Viola Concerto (1985)
By Gerard McBurney
Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
One of the great advantages of being a composer in the Soviet Union – and there were many disadvantages – was that as long as you had something serious to say with your art, instead of being isolated as so many Western artists are, you were part of what Russians call the ‘intellighentsia,’ the community of friends and kindred spirits who were as interested in your work as you were in theirs. One of the effects of this was that Soviet composers often had extremely close working links with some of the finest performers of their day. Prokofiev and Shostakovich famously worked with Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, while for the next generation of composers there was not only Rostropovich (who is still working with composers today), but a roster of such startlingly brilliant younger players as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Oleg Kagan, the violist Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Natalya Gutman.
Alfred Schnittke composed for all these great musicians and for many other wonderful performers too. His numerous concertos, in particular, are a panoramic record of a lifetime of such musical friendships and working relationships. For example, his Third Violin Concerto (1978) was written for Kagan, while the Fourth (1984) was for Kremer. His two cello concertos were for Gutman (1986) and Rostropovich (1990). Altogether, over a period of more than thirty years, Schnittke wrote around twenty such concertos, most of them for close friends who played stringed instruments.
One of the grandest and finest of these is his Viola Concerto, composed in the summer of 1985 for Yuri Bashmet. Especially in later years, it was Schnittke’s habit when writing music for his friends to encode their name in musical letters into the score. This Viola Concerto is no exception. Very near the beginning of the work we hear the viola soloist spelling out the letters of Bashmet’s name as a melody. That is, in a mixture of German and French notation: B – A – Es – C – H – Mi… or, in more familiar Anglo-Saxon notation: B flat – A – E flat – C – B natural – E natural. From this tiny six note phrase, Schnittke builds almost the entire structure of this concerto, nearly forty minutes of music.
Schnittke’s Viola Concerto has three movements, each longer than the last. The slow first movement, which lasts just over five minutes, has the character of an introduction, launching the main images and melodies of the whole piece. After an agonised opening declamation for the viola, in which the orchestra functions like an echo chamber sustaining every note the violist plays, we hear the eerie ‘Bashmet’ melody harmonised by the orchestral strings with simple old-fashioned chords almost like church music. This is followed by a second and longer version of the declamation which culminates in a terrifying chord from the full orchestra (also made of the same six notes from Bashmet’s name). Then a third idea appears, something like a delicate baroque cadence from a piece of eighteenth-century music by a composer like Bach.
The second movement – Allegro molto – begins with frantic arpeggiation from the soloist, like silent-movie music, almost as though the soloist were being hunted down by the orchestra. In the course of this very varied movement, Schnittke weaves in not only the three ideas from the first movement but a whole series of sometimes upsetting references to other quite different kinds of music: film-music, cheap dance-music, brass-band music, Soviet military marches and so on. Schnittke loved to do this kind of thing. He felt passionately that the musical rubbish of our lives needed to be drawn into serious works of art, that connections needed to be made between what he called the “high” and the “low.”
The final movement, at a little over a quarter of an hour, is almost as long as the previous two movements put together. It is a spacious and desolate lament, in the course of which music from both the previous two movements reappears, but ruined and destroyed. Through a dreadfully bleak musical landscape, the viola soloist wanders as though searching for some echo or answer from the orchestra. At the very end, the music once again settles on the six notes from Bashmet’s name, drawing from them the only traditional chord they contain – a simple triad of A minor – which the strings of the orchestra sustain and sustain, while around the chord the soloist gasps and whispers on a series of low dissonant pulsing notes, like the beating of a heart.
Shortly after he finished this concerto, Schnittke was staying in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda when, on the July 21, 1985, he had a severe stroke. Although he recovered partially, for the rest of his life his health was severely damaged. He later wrote movingly about the associations between this critical moment and the Viola Concerto:
“In a certain respect the piece has the character of a – temporary – farewell. For ten days after finishing work on it, I was placed in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life, a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, 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).”