Posts Tagged: SCHNITTKE



ClassicFM posted a photo of Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone on Facebook today. I wrote a thing about it for Brandon Wilner’s in 2015. Here is a lightly edited version (doesn’t one’s prose always looks worse in hindsight?)

The Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke lived from 1934 to 1998. He was buried in Moscow; his grave is marked with a simple stone, upon which is inscribed a peculiar marking: a whole rest topped by a fermata, marked fff.

The rest indicates silence, emptiness, the absence of sound. This particular rest is a ‘whole rest’: it indicates a silence for the duration of the full bar. Above the rest sits a fermata, Italian for ‘stop’; it’s shaped like a sideways crescent surrounding a dot. In musical notation, a fermata above a note indicates that the note should be held for an indeterminate length of time. (In an orchestral work, the players would watch the conductor in order to cut off the note together).

Taken altogether then, this notation describes a long silence of indefinite measure: the never-ending sleep of the dead rendered in standard Western musical notation.

There is one additional element though, which stands in a contradiction to the above: the three f’s below the whole rest stand for the Italian fortississimo, very, very strong. This is the loudest dynamic marking regularly used in classical music.

We have at least two possible readings:

  1. That the absence of Alfred Schnittke leaves an excruciatingly loud silence in our world; the loss of his music is a painful maw.
  2. In spite of his corporeal disintegration, his spirit remains ever present, roaring, and emphatic through his music.

Because this musical marking indicates a ceaseless stream of silence, and because Alfred Schnittke cannot return to the realm of the living (though he did this very thing following his third stroke), Fake Music chooses not to reissue the work so as not to define the parameters of his—or his music’s—rest.

A list of practical advice for the orchestral composer

Here’s Number Zero right off the bat: the orchestra is it’s own medium with its own traditions and aptitudes; what it is not is a plus-sized New Music Ensemble. Here’s what I mean:

1. Tradition & Expertise. The day-to-day work of an orchestra principally involves playing music composed during the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.  In order to get a job playing in an orchestra, a musician must audition on excerpts by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Shostakovich. It behooves a composer to write music that stems from this tradition. The musical possibilities that build on the existing orchestral literature have not come close to being exhausted, I promise.

Corollary: this means that your musical style or voice might be different when you write for the orchestra v. a chamber ensemble. It meant that for Beethoven and he did alright.

2. The schedule. A professional orchestra rehearses a new program every week. Let’s say you’ve written a 10-15 minute concert opener (a commonly commissioned item). In addition to your piece, the orchestra will also be play a 45-minute symphony and a 35-minute concerto on the same program.

Each concert program receives four rehearsals.

  • Rehearsal 1: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 2: symphony & new piece
  • Rehearsal 3: concerto
  • Rehearsal 4: dress (run-thru of whole program)

The two rehearsals available for your piece total roughly 5 hours of actual rehearsal time; the conductor’s main focus will largely be on the symphony. If you’re lucky, your piece will get about 60-75 minutes of rehearsal plus a final run.

That’s very different from having a New Music Ensemble work on your piece for a whole semester, or even, say 6 rehearsals over the course of 2-3 weeks.  And you might think that sounds like an awfully impersonal proposition with not a lot of chance for reward.

And you might be right! And that’s totally OK! I’m here to say that composing for orchestra isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. “Pierrot Lunaire”, “Density 21.5”, and “Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel” are all certified masterworks that don’t need eighty people to make their musical statements.

3. The strings. The strings are the essence of the orchestra. I don’t in any way mean to undermine the contributions of the winds and percussion, but without strings, what you’ve got is a band. If your piece could work (or almost work) as a standalone work for string orchestra, you’re on to something. (see: Ravel)

The members of the string sections are used to playing as a unit. The agglomeration of several string players playing the same part is what gives the orchestra its distinctive color. Divisi can be glorious, but don’t go crazy; Debussy, Stravinsky and Lutosławski are great models.  Schnittke and Ligeti took string divisi to their logical conclusion, but they did so using very controlled canonic procedures, and it’s also worth noting that they both abandoned single player divisi after a period of experimentation.

You should expect that about half the string players will be sightreading your piece at the first rehearsal.

4. The woodwinds. The woodwinds (and, in many respects, the principal strings) are the star artistes of the orchestra and you should give them compelling solos to flatter their instruments and abilities.

