Contributed by Lim Wen Liang (BMUS1, YST)
At about the same time Shostakovich was entering his late period, Alfred Schnittke, then a young composer, was beginning to explore what he would later term Polystylism. By the 1960s in the Soviet Union, censorship against artists had diminished and avant-garde works, particularly from western Europe, that Stalin had silenced were being discovered by Soviet composers.
The relaxation on the ban of contemporary western European cultural works meant that Schnittke had access to the techniques and innovations from Europe. Most notably, a visit from Luigi Nono, a life-long member of the Italian communist party and a highly esteemed composer in western European circles (and whom the Soviet’s had previously deemed a monster), influenced Schnittke to take up serialism.
Serial music was one of the leading innovations in Western music at the time, pioneered by Schoenberg before finding widespread use throughout the 20th century. Schnittke began to experiment with serialism for a while, before finding it too restrictive – in his disenchantment, he spoke of the “puberty rites of serial self-denial”. He moved on to more aleatoric approaches before turning toward what we know today as Polystylism. Perhaps it was the sudden influx of so many new compositional ideas to Russia that motivated Schnittke to compose polystylistically. While Schnittke quoted important works of the Western tradition – works he had access to throughout his life – he also referenced contemporary approaches to composition, including serialism, as well as his own previous works.
Schnittke’s Serenade for 5 Instruments is in 3 movements. It is one of Schnittke’s early attempts with aleatory and Polystylism. The source materials are self-quotations from his film music along with quotes from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
In the first movement, scraps of film music are juxtaposed on each other, each lasting for a short time before moving on to the next. In the seemingly chaotic environment, where beats and notes do not line up in an intelligible way, the tubular bells break through the chaos to interrupt and silence the ensemble before the disarray returns. This back-and-forth between ensemble and tubular bells is an important structural aspect of this movement. It is worthwhile noting that this piece marks a transition from a serial approach into his aleatoric and polystylistic approaches that defined much of his later work. We see hints of this in the pitches of the tubular bell interruptions. These contain a serial pattern that completes itself at the 5th interruption.
The second movement is an “improvisatory” section for the clarinet, although the pitches used come from the 1st movement’s tone row. In this section we see influences from American composer Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp, a work in which the strings of the piano are strummed.
The 3rd movement has a more fixed organization, but indeterminacy has a role to play in this movement. While there is less of the rhythmic indeterminacy of the 1st movement, this strategy does reappear briefly in the movement along with other methods that free up the organization. (This is chamber music that requires all players to interact and listen closely to each other or the performance can easily fall apart.) An imitation of jazz rhythms appears in the first half of this movement, where the piano strums a steady percussive rhythm across the strings, the double bass plays a walking bass and the clarinet plays in syncopated rhythm above it all. A quasi-cadenza notated with rhythm and melodic direction but lacking any specific notes is performed by the tubular bells. The work ends with all instruments picking up on the cadenza’s notation while inserting notes from the tone row. A marriage proving that opposites do indeed attract. Amongst all of this though there are also subtly inserted quotations from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le coq d’or and Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto. One needs to listen closely for these; they are brief and presented while other things are happening.