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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

Over the next decade, then, Schnittke emerged, together with Denisov and the Soviet Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), as one of the so-called “Big Troika” of late-Soviet nonconforming composers regarded throughout Europe and America as major figures in contemporary music. Of the three, Schnittke was of particular interest for the way his career trajectory seemed to complement those of the Western postmodernists, taking his music out of the Darmstadt or Donaueschingen orbit and into the major or “mainstream” concert venues. This further stimulated press interest in him during his lifetime, and vouchsafed his posthumous reputation as a defining force in the music of the twentieth century's final quarter.


fig. 9-6 Sofia Gubaidulina, sketch for Offertorium, Concerto for Violin (1980, revised 1986).

Like so many composers in the 1970s (but unlike Denisov, who remained faithful to the ideals of the 1950s, and to an orthodoxly “Boulezian” conception of the avant-garde), Schnittke abandoned serial technique out of a conviction that no single or “pure” manner was adequate to reflect contemporary reality, and that stylistic eclecticism—he called it “polystylistics”—had become mandatory. The watershed was Schnittke's First Symphony (1972), the collage to end all collages, a grim riot of allusion and outright quotation, much of it self-quotation, in which Beethoven jostles Handel jostles Haydn jostles Mahler jostles Chaikovsky jostles Johann Strauss, and on into ragtime and rock, with parts for improvising jazz soloists. Here, too, the distinctive Schnittke orchestra first announced itself, an omnivorous combine to which the harpsichord is as essential as the electric bass guitar. All styles and genres are potentially and indiscriminately available to it. It is the musical equivalent of the chemist's nightmare, a universal solvent.

Like Mahler or Ives, Schnittke envisioned his symphony as a musical universe, enfolding all that is or could be within its octopus embrace. But it was not a loving embrace. Schnittke's Tower of Babel proclaimed not acceptance of all things, but—as the work's “dramaturgy” betokens—more nearly the opposite, an attitude of alienation in which nothing could claim allegiance. At its beginning only three musicians are onstage. The rest of the orchestra enters gradually, improvising chaotically until the conductor, who enters last, calls a halt. At the end, the players make random exits until (improving on Haydn's “Farewell” Symphony), only a single violinist is left on stage, playing a childishly banal solo. But then everybody suddenly returns and seems ready to begin the piece all over again with the same unstructured freak-out as before. Again the conductor gives a signal, but instead of silence the orchestra gives out a sudden unison C—simplicity itself—on which note the symphony finally reaches an end.

Simplicity so unearned and perfunctory can suggest no resolution, just dismissal. The world of Schnittke's First Symphony recalls Dostoyevsky's nihilistic world without God, where everything is possible—and so nothing matters. Within the oppressively administered world of Soviet totalitarianism, where nothing was possible and everything mattered, the sarcastic suggestion that all or nothing was the only available choice came as a dismally disaffected message. It was clearly the work of a resentful, marginalized artist. To that extent, at least, it remained securely modernist in attitude.

And yet its very indiscriminateness contradicted modernist assumptions. Rather than postmodernism, the First Symphony signified mere “post-ism,” after-everythingism, it's-all-overism. The work was so despairing—so subversive of socialist realism's obligatory optimism—that it was allowed only a single performance in 1974, in Gorky (now Nizhniy Novgorod), a “closed city,” off-limits to foreigners, later notorious as the site of the dissident physicist Andrey Sakharov's exile, before it was consigned to the index of prohibited works that lasted until Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, proclaimed the age of glasnost’ (“openness”) in the late 1980s.

It took the addition of gallows humor to suggest a postmodern way out. Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977), the first Schnittke composition to gain a big reputation in the West, deploys three distinct stylistic strata: the highly disciplined, intensely fiddled neobaroque passagework the title promised; an amorphous atonal sonic lava-flow; and syrupy Soviet pop music at its stalest, banged out on a prepared piano sounding like a cross between Radio Moscow's signature chimes and the beating of ash cans. (No points for guessing which one wins out in the end.) The Concerto Grosso established the pattern that would distinguish Schnittke's version of postmodernist collage. No longer despairingly helter-skelter like the First Symphony, Schnittke's polystylism now took shape through bald, easily read contrasts. Plush romantic lyricism, chants and chorales and hymns (real or made-up), actual or invented “historical” flotsam (neoclassic, neobaroque, even neomedieval, as one finds in Pärt, a close friend of the composer), every make and model of jazz and pop—all of this and more are the ingredients. As they are stirred together, the pot frequently boils over in violent extremes of dissonance: tone clusters (a Schnittke specialty), dense polytonal counterpoint (often in the form of exceedingly close canons), “verticalized” melodies whereby the individual notes of a tune are sustained by accompanying instruments until they are all sounding together as a chord.