Keep in mind though that technically challenging passagework needs to pay off. It’s a well known fact that a composer can scribble down in 5 minutes what might take a capable musician 5 years to master on his or her instrument. Give them something impressive to play that the audience can actually hear.

5. The brass. Despite their reputation, I have found that most orchestral brass players really do want to contribute their tone color to the orchestra in a sensitive and thrilling manner. However, just be aware that modern brass players are fully capable of blowing the roof off the place, and they’ll do it if you beckon them. Plan your balances carefully, and also consider the fact that the literature for their instruments goes back at least as far as Gabrieli.

A trumpet solo is a great thing, but a trumpet is not a violin. Write for it accordingly.

6. The percussion. These guys are the salt of the earth, and total badasses, and they’re so happy to have interesting parts, but they’ll really respect you if you restrain yourself from using every last toy in their cabinet.

7. The audience. Orchestral audiences cough. A lot. Like it’s their job. Especially if you offer them something soft and dreary and vaguely atonal (especially if it’s the first number on a concert.) Best to begin with a healthy mf AT LEAST and a definitive harmonic concept (be it tonal or atonal) in order to get their attention; save your delicatissimi for when you’ve reeled them in. Feel free to ignore this advice if you want your recording to sound like a Bronchitis Convention (which, incidentally, would be a great title for an orchestral composition.)

8. Final thoughts. I’m not saying you should dumb down your musical concepts when writing for the orchestra – musicians like a challenge. But certain musical ideas just lend themselves more readily to the sonority and capabilities of the orchestra. Others just don’t. So if you have a plethora of ideas (and I hope you do), keep track of them, jot them down, and maybe save some for a percussion quartet and others for a saxophone solo. Just because you come up with an idea while you’re working on a piece doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for the piece you’re working on.

I sincerely hope this little diatribe inspires composers to greater creativity and greater music-making, and I can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

My Week with Philip

It’s not so often that Cincinnati, OH feels like the center of the musical world, and it’s even rarer that I get to work with several of my musical idols on a single project.  But every once in a while, the stars align, and this past week was one of those rare occasions.

March 30 & 31 saw the world premiere of Philip Glass’s new cello concerto (no. 2) by our CSO.  I’ve never thought of myself as a big Philip Glass fan, but in preparing for the concert this past week I had occasion to go back through my CD collection, and there’s no denying that I’ve had my Glassy phases.  When I was a freshman in college, I used to listen to the last movement of his second symphony over and over again on repeat (and yes, I realize that many of my readers will find that concept delightfully ironic.)  The coda is SO MUCH FUN and it features my favorite repeat in all of Glass’s work, because just when you think the movement is about to finish, he goes back in for another round (1:03):

I’ve also harbored attachments to the first violin concerto and “Glassworks” among others, which, when I added it all up, made me realize that I really am a Philip Glass fan.  Which I think is one of those things that serious musicians aren’t supposed to say, but all the more reason for saying it.

And all the more reason why this week gave me such a buzz.  The experience was only amplified by the fact that Philip is a gregarious and charming human being.  A big part of my job this week was to interview him publicly, and let me tell you, that guy’s a talker.  If Charlie ever had him on the broadcast, he wouldn’t be able to get in a word edgewise (which, perhaps, is why Mr. Glass has never appeared.)

I’ll admit that I was a little put off when I first received the score to the concerto about a month ago, and I found out that the music for his new piece was not actually new — it turns out that the concerto is a condensation of his score for Naqoyqatsi, the third installation of Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy.  But the thing is, everyone involved treated it like it was a brand new piece of music, and because of that, it became a new piece of music.

Much of that had to do with the collaborators involved, Matt Haimovitz and Dennis Russell Davies.  Now, when I said at the top of this post that I got to work with ‘several of my musical idols,’ DRD was definitely included in that mix.  My obsession with him also dates back to my first year of college, when my eyes were opened to the greater world of new music, and I eagerly began buying up recordings of Schnittke, Pärt, and Glass among others.  So many of the albums featured Dennis Russell Davies as conductor that his became a household name in the house of my brain.

First off, I’m happy to report that he’s another class act, all the way.  Secondly, he fucking recorded Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony, which, on a spiritual level, places him ad dexteram Patris as far as I’m concerned.  And this is in addition to the most baddass recording of the Viola Concerto and one of the single greatest albums of all time, Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of The Seven Deadly Sins.  Not to mention the complete Haydn Symphonies, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is only the third such survey ever recorded??

