String Quartet No. 2

Alfred Schnittke

String Quartet No. 2

About this work

In many ways, Alfred Schnittke's entire output bears the signature of tragedy. It is often a bizarre, deeply irreverent tragedy, miles from Greek antiquity. But nevertheless disaster, catastrophe, and lament are everywhere in the thousands of pages which contain Schnittke's name. So when he writes a work inspired by an actual in-the-world tragedy, it adopts a strange multi-layered hue, and offers an unremitting experience.

Schnittke's Second Quartet is the child of such trauma, finished in 1980 to memorialize the composer's close friend, film director Larissa Shepitko, who died from a car accident the previous year. Schnittke confesses that "for me, and for all who knew her, her death came as a severe blow." The quartet that resulted from Schnittke's reaction is a particularly intense experience, and while it employs much that is familiar Schnittke territory, it carries deeper wounds.

For example, Schnittke's hallmark "polystylism" comes through in the use of early Russian sacred music; Schnittke writes that "almost the entire tonal material of the quartet is derived from ancient Russian church song," known for its striking dissonance. But gone is any of the exhilarating funhouse irony which imprints Schnittke's other polystylistic works. Instead, the single model of Russian song is pressed and pulverized with increasingly agonized vehemence; Schnittke treats it monomaniacally as a symbol of the irreparably lost and unrecoverable. In doing so, however, he also writes a work of stunningly sustained creativity. Stravinsky's famous dictum runs that a composition can only arise as the solution to a problem. Schnittke the tragedian offers a counter dictum -- that a great composition can arise out of an impossible search for a solution to an insoluble problem.

The Quartet opens with the cold, isolated sound of high string-harmonics in canon, and at close intervals. Sharp and pale, this music eventually erupts into outburst; Schnittke then quotes, in all its voices, the original Russian hymn on which quartet is based, forming a kind of poignantly hollow center.

Responding to this vulnerable repose, the second movement offers an outraged, depressurizing implosion, an unrelenting explosion of activity warping the Russian hymn's contour in all ways imaginable. It begins with a "refrain" in which the hymn is expanded to four-octave arpeggios in all four instruments, each instrument flying at a slightly different velocity; the remarkable effect reminds one of a globe spinning at self-destructive speed, a kind of unstable atomic delirium barely holding itself together. At various points Schnittke operates like a film director himself, splicing in contrasting scenes of distortive fury; at one brief point this hurtling sphere smolders to a stop and we once again hear the original hymn as it appeared in the first movement. Inevitably, however, the shocked refrain returns, and ends the movement in a choked mid-spin.

This torn-off end leads immediately into the catatonic third movement, marked "Mesto" ("sad"). With equal single-mindedness but a new glacial tone, this movement offers a frozen dirge around a single note, D. Schnittke infuses the sound with a frightening thickness, which eventually swells to a barbaric climax: all four instruments, each bowing quadruple-stops, hammer out seven ffff chords.

The fourth and last movement is a kind of broken epilogue, attempting one last time to capture the missing center. But after a traumatized return to the Quartet's opening bars, Schnittke finally turns away from centers and offers a muted, translucent coda to the whole work. This starlit firmament of string harmonics literally evaporates from sound, ringing out the Russian hymn as it fades. In such a way does the work possess a double memory, of friendship, but also of heritage and history.