The violinist has sent us this reminiscence of how he became involved with a great composer, whose 80th birthday we marked today. Daniel’s article was written in 1998, shortly after Schnittke’s death.
In the summer of 1989, when I was 15, I first encountered the music of Alfred Schnittke. I was studying at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival’s summer school in northern Germany when a fellow student performed the Violin Sonata No 1. From the moment I heard it, I wanted more than anything to play this music. The violinist was playing from a hand-copied score, barely legible, and I remember approaching him after the concert and pleading with him to let me copy the parts. That evening began my true “love affair”with Alfred Schnittke’s music.
The following year, on the same summer course, I was the student performing this work in concert. After that I dived into every work of Schnittke I could find. Fortunately, there exists a huge amount for violin. After the 2 violin sonatas (there is now a 3rd) came the piano quartet, string trio, piano quintet, then theConcerto Grossi and, finally, the Violin Concerti.
In July 1991 I performed the Sonata No 1 across Germany. At the end of the penultimate concert, news reached me that Schnittke had died suddenly. I had heard that he had already suffered a stroke in 1985 but had quickly recovered. The huge sense of emotion and sadness, coupled with the disappointment that I had never had the chance to meet him and talk to him was overwhelming.
As it turned out, reports of his death had been an exaggeration – perhaps mischief-making by his old enemies, the departing KGB, who had so long scorned his music. He was alive…..barely. As Alexander Ivashkin writes in his excellent book on Schnittke, “it was a haemorrhage of the cerebellum……..but again, his recovery was miraculous, and by 20 September he was back home, refusing all demands that he receive rehabilitation treatment.” Obviously something as trivial as death was not going to deter him from writing music. He was left with some paralysis and speech impediment, however, but he was all the more determined to compose.
The coma resulting from Schnittke’s first stroke, in July 1985, had been the source of inspiration behind the completion of his Viola Concerto, according to its dedicatee, Yuri Bashmet. As Bashmet once told me, Schnittke had confessed to “going too far” in the Concerto, and had in his own words, paid the price. In August 1992 I was joined by the pianist Alexei Lubimov and other colleagues to perform an all- Schnittke concert of chamber music at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad. The concert was recorded by Swiss Radio, and armed with the tape of the broadcast, I set off on a freezing November evening to meet Schnittke. Until then, every attempt I had made to make his acquaintance had been a failure. I had tried agents, publishers, musician friends, all of whom were very secretive about his whereabouts and simply refused to help. It was as if he had obtained a Salingeresque quality. I was well aware that he would have his reasons for this, but, barely eighteen, I was filled with so many questions.
There was one co-incidence in my favour. I was studying in Lübeck, he was living nearby in Hamburg, and it is this simple fact which ultimately caused our paths to cross. At a dinner party one evening, I overheard some people boasting that a famous composer lived in their apartment building. I should add at this point that Hamburg is curiously well-endowed with eminent composers, including Ligeti and Gubaidulina, nonetheless, my ears pricked up. I soon realized that they were indeed talking about Schnittke, and taking my courage in my hands, I asked them where they lived.
As they could offer me no phone number, the next evening I found myself standing nervously in front of his apartment building. I rang the bell, and the door flung open to reveal a blonde lady, whom I recognised as Schnittke’s wife, Irina. In a timid voice, I introduced myself, apologising profusely for the rude and in particular unannounced intrusion, and asked if I might have a word with the Professor. To my astonishment, I was immediately ushered in with a big smile, and there, standing before me, was a short, slightly arched figure, who held out his hand and said simply, “Schnittke”. I remember his piercing eyes, which seemed to stare right through me. For at least a minute I was totally dumbstruck. Schnittke took my arm and showed me, with some considerable dificulty, into his living room. I explained that I was a student violinist and a great admirer of his music. I handed him the cassette of the chamber music concert from Switzerland, and he immediately glowed at the mention of Alexei Lubimov, demanding news of his old friend. I said that I would be immensely grateful if he might listen to the tape and tell me if he thought we had come close to grasping the style and conviction of his music.
He wanted to know everything about me, exactly what of his I had performed, when and with whom. I had a particular question about the use of the harpsichord in the orchestral version of the Sonata No 1, versus the piano in the chamber version. I remember his becoming very flustered as he struggled to remember exactly which work I meant. It was a poignant moment, particularly because he apologised every few seconds. We spent the next 2 hours in deep discussion, after which time, noticing he was becoming tired, I excused myself and left. To my surprise, he asked me to telephone him a few days later.
