xylophone, musical saw, vibraphone, chimes), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 1 organ, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, and mezzo-soprano soloist

Alfred Schnittke’s career was surrounded by ambiguity from the start. His father, who was Jewish, was born in Frankfurt and immigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927, so that Schnittke’s name, history, and ethnicity were perceived as marginal within Soviet official circles. As Schnittke told the author Georgy Feré, “And thus we—both half-German, half-Buddhists—are like people on the sidelines.” Even his first lessons in music, which occurred in 1946 while his father was stationed in Vienna, took place outside of the Soviet orbit. Schnittke wrote later, “I felt every moment there to be a link of the historical chain; all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts.” For Schnittke, the shock of the past was not the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, or Tchaikovsky, but Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. This aesthetic foundation led to trouble after Schnittke’s career began in earnest, given that his models inevitably invited the charge of “formalism” from those envious of his talent.

The origin of Schnittke’s oratorio, Nagasaki, was strictly practical, as it was assigned by his teacher Evgeniy Golubev as a “graduation exercise” from the Moscow Conservatory. Golubev had suggested that his pupil set the poem “Nagasaki,” by the much-lauded “official” poet Vladimir Sofranov, who took as his subject the dropping of an atomic bomb on that Japanese city by an American warplane on August 9, 1945. In a move sure to irritate Sofranov, Schnittke excised parts of his poem while keeping its overall expressive arch from disaster to rebirth. Furthermore, Schnittke augmented Sofranov’s text with Russian translations of shorter poems by two Japanese authors, Toson Shimazaki and Eisaku Yoneda.

Schnittke completed his oratorio in 1958, graduating successfully from the Conservatory. Influenced by Shostakovich (who defended Schnittke’s score), Stravinsky, and Carl Orff, Nagasaki was, in the composer’s words, given a “first-class berating” by the Secretariat of the Union of Composers USSR in the autumn of 1958. Unexpectedly, however, Radio Moscow recorded Nagasaki in the spring of 1959; it was broadcast throughout the USSR and to Japan on August 6, 1960, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.