Schnittke – Quartet for Percussion (1994)


A Lilypond engraving of Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet for Percussion (1994)

 “Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, composer Alfred Schnittke maintained a fascination with what he called ‘a velvet depth of meaning.’ With its mixture of Romantic sublime and opulent kitsch, this phrase was perfectly captured by the composer’s creation of a mystical continuo for many of his works – the Second and Fourth Symphonies, the First and Fifth Concerti Grossi, the ballet Peer Gynt. Each of these works had lurking in its background a spooky, seductive grouping of various percussion instruments, usually centering around marimba, vibraphone, and a multitude of tolling-bodies (glockenspiel, tubular bells, bell tree, sleigh bells). The sound provided a supple anti-backbone for the music, propelling along on a sound-cloud of ringing, liquid attacks – a perfect allegory for the essential precariousness of Schnittke’s music in general.

 So it seems inevitable that this very specific sound would eventually get a work all of its own. Schnittke’s Quartet for Percussion (for marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and tubular bells) is one of his late works, written less than four years before his death in 1998, and generally thrives off of the composer’s massive self-simplification; coming after a number of debilitating strokes, the quartet exemplifies a kind of sea-change in Schnittke’s mindset with its pearly, powerfully unsure sense of mystery. ‘I had the sense that things outside myself had a specific crystalline structure,’ he once confessed about his pre-stroke works; but by the later 1980s things were ‘different: I can no longer see this crystalline structure, only incessantly shifting, unstable forms.’

 These words perfectly describe the eight-minute score is this quartet. Though it is extremely simple in structure and material – in many ways it is no more than one large crescendo punctuated by gradient bursts from various members of the ensemble – their harmonic fabric is also basic, essentially manifesting out of simple canonical procedures.

 And yet, attesting to Schnittke’s basic sense of wary skepticism in appearances, the effect is anything but simple. The marimba maintains a tremolo throughout almost the entire piece, and over it the lines collect, creating hall upon hall of sonic mirrors with their tricky, fulsome resonance. The work gathers greater and greater momentum out of sheer reverberation within itself, and eventually precipitates a hallmark Schnittke-collapse, in which the destination to which the music has been building seems to vanish like a mirage. In this aspect the Percussion Quartet becomes yet another anthem to Schnittke’s perspective on the world, ‘a world of illusions, unlimited and unending. There is a realm of shadows in it…’”

– Seth Brodsky