This was the beginning of a series of meetings and lengthy discussions with Alfred Schnittke which took place between November 1992 and March 1994. In August 1993 I performed the Concerto Grosso No 3 with my friend, Erik Houston, at the Lucerne Festival. The concert was conducted by Schnittke’s close friend, Saulius Sondeckis and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, who had themselves premiered the work in April 1985. It was as harpsichordist with this orchestra that Schnittke was able to travel for the first time to the West in 1977, and we were all very excited to hear rumours that Schnittke might in fact attend our concert. To our delight, he came, and talked to us afterwards at length. To play his music with him present, was a particularly moving experience.
In Autumn 1993, I was approached by the composer Paul Patterson, whose aim it was to plan a festival of Schnittke’s music at the Royal Academy of Music in London (where I was studying at the time) in celebration of the composer’s forthcoming 60th birthday. Patterson had heard of my acquaintanceshipwith Schnittke, and asked if there were some way of persuading the composer to come to the festival, due to take place in March 1994. The idea was that I would act as go-between and translator. Back in Hamburg for lessons with my violin teacher, I visited Schnittke again. He was delighted by the invitation, and amazed that the Royal Academy were going to perform 22 of his works. He agreed to attend in person, but on 2 conditions: first, he wanted to stay at the Westbury Hotel, and second he wanted two further composers to be invited to the festival, as well as having some of their music performed. These composers were Vassily Lobanov and Alemdar Karamanov. The latter was unknown to me at the time, but Lobanov I knew as the distinguished pianist with whom the great rRssian violinist, Oleg Kagan had given many concerts. Schnittke, however, could not tell me how I might contact these two gentlemen…
The Westbury Hotel presented no problem. But I was unsure of the Academy’s response to including two further composers in essentially a one-composer Festival. Not surprisingly it met with considerable resistance, but Schnittke was insistent, saying that Karamanov had been the greatest influence on him, and both men simply had to be there. Not knowing where to begin, I telephoned the composers Gerard McBurney and Viktor Suslin. With their help I was able to track down both composers. Lobanov was a relatively easy matter, living in Saarbrücken, but Karamanov was “somewhere in Russia”, never having been allowed to travel to the West. After many hours of phone calls, and with the help of Karamanov’s friends in England, arrangements were finally made to bring him to the festival. At Schnittke’s specific request, I was to perform works for violin and piano by Karamanov (the first time his music had been played in the West), and the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Vassily Lobanov, with the composer at the piano.
At the last minute, Schnittke’s health deteriorated rapidly. Following a performance in New York of his Seventh Symphony by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, Schnittke stepped into a snowdrift and injured himself badly. The next morning he was unable to walk. Upon returning to Hamburg, he cancelled trips to Leipzig, Japan, Aspen, Tanglewood, Santa Fe and, finally, London. According to Alexander Ivashkin he regretted missing out on London most of all.
My last telephone conversation with Schnittke was in April 1994. I called him to tell him about the success of the Festival. He was delighted to hear this, and that Karamanov had finally had the chance to visit the West. Shortly afterwards, I visited Schnittke for the last time, bringing him various BBC-broadcasts from the festival, as well as some of the international critical acclaim which had been accumulated for the concerts as well as a hand-written letter from Karamanov.
A month later, on June 5th , Schnittke suffered his third stroke. This time it was very severe, with a very slow rehabilitation. During the next four years, his recovery was minimal, as my chance meetings in the Eppendorf suburb of Hamburg with Irina Schnittke confirmed. As I write these lines, news of Schnittke’s death reaches me again. This time, alas, there is no exaggeration.
I am often asked two things. First, to describe Schnittke in a few words. This would never do justice to him, and so I don’t even try. Second, whether his music will last, and how it will be viewed by future generations. On this subject, I prefer to draw on Schnittke’s poignant own quotation, again courtesy of Alexander Ivashkin:
“How important it is to catch up with yourself! There are enormous forces lurking in each person, but many people die without having discovered this. Of course it was clear that Mozart was a genius. But we don’t know whether anybody suspected the great gifts of the young Wagner. Nobody could guarantee a future for the young Tchaikovsky; and it was Rimsky-Korsakov who suspected Stravinsky of having a very poor ear. Apparently, talent matures according to its own laws, which no-one knows. That’s why the emergence of talent is always striking…….”
In my mind there is no more striking a talent in contemporary music than that of Alfred Schnittke.
©Daniel Hope, August 1998
“Alfred Schnittke” by Alexander Ivashkin is published by Phaidon Press Limited, London