I listened this morning to Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 6 (1992).

Even though there is masterful polyphonic writing as well (as can be expected from Schnittke), most of the time the music is homophonic or quasi-homophonic, especially in the slow first and third movements. Each of the three basic orchestral groups of brass, woodwind and strings plays almost all the time isolated from the other groups (the faster movements seem a bit more communicative between the orchestral groups, or at least they alternate more quickly). A given musical gesture in the brass may thus, for example, be answered by another gesture exclusively played in the strings which in turn is answered by another one exclusively played in the woodwind, etc. Often, however, gestures are answered within the instrumental group itself.

The musical gestures are often sparse and there are frequent small pauses or onsets of new breath in the musical accentuation. Add to this the often homophonic writing with mostly no gestural accompaniment and the playing of the orchestral groups apart from each other, and the result is that individual gestures are very isolated. In this manner each one of them acquires a searing intensity that might be possible to a lesser extent in a denser score. Schnittke here makes a powerful and convincing argument for the motto “less is more” (even though by no account I would want to miss the complex density of other – including Schnittke’s – modern scores).

The intensity of the gestures is enhanced by the impression of granite-like rightness with which contrasting gestures succeed each other. The harmonic language of the symphony is very powerful and the harmonic accents of each individual gesture are beautifully and tightly controlled, which adds to the impact.

The music sounds cutting-edge modern, clearly more modern than some recent scores by established “modernists”. It strikes me as an exercise in writing a symphony entirely without the filler that many symphonic works have; hence the argument is often bald, textures aren’t filled out, and silences often intrude.

This symphony is every bit the masterpiece I remembered it to be, and more. It deeply impresses me.

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