Ahh, just thinking about these people gets me all in a tizzy, but I want to emphasize that the best part is that they were all really dedicated to this project (especially Matt Haimovitz who became one of my musical idols after working with him), they all contributed ideas that made it work, and, what made it so fulfilling on a personal level, they actually listened to and incorporated my ideas — little old me, the assistant conductor.  That’s a rarity for artists who don’t even approach these guys’ stature, and it was an honor to contribute what little I did.

But wait, there’s more!

Because when I said that earlier that Cincinnati felt like the center of the music world this past week, it wasn’t just because I got to hang out with famous people.  The seventh annual MusicNOW Festival took place, organized by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner.  He collected, among others, the following musical entities: eighth blackbird, Nico Muhly, James McVinnie, Sam Amidon, and no less a deity than Sufjan Stevens.

Sufjan was premiering a new song cycle co-composed with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner himself.  The one bummer of my week is that I couldn’t get over to hear this collaboration (since I had to be next door attending to the recording of the Glass concerto).

Thank god for YouTube bootlegs!

List of Acceptable Christmas Music

I’ll probably submit this to Wikipedia.

1. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas

I don’t think we give Sufjan nearly enough credit in general, but certainly we should all be bowing down on our knees when December 25 comes around.  Simply put: Sufjan saved Christmas music.  All of it.  All of the familiar carols and songs, the trite lyrics, the pat harmonies.  He redeemed them, re-invented, and glorified them.  And all it took was a banjo and some oboes.

He also wrote some great new classics from scratch:

2. Tomás Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium

3. Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors

This is likely the best thing Menotti ever wrote.  Pieces like The Medium and The Telephone have so many silly melodramatic moments and text-setting gaffs that they just don’t hold together.  Amahl is simple and tunely, contains a musical setting of the line “This is my box. This is my box. I never travel without my box,” and always makes me cry right here:

4. In Dulci Jubilo

I love the tune, and I love the back and forth between Latin and Olde English.  I love how “show” is spelled “shew”.

5. Alfred Schnittke’s “Stille Nacht

6. John Adams’ El Niño

7. “Glory to God” by Yours Truly

You didn’t seriously think I would leave this out, did you?

8. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols


– “Silver and Gold” as sung by Burl Ives on the original Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer soundtrack

– The Vince Guaraldi Christmas Album

– The Little Drummer Boy

– “The Eight Days of Christmas” by Destiny’s Child

Specifically unacceptable:

– Morten Lauridson, O Magnum Mysterium

– This:

– And everything it represents.

– Everything else not specifically on one of the above lists.

Am I missing anything?

Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

OK everyone, this is the last Top 10 Top 10 list – Personal Faves.  Here are the rules:

1) These are your personal FAVORITES.  No explanations, no reasoning.  Don’t choose someone just because you think he or she is a particularly good or great composer.  Choose someone because you love his or her music.  [Note: the two need not be mutually exclusive.]

2) These are your personal favorites at this very moment in time.  Try to let it flow – don’t hem and haw.  Five minutes hence, you might have a totally different list.  In fact, you could come back five minutes later and post a whole new list.  I would love it if you did that.  Maybe the You of five minutes ago really didn’t understand the You of now and your new perspective on life, love, and music.

3) Your list need not reflect any particular order.  It can if you want it to though.  Also – and this is very important – just because someone’s not on your list doesn’t mean you don’t love them.

4) Our working definition of ‘composer’ is anyone whose primary means of musical conveyance is the written note.  Feel free to understand this broadly.

Discuss! We’ve had some astonishingly interesting and in depth discussions on these lists.  Between like 5 people.  And I love those 5 people, and respect them and value their opinions and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them.  But I have a little thing called Google Analytics, and, Dear Readers, I know that there’s many more of you out there.  This is a get-to-know you activity – absolutely not a debate.  Just fun, y’all!!

I’ll start.  In no particular order (excepting Beethoven):

My Top 10 Personal Favorite Composers

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

2. Alfred Schnittke

3. Maurice Ravel

4. Jean Sibelius

5. Claude Debussy

6. Giaocomo Puccini

7. Stephen Sondheim

8. Henry Purcell

9. Joseph Haydn

10. Björk