For Soviet composers, the 1970s was a decade of ‘intonational crisis’: a period when they began to question their initial embrace of the avant-garde techniques they had learned during the ’60s. And for Schnittke in particular that meant delving deeply into the nature of musical expression. He had already argued that all composers, consciously or not, had ‘hierarchies’, or ‘layers’ in their musical language, citing Mahler, Webern and Ives as examples. In his own First Symphony, Schnittke, following Mahler and Ives, had favoured a starkly juxtaposed polystylism. But only four years later the process of consolidating and refining this chaotic language began. With the Piano Quintet, composed in response to the death of his mother, Schnittke’s musical language underwent a transformation. Paradoxically, the absence of direct quotation went hand in hand with a more symbolic treatment of stylistic allusions, so that instead of quoting from a Strauss waltz, for example, Schnittke would take the most basic feature of a waltz (its repetitive bass accompaniment) and distort it, much as Shostakovich had done before him.
In the First Cello Sonata, Schnittke takes two of the most basic building-blocks of tonal music—the major/ minor third and the perfect cadence—and subjects them to extreme magnification. In the opening Largo, the effect is gently melancholic, circling around C major/minor but evading the resolution of an identifiable chord. The furious scherzo is firmly in the Shostakovich mould: a whirlwind Presto constructed on rigorously contrapuntal lines that recalls the blistering fugato of the Fourth Symphony’s first movement. Here, Schnittke continues to explore the major/minor third oscillations of the Largo, transformed into multiple characters: winding chromatic thirds, the piano’s menacing bass tread and its rumbling bass quavers; the weird, slithering cello fifths and pizzicato chords over the piano’s climactic arm-cluster. The same major/minor third idea also shapes the piano’s gothic-horror-style diminished seventh chords, grotesquely suggestive of a leaden waltz. To use this chord at all by 1978 was as startling as inserting a C major triad into an atonal piece: once again, Schnittke’s treatment of over-familiar musical material is questioning and subversive. Just as he constantly undermines the major/minor triad, the diminished seventh is over-inflated and made both absurd and sinister. Underpinning it all is a carefully wrought canonic structure based on the cello’s opening material and subjected to ingenious processes of repetition and augmentation.
If one feature of the Sonata is Schnittke’s obsession with small units of musical expression, then another is his striving for a kind of hyper-expressivity, even hyperbole. This too draws deeply upon Shostakovich’s sound-world; the opening cello music of the finale has the same agonized intensity as Shostakovich’s most searing string recitatives, with its fixated semitonal rocking back and forth and painfully over-stretched melodic leaps. Where the earlier Piano Quintet had ended in a radiantly serene D flat major, this Largo rejects the possibility of any such clear resolution. Instead, Schnittke uses memory, not harmony, to create closure: he returns to the main motif of the first movement (the bell-like falling piano chords), to its superimposed major/minor chords and to the Presto’s ascending cello figure, transformed from an assertive fortissimo to pianissimo. Over the plainest of accompaniments—simple sustained piano chords—the cello muses on its opening rocking figure and on the piano’s falling bell-chord motif. Ambiguity persists to the very last bars: below the piano’s whispered recollection of the Presto, the cello’s sustained C is tinged with C sharp and an F sharp harmonic. It is Schnittke’s simultaneous avoidance of resolution and constant allusion to it that create an eerie sense of wandering through once-beautiful, now desolate, ruins. In fact, the melancholic nature of this music is almost its raison d’être; without the unlocking of Schnittke’s melancholic side in the Quintet, it could be argued that the mature mastery of his works from the late 1970s could not otherwise have been achieved.
from notes by Pauline Fairclough © 2006