Born November 24, 1934, Engels
Died August 3, 1998, Hamburg
Alfred Schnittke attended the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s, taught at the Conservatory from 1961 until 1972, and began his career as a rather conventional composer. But Schnittke became interested in such "Western" techniques as serialism, electronic music, and quoting from earlier composers, and he left the Conservatory to work at the Moscow Experimental Studio of Electronic Music. Soon he was labeled an "avant-garde" composer in the conservative circles of Soviet music, but that description is unfortunate because it refers only to technique. What distinguishes Schnittke's music is its fusion of a refined technique with emotional depth, and many of his scores are leavened with a sharp wit.
Schnittke's Piano Quintet grew out of a devastating moment in the composer's life-the death of his mother-and it had a difficult genesis, taking four years to complete. In a note for a recording, the composer has described its composition: "In the night of 16th-17th September 1972 my mother Maria Vogel died of a heart attack. My aim to compose a piece of simple yet at the same time earnest character in her memory set an almost insoluble problem before me. The first movement of a Piano Quintet had come into being almost without complication. After that it went no further-for I had to transplant everything I wrote from imaginary sonic locations (in which everything was already indescribable, even dissonance) into a psychologically real environment, where tormenting pain has an almost light-hearted effect . . ." Schnittke's Piano Quintet is not a celebration of his mother's life and memory, but a direct reaction to living through the pain of her loss. The opening Moderato is extremely quiet music, but it frequently feels full of menace; the music begins with a long piano solo, and the strings' response, played without vibrato, has an almost icy quality; themes are brief, fragmentary, repetitive.
Unable to continue, Schnittke set the work aside for four years and then resumed work, completing the second movement, which he calls "an unearthly waltz" based on the name B-A-C-H (the note sequence Bb-A-C-B). The third and fourth movements are craggy and dissonant; Schnittke noted that these two movements "are based upon situations of genuine grief, about which I wish to say nothing because they are of a highly personal nature and can only be devalued by words." Briefest of the movements, the finale has the intriguing marking Moderato pastorale. Schnittke described it as "a mirror-image passacaglia, the theme of which is repeated fourteen times, whilst all the other sonic events are mere shadows of an already disappeared tragic perception." The passacaglia theme, a disarmingly simple little tune, goes its own way in the piano, and around these repetitions the strings weave reminiscences of the earlier movements before the stunning close, where the music fades into silence on the passacaglia theme.
At the suggestion of Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who recognized the dramatic character of this music, Schnittke in 1978 orchestrated the Piano Quintet, and this version-titled In Memoriam-was first performed in Moscow on December 29, 1979.