String Quartet No. 4

Alfred Schnittke

String Quartet No. 4

About this work

"Here I can weep my fill about everything!/ Here my incomprehensible, measureless grief which sears my soul, melts away" -- picture-postcard poem by Peter Altenberg

Style -- or styles -- was always one of Alfred Schnittke's most profound concerns. One could even argue, especially in Schnittke's "polystylistic" works from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, that style was Schnittke's "content," the raw material which fueled the score: works like the first three Concerti Grossi (1977 -1985) and the second two string quartets (1980, 1983) thrive on different historical styles like a vampire thrives on blood, veering and careening between the 1970s, the 1860s, even the 1150s in mere seconds.

But behind these many masks one could always detect certain fissures or gaps where something else poked through -- a kind of sonic soil, formless, totally chromatic, and languidly expressive. This sledge-like Ur-music seemed to be the hidden glue of Schnittke's constructive world, and eventually, after a series of debilitating strokes in the mid- to late '80s, Schnittke decided to let this sound surface and dominate his work, calling for a "B-Plan" in which "everything must be different."

Written in 1989, the composer's fourth and last string quartet is perhaps his most extreme demonstration of this attitude. In its nearly 40-minute duration, it jettisons the "polystylistic" approach almost entirely; every alleviating and supportive device falls away like a molted skin, and leaves behind a raw, almost unbearable lyricism, unflagging in its imploring despair. It's as if the body, in pursuit of some primordial trauma, had shed everything but its blood and bile: the music doesn't "sing" or "flow" -- it pours, like tears after a psychological implosion. But residing comfortably in its unmediated hysteria and anguish, Schnittke's last quartet doesn't entirely shed historical reference; it also shows great sympathy for the music of Alban Berg, which Schnittke adored "above all things." Hence the work's dedication to the Alban Berg Quartet, who performs the work with all the messy sincerity it deserves.

The quartet unfolds in five large movements, in slow-fast-slow-fast-slow sequence. Yet despite this apparently ambitious structure, each movement works less like a well-oiled plan, and more like a desperate, stumbling search. The introductory movement seems blind to itself, groping in a cavernous musical dark; lines expand with extreme tentativeness, and when they finally precipitate an outburst, it feels less like a breakthrough than a panic. Flanking a slow movement of similar disposition, the faster second and fourth movements seem terribly encumbered by their increased mobility: they heave and sway with black harmonies and knifing gestures, and only accrue a collapsing weight with each further burst of intensity. As self-overwhelming as are the previous movements, the last and longest Lento outdoes them in its untainted expressive squalor. Plunging ever-deeper, it asks "Where resting place is there for a sadness that surpasses even its own expression?" Schnittke's strange utopia, in the peripheral vision of the quartet's last pages, seems to be the mythical river Lethe, where one "weeps his fill" until his "measureless grief melts away..."