Yet however harsh, aggressive, or even harrowing, the music never bewilders because it is never abstract. Discord, heard always as the opposite or absence of concord, functions as a sign, and so do all the myriad stylistic references. They do not merely stand for themselves, but point. It is this “semiotic” or signaling aspect, a traditional characteristic of Russian music (and especially of Shostakovich, Schnittke's obvious model), that makes Schnittke's later music so easily “read”—or rather, so easily paraphrased on whatever terms (ethical, spiritual, autobiographical, political) the listener may prefer. Nor did Schnittke neglect more traditional signaling devices like leitmotifs or symbolically recurring chords and sonorities.

The result, as one critic observed, was “socialist realism minus socialism.”81 For some, it was hard to see any real difference between Schnittke's postmodernism and old-fashioned Soviet “unmodernism.” But there was a difference, and it was a crucial one, because nothing was off-limits any longer. Both socialist realism and Western avant-gardism had harbored taboos. While a student, conforming to the former, Schnittke knew that there were things he and his fellows could not do. But while dabbling in Darmstadt serialism, there were also things he and his fellow nonconformists could not do. For full inclusiveness, the rigid dichotomy that reflected and supported the divided postwar world had to be rejected. It was a solution that, as we have seen by now, transgressed equally on both sides of the cold-war boundary.

With an unlimited stylistic range at one's disposal, one could construct contrasts of a previously inconceivable extremity. Out of them one could achieve a more vivid instrumental “dramaturgy” than anything previously attempted in Soviet music. Maximalism could stage a comeback. Schnittke's postmodernism reengaged with the grandest, most urgent, most timeless—hence (potentially) most banal—questions of existence, framed the simplest way possible, as primitive oppositions. With a bluntness and an immodesty practically unknown since the First World War, Schnittke's music tackled life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil, freedom-against-tyranny, and (especially in concertos) I-against-the-world.

As Alexander Ivashkin, his friend and biographer, put it, no one since Mahler had so unashamedly “undressed in public”82 as did Schnittke. In doing so, Schnittke recaptured the heroic subjectivity with which bourgeois audiences love to identify. The concerto, which has both a built-in exhibitionism and a built-in “oppositionism,” was the ideal medium for such a project, and so it is not surprising that Schnittke produced more concertos than any other major composer of his generation—twenty-two in all, including seven for violin (if one counts as concertos the orchestral arrangements of his two violin sonatas), three for piano (including one for piano four-hands), two for cello, two for viola, and seven concerti grossi for multiple soloists (counting among them a piece called Konzert zu 3 for violin, viola, cello, piano, and strings).

This unique body of work was composed almost as if in collusion with an outstanding generation of late-Soviet soloists, particularly string virtuosos. Schnittke's concentration on the traditionally humanoid, voice-aping strings, so often shunned for just that reason by old-fashioned modernists like Stravinsky, was another token of his spiritual kinship with the “neoromantics” in the West. But his music resembled theirs only slightly. Increasingly, the polystylistics were attached to an urgent moral program; and in this, perhaps, Schnittke showed himself a composer in the time-honored Russian, not just Soviet, tradition after all.

“Good,” in Schnittke's moral universe, was associated with a naive diatonicism exemplified by the finale of the first cello concerto (1986), a “Thanksgiving Hymn” à la Beethoven, composed shortly after the composer's recovery from the first of a series of strokes that eventually took his life. “Evil” came in two forms. Absolute evil is represented by references to raucous popular music: its apotheosis comes in the third movement of the Third Symphony (commissioned and first performed in 1981 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra), where a platoon of anarchic rock guitars spewing feedback distortion attacks a panorama of German classics—a tribute to the Leipzig performers and their distinguished tradition.

