Going Toward the Light: Shadow-Sounds in Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Chorus

Schnittke invented the perfect word for his polystylism: Schattenklänge, or shadow-sounds. Schnittke’s biographer thought of Schattenklänge as a kind of well of genetic memory, deeply encoding Russian and German cultural history. Schnittke considered the Concerto for Mixed Chorus one of his most significant works, and many critics argue for its preeminent as a masterwork of sacred choral music of the twentieth century. For me, one fascination of studying the Concerto lies in discovering the structural keys it contains, decoding all of Schnitte’s work. But perhaps what are most compelling are the shadows that flicker within it, shadows of some of the most powerful preoccupations of German and Russian post- Romanticism.

Schnittke’s musical imagination cannot be separated from his fascination with all forms of mysticism; the occult, in the sense of the hidden, became both inspiration and structure. Schnittke’s varying interests in theosophy, I Ching, kabbalah, and Gnosticism coalesced at the time of his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1982; his sacred choral works came to outnumber the secular. Schnittke believed his function as composer was more a medium, a conduit of hidden and magical messages from a transcendent realm.

The choral concerto refined and elaborated by the Ukrainian Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825) for the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox church, reached its apotheosis in Rachmaninoff, Grechaninov, and Rimsky-Korsakov. This uniquely Russian choral tradition was nearly snuffed out after Bolshevik Revolution; Schnittke resurrected the form after nearly one hundred years of neglect. I’ve chosen two qualities of the Concerto for Mixed Chorus to unlock its meaning in the context of the history of sacred choral music: the importance of the D major tonalities, and the setting of the ideas of suffering and universality in the text. The Armenian monk, mystic and philosopher Grigor Narekatsi (951–1003) wrote his Book of Lamentations as an offering of ecumenical prayers “so that my singing may become healing, curing the wounds of body and soul.” Schnittke had profound reasons to be drawn to this text, and similarly meaningful choices structuring setting. The work is composed of three movements determined by the divisions in Narekatski’s text, followed by a fourth that functions as a coda, recapitulating the tonal progression of the entire work from B minor to D Major. (I’m indebted to Melanie Turgeon’s analysis in Composing the Sacred in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: History and Christianity in Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Choir, 2008).

D major represented light to Schnittke; the Concerto was not the first or last time he would use its symbolism in a sacred choral music, often in coda. The coda to his Fourth Symphony (1983) resolves four disparate modes representing the liturgical traditions of Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Lutheranism into an Ave Maria in D Major. In the choral coda of Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt, Gynt (1986) escapes from the shadow world of illusion into transcendent dimension filled with light and the mysteries of eternities – a dimension that just happens to be D major.

It’s no mystery that since the baroque D major in choral music has represented the triumph of Christ’s victory over death and the affirmation of faith in the resurrection. The epitome of this structure is found in the Bach’s Mass in B minor, whose tonal progression from B minor to D major is echoed in the Concerto. The tradition was retained throughout the common practice period, with Beethoven’s masterwork Missa solemnis joining the Mass in B minor as its anchoring achievements. The Missa solemnis is almost entirely centered in D major, and concludes in D major. Another especially brilliant setting of D major is an ascending scale depicting a sunrise, found in Haydn’s The Creation following the recitative “And God said: Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven.” This D major as Fiat Lux surely must be a shadow-sound for Schnittke.

The D Major code can be found much closer to Schnittke’s home: in Arvo Pärt. Composed in 1982, Pärt’s St. John Passion ends in what one critic described as a “blaze of light,” a mighty crescendo as coda, set with the text “Qui passus es pro nobis, miserere nobis. Amen.” The Amen? D Major: the culmination of the tonal and textural music of Christ’s death, moving through suffering, mercy, and transcendence. Pärt’s De Teum (1984) likewise ends in D major, setting the word Sanctus, but as in the Concerto, with a diminuendo suggesting the endless and sublime. In both Pärt and Schnittke one can hear shadows of Faure and Durufle’s D major setting of In Paradisum that conclude – without ending, in a sense – each of their Requiems.

If one is beginning to suspect the ubiquity of D major tonality of transcendence, it’s fair to ask, what’s the big mystery? How could Schnittke think of such a blatant symbol as hidden or submerged? It was crucially important to Schnittke that audiences need not analyze or decode his music: he meant for its hidden meaning to be “intuited.” Even for his Soviet audiences, cut off from their thread of tradition of sacred choral music, the meaning of this tonality would have been hard to miss, despite the absence of text, as Soviet censorship sometimes demanded. Of course, many in Schnittke’s audience were fully cognizant of his symbol system. Perhaps the mystical leap Schnittke asked of them was in hearing these profoundly traditional sacred forms anew and from within an often radically hostile political and cultural climate, imbuing them with new and more intensely resonate meanings.

