RUSSIAN composer Alfred Schnittke is a rarity: a contemporary composer whose symphonies are eagerly awaited and treated as important events. They generate the kind of expectation and excitement that was common a century ago, but all too infrequent today.
Schnittke has composed seven symphonies, two of which were commissioned by American orchestras and heard in the US for the first time this month. His ``Symphony No. 6,'' commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, was given its world premiere by the orchestra on tour in Russia on Sept. 25; its American premiere was in Washington on Feb. 3, followed by a New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 6. His ``Symphony No. 7,'' commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was given its world premiere in New York on Feb. 10. New Yorkers were fortunate to hear both works for the first time in the space of a week.
Writing the word ``symphony'' on the top of a new score is, for most composers, a self-conscious act, an indication that they are wrestling with the past and grappling with traditional musical forms. The symphony is a 19th-century preoccupation; not surprisingly many contemporary composers have turned away from it, choosing names and forms that are not so laden with historical messages.
Schnittke, however, has always worked quite comfortably within the symphony, and his music has been a continual dialogue with the past. One of his most popular works, ``(K)ein Sommernachstraum'' (which the New York Philharmonic played on the same program with the ``Symphony No. 7'') is representative. Written for the 1985 Salzburg Festival, the work is a continual variation on a melodramatic pastiche of Mozart. It is a parody, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes grotesque, of Viennese music. As he does in many works, including the ``Symphony No. 7,'' Schnittke includes a harpsichord in the orchestra, which helps contribute to the work's mix of archaic and surreal sounds.
The popularity of many of Schnittke's works is due, in part, to his innate sense of large-scale dramatic structure. Even if the musical architecture isn't perceived, there is still a kind of cinematic experience to his music. One senses that a serious story about man's condition in the contemporary world has been told.
The Symphonies No. 6 and 7 represent a new direction to Schnittke's music that may come as a disappointment to casual listeners. The phantasmagoric quality of his earlier works is gone. His signature clash of large orchestra forces is present, but is more restrained. His recognizable tonal themes are present as well, but they are mostly fractured and have a cold, clinical quality. Schnittke's two new symphonies are, for the most part, quiet, austere, and abstract works.
Both scores are written for very large orchestras, but Schnittke uses them in tiny pieces, isolating the winds, or the brass, and occasionally using only one or two instruments at a time. Long conversations between trombone and tuba crop up in both scores. The full orchestra is used intermittently, in short explosive bursts of noise. And while he never fails to delight the ear with novel instrumental sounds, Schnittke is working with a reduced palette, exploring the limits of orchestral asceticism in miniature.
For a long time Schnittke was heard as a Soviet composer whose music was an encoded rebellion against government censorship and repression. He was treated as another Shostakovich. Whether or not this has ever been an appropriate interpretation, it is clearly not valid anymore. The Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 are indisputably post-Soviet works concerned with isolated musical questions more than political statements.
New metaphors are needed to describe these works. Imagine being given several glimpses of an abstract painting, followed by longer looks at the same painting from which elements have been removed. Both symphonies revolve around a similar core material, which is dissected down to the most elemental forms. The music seems to start and stop, each time taking up some new idea and exhausting it. Sometimes two instruments will play a single interval, yet one always senses its relation to the whole. The overall effect is at once frustrating for its severity and powerful in its simplicity.
Schnittke was present for the New York performances of both works. It was hard not to hear the final, wrenching moments of the ``Symphony No. 7,'' in which a single string bass plays a morbid waltz over a muted accompaniment, as an elegiac and valedictory statement. Schnittke is at the height of his compositional powers; an eighth symphony is in the works. One hopes that there will be more to come. The enthusiastic response of his New York audiences was an encouraging sign.