Schnittke's most interesting music, perhaps, was that associated with “relative evil” or moral realism, consisting of “good” music distorted by avant-garde techniques. Consequently, for many listeners the most affecting Schnittke compositions are not the resolute, quasi-religious ones in which good triumphs, or the tragic ones in which evil is given unequivocal victory (like the Viola Concerto, with its pathetic, brutally quashed attempts at a harmonious cadence). In these, as the post-Soviet musicologist Levon Hakobian points out, the “moral of the story,” playing “an all-too-conspicuous role,”83 often reduces the musical content to a sort of accompaniment. But the works whose arguments vacillate at some fraught point between triumph and tragedy are often fascinating. A particularly compact and effective work of this kind is the Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979), written for the composer's wife but first performed by the Soviet pianist Vladimir Krainev. The main theme, given many long preparations and a couple of climactic statements, is a stout chorale in C major that bears a small but probably not coincidental resemblance to the harmonized Orthodox chant, Gospodi, spasi ny (“Save us, O Lord”) that opens Chaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture (Ex. 9-10). But on its every appearance, it has to fight its way through a barrage of “noise” in the form of disfiguring chromatics, or heterophony, or polytonality, or clusters, or microtones, or glissandi, or…


ex. 9-10a Alfred Schnittke, Concerto for Piano and Strings, fig. 6


ex. 9-10b Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, 1812 Overture, beginning

A macabre waltz section, reminiscent of many similar passages in Shostakovich but vastly exceeding them in harshness, reaches a point of maximum tension (“evil”), after which the piano, in a cadenza, tries in vain to shake off the malign influence. The ensuing reprise of the chorale (Ex. 9-11) shows the crazed soloist and the accompanying group at their point of greatest mutual disaffection. The soloist finally manages to derange the chorale, and a typically Schnittkean disintegration or entropy sets in. In the coda, the piano and orchestra seem to be back in sync, but the pianist's last melody is a twelve-tone row, and the orchestra, having picked up each tone and sustained it, is left holding a gigantic “aggregate harmony” at the end. To the metaphysical maximalists of the early twentieth century—Scriabin, Schoenberg, Ives—who emancipated dissonance, the aggregate could mean wholeness. Within the context of Schnittke's “de-emancipated” idiom, it seems more like the ultimate in disorientation.

But while sharply dichotomized, extremes of consonance and dissonance (or tonality and atonality) do not register as incongruous within a style like Schnittke's. They no longer stand for separate stages in a historical development. They are equally available, located not on a historical but on an expressive continuum. As in all the postmodernist music we have surveyed, dissonance is once again heard in relation to consonance, which resumes its status as the tacitly asserted (if easily destabilized) norm. The ease with which the normal is destabilized is perhaps the essential Schnittkean metaphor for our fallen moral state. There is no escaping the preachiness of that message.

The tendency to sermonize, more than anything else, has made Schnittke a controversial figure. Moral commitment had long fallen victim to irony in modernist art, whether East or West; nor is black-and-white much of a moral color scheme. Upholders of “eternal moral categories”84 (as one admiring post-Soviet critic has described Schnittke) are exactly the sort that disillusioned sophisticates, especially in countries where artists risk nothing more than public indifference or the withholding of a grant, are apt to denounce as the sheep's clothing of complacency or worse.


ex. 9-11 Alfred Schnittke, Concerto for Piano and Strings, reprise of chorale

But Schnittke's Soviet background weighed in his favor. In the 1970s, following the expulsion of the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the USSR, it became fashionable in the West to look for signs of resistance in all late-Soviet art, and this gained for Soviet artists a measure of Western interest and respect that had formerly been denied them on the cold-war assumption that Soviet art was created under conditions of coercion and served the interests of the totalitarian state. (The notion that the better Soviet artists were dissident in direct proportion to their perceived artistic standing was of course just another way of stating the same cold-war prejudice.)