But the surface symbolism of Schnittke’s D major isn’t the whole story. The key of light also has deep roots in symbol systems of color and myth in Western music. In this way the Concerto for Mixed Chorus encodes one thematic gesture: D major-yellow light-Prometheus/Christ. The lynchpin for understanding these shadow-sounds is Alexander Scriabin, a composer of great importance to Schnittke. Inspired by the mysticism of theosophy and Gnosticism, Scriabin described the circle of fifths in terms of color; D major was golden yellow, a synesthetic perception shared with Rimsky-Korsakoff. Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910) use an keyboard instrument he invented called the clavier à lumières that projected colored lights according to this scale. The myth of Titan hero Prometheus was often understood as allegory for the suffering of Christ and the salvation of humankind; the myth was a popular theme of Romantic composers, interested in creative/destructive genius and the universal Devine. Prometheus rises again in the final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony. The ever ambivalent Mahler labeled its D major coda “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso,” before retracting all his programmatic notes. Mahler briefly named the symphony “Titan,” influenced by Jean Paul’s bildungsroman, but for Mahler, the hero’s maturation and victory over fate (the Paradiso chorale in D major) is tempered by ambivalence in the face of the knowledge of death (the F minor ppp of the Inferno). But unsurprisingly, Beethoven got there first: in the coda to his Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” Beethoven used fugal variations on theme from his ballet Creatures of Prometheus to depicting the hero’s journey towards creative self-fulfillment. Schnittke quoted this Prometheus theme in his Second Violin Concerto, Quasi Una Sonata (1968), a narrative of the passion of the Christ.

Scriabin’s theory of color and music influenced Wassily Kandinsky’s, who also identified yellow with the key of D major. Kandinsky muses:

“The soul poses a question and looks for an answer in the surrounding sensual nature. The Answer is given, but does not satisfy. Suddenly the supernatural answer comes that calls into higher realms. Accord D major is peacefulness, satisfaction after having received the answer.”

Kandinsky’s experimental one act opera The Yellow Sound was conceived as a multimedia expression of synesthesia in music drama; in 1973 Schnittke composed a score for Kandinsky’s libretto, premiering in a 1975 French production. Schoenberg concurrently explored these ideas in The Hand of Fate, with its “color crescendo” culminating yellow light and allusions to D. These theosophist-inspired symbol systems widely influenced musicians, artists and poets of the early twentieth century. The Russian Symbolist poets associated color and music; for Andrei Bely, colors perform a talismanic ritual, radiance of golden yellow symbolizing ecstatic unity of divine wisdom and humankind. Yellow naturally invokes notions of radiance, joy and light, intensified in the golds of Russian iconography.
Chasing Schnittke’s shadows in the Concerto, with its appeal to the unity of “Christians in all the corners of the earth” leads inevitably to the D major of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The European Community adopted the “Ode to Joy” as its anthem in 1985, the same year the Concerto was composed. Beethoven’s “spark of the gods” finds its shadow in Schnittke’s plea through Grigor Narekatsi not to “extinguish the revelation You have granted,” set in his key of light.

Schnittke’s evocations of D major in the Concerto take on a special poignancy where they underline texts of the Book of Lamentations that wrestle with suffering, illness, and death. By the time of its composition, Schnittke’s maternal grandmother, mother, brother had died of strokes, and his sister had her first stroke. Within a few weeks of finishing the Concerto, Schnittke, who also had high blood pressure, suffered the first of a series debilitating strokes that would eventually take his life. These themes find their great echo in Nietzsche contra Wagner. When Wagner converted to a kind of Schopenhauerian Christianity, to Nietzsche it was as though Wagner “suddenly fell helpless and broken on his knees before the Christian cross.” Nietzsche raged that Wagner’s audiences, seduced by the snake oil of repentance and redemption in Christian dramas like Parsifal, were lulled into smug complacency and malignant German nationalism and anti-Semitism. Something of Nietzsche’s attitude can be heard in Schnittke’s colleague Dmitri Smirnov:

“It was a real shock for all of us young Russian composers, when at the beginning of 70s Alfred Schnittke, whom we incredibly respected and trusted in everything he did, and who always has been a consistent follower of the radical avant-garde division in music, unexpectedly turned back to old conventional style and to the unjustified simplification of his musical language. It was difficult to accept, but it was the spirit of the times: tiredness and disillusionment with the structuralism and complexity, as well as the rolling back to the positions of so-called ‘new simplicity’.”

Schnittke’s Concerto resurrects a profoundly conservative, almost reactionary form. Audiences undeniably seek spiritual solace in that form, as did Schnittke himself. Yet Schnittke’s themes were a powerful form of political dissent and freedom of conscience, and were understood and valued by his audiences as such. Schnittke’s Christianity gave him strength to confront the past and make meaning, instead of turning his face away in resignation or retreat. His creative genius was employed in an almost Nietzschean, profoundly generative project of overcoming suffering and self-becoming, and inspired the same in others. This attempt could easily have ended in the pabulum of empty platitudes. Instead, as Kurt Masur proclaims, Schnittke became “one of the greatest humanists who ever worked in the art of music.” Richard Taruskin concludes:

“The wonder of it all, for those receptive to method, is how often Schnittke, like Shostakovich before him, manages to skirt the pitfall and bring off the catharsis – a catharsis a mere hairbreadth from blatancy and all the more powerful for having braved the risk.”

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8 responses to “Going Toward the Light: Shadow-Sounds in Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Chorus

  1. Geez Mary, could this be any longer? What were you thinking! :D

  2. You were thinking you had a lot to say. Wow, Mary–thanks for this fascinating article!

  3. Thank you for these insights! And I’d love to see Scriabin’s colorful circle of fifths!

  4. Mary—WOW–this is such wonderful information and James–thank you for the link!!

  5. Thanks for the link, James! I should have really gone crazy and strewn links through the entire post, but it might be fun for others to go on their own chases like this.

  6. That was fascinating! Being the remedial theory student that I am, I never realized D Major was used similarly in so many diverse works…

  7. Fabulous reading! Sound and light and color in a remarkable piece – and in Bonnie’s post below – Sound and taste and texture and coctails! A truly multi-sensory experience awaits! I can’t wait to hear the concert. Thanks all for the wonderful posts.

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