The tendency to look for messages-in-a-bottle in Soviet art was given a powerful boost in 1979, when a book called Testimony appeared, its subtitle proclaiming it to be “The Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov.” The portrait the book painted of Shostakovich as a disaffected liberal, inserting anti-Communist messages between the lines of his compositions to encourage those of his countrymen “with ears to hear,” came at the right time. Its authenticity has been convincingly questioned (and zealously defended), but that debate has been a sideshow, hardly impinging on the book's powerful appeal to many readers’ imaginations. Coinciding with the emergence of postmodernist styles in the West, and the weakening of the modernist grip on musical attitudes, the Shostakovich of Testimony became an interpretive touchstone against which a great deal of other music could be measured.

Schnittke, more than any other composer, reaped the benefit of this development and began to command Shostakovich's immense and growing following. Long oppressed by the same ideological dictatorship that had oppressed Shostakovich, Schnittke (unlike Shostakovich) survived it, and survived the nihilism to which his First Symphony had once attested. The appeal of his music, like Shostakovich's, lay for many listeners less in its actual sound patterns than in their sense of the composer's moral and political plight (and the fragility of his life, as his many debilitating illnesses became known). That empathy, born of historical awareness, lent an extra concreteness, an extra force to his musical plots and arguments—that is, to the way in which audiences construed and valued his paraphrase-inviting stylistic antitheses and juxtapositions.

The Shostakovich debates, and Schnittke's special status among his contemporaries, were perhaps the last musical symptoms of the cold war. By the time the cold war ended in Europe (with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991), not only Schnittke, but practically his whole generation of Soviet composers—Volkonsky, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Hrabovsky, and many others—were living abroad (mainly in Germany and the United States), the result of a mass emigration or “brain drain” that paralleled the one that attended the beginning of Soviet power in 1917. Denisov, though he never emigrated, spent at least part of every year, beginning in the 1980s, in Paris, as a guest of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), Boulez's new-music research foundation. PostSoviet Russian music dissolved into the general European modernist and postmodernist currents, of which it forms a newly vital, if no longer always stylistically distinctive, constituent.


The term “postmodernism” is obviously unsatisfactory and temporary, a stopgap. Rochberg rejects it because it is semantically dependent on the modernism he opposes. Other writers, like Jonathan Kramer (1942–2004), a composer and critic who wrote one of many retorts85 to Rochberg's undeniably shrill polemics, suggest that postmodernism is merely the next stage in the history of modernism (which might seem to confirm Rochberg's discomfort with the term). Leonard B. Meyer, who astutely predicted some of its attributes in theory when hardly any artist was putting it consciously into practice, used terms like “fluctuating stasis” or “stable pluralism” or “ahistorical and acultural taste” to describe the era that would necessarily follow the progress-driven ideology of modernism, whose eventual doom was inscribed in its very premises.

Looking back on his predictions in 1992, Meyer noted with some satisfaction that the triumph of communications technology had irrevocably replaced that kind of linearity with a cultural “Brownian motion,” which he proceeded to define by recalling the physicist James Clerk Maxwell's analogy to “a swarm of bees, where every individual bee is flying furiously, first in one direction and then in another, while the swarm as a whole is either at rest or sails slowly through the air.”86 There are signs, however, that technology may have brought about yet another revolution, the effects of which are only slowly looming into view, but which will decisively change the nature of music in the twenty-first century and beyond. It remains, in one last chapter, to explore some of these possibilities.


(81) R. Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 101.

(82) Alexander Ivashkin in conversation with the author, Glasgow, October 2000.

(83) Levon Hakobian, Music of the Soviet Age 1917–1987 (Stockholm: Melos, 1998), p. 284.

(84) L. Ivanova, “Ot obryada k èposu,” in Zhanrovo-stilisticheskiye tendentsii klassicheskoy i sovremennoy muzïki (Leningrad: Leningradiskiy Gosudarstvennïy Institut Teatrï, Muzïki i Kino, 1980), p. 174.

(85) Jonathan Kramer, “Can Modernism Survive George Rochberg?” (response to Rochberg's “Can the Arts Survive Modernism?”), Critical Inquiry XI, no. 2 (1984): 341–54.

(86) James Clerk Maxwell, “Science and the Nonscientist” (1965); quoted in Leonard B. Meyer, “Future Tense,” p. 349.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009013.xml