Farewell to Dodecaphony

In the June 10 edition of his Russian Music class, David Nice explored “End of the Thaw and musical life after Khrushchev.” Nice wrote:

“Khrushchev’s sudden rages against jazz and abstract art signalled a closing-down of hard-won freedoms. Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, setting a range of poems by the young iconoclast Yevgeny Yevtushenko, was a surprise casualty. Meanwhile, dodecaphony was having its impact on a younger generation of composers, but not for long: we see how with Alfred Schnittke and the Estonian Arvo Pärt.”

With Bach as the touchstone for each of them, Schnittke composed Quasi una Sonata and Pärt composed Credo.

Schnittke wrote of Quasi una Sonata:

“The Sonata begins with a loud, short G-minor triad. That was very important for me . . . after a very long period of writing exclusively serial music. Suddenly I had to write this piece, without rules of construction. It was, so to speak, a mutiny against everything else. There is a continual exchange between this triad and a dissonant violin chord: the piece seems to stammer. Then, suddenly, the motif B-A-C-H appears…at the end it stands out clearly as the solution. The solution consists of the fact that nothing is solved . . . “. [cite]

“[Arvo Pärt’s] Credo was premiered on 16 November 1968 in Tallinn by the Estonian Radio Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the pianist Mart Lille, conducted by Neeme Järvi. The event was a sensation: the shocked audience demanded a repeat performance, but shortly afterwards Credo was banned, with Pärt and several other individuals in the music world having to answer to the authorities whether it was a political provocation. However, according to the composer himself, it was a deeply personal act, and in a musical sense, it was his farewell to twelve-tone music. ‘It was as though I had bought myself freedom, but at the cost of renouncing everything and being left completely naked. It was like turning the new page in my life. It was a decision, a conviction in something very significant.’ (Arvo Pärt 70. A radio series of 14 parts by Immo Mihkelson, Klassikaraadio, 2005, part 6)” [cite]

The image at the head of the post may be found here.

4 thoughts on “Farewell to Dodecaphony

  1. Curt

    “Quasi una Sonata” reminds me of the debt that Schnittke owes Gidon Kremer for his championing of the composer’s music on a major label (Deutsche) and in concert. It certainly was a draw for me. Your video violinist sounded every bit as good, for all I know. Can’t believe I never heard “Credo” before, but I think I would remember that shock to the system! Both composers have in common for me that, however fraught the emotion and nerve-jangling the dissonances, they are never so disturbing as, say, Krenek or Schoenberg in their 12-tone music. Something about their personalities, maybe, inclines them ultimately to please the ear rather than assault it. Or maybe it’s just my taste, who knows. At any rate, thanks for this provocative pairing.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: Kremer has been a boon for more than one excellent composer, hasn’t he? (Thinking also of how he champions Weinberg.) I, too, had thought surely I’d heard Credo before, but could not have, as it is indeed so startling. I think your sum-up of what the composers have in common is spot-on (or maybe it’s just that I agree). And I must give all credit and thanks to David Nice for the pairing.

  2. David Nice

    Mark Lubotsky was Schnittke’s violin muse in the 1960s; Kremer came later, inspiring more violently polystylistic works. Curt may have a point about the capacity to disturb, but there are other earlier works by both AS and AP which are wholly dodecaphonic, like later Schoenberg works (his earlier inspirations end up incined to ‘please the ear’). After the watershed of 1968 AP fell silent and emerged into his ‘tintinnabulist style’, which seems simple but has more behind the eyes than, say, Glass or the more recent easy-listening fakers. AS remained disturbing in his violent juxtapositions and became exceptionally so in his skeletal last pieces. As this suggests, it’s complicated, but I love it that Sue has referred to these works without telling people how they should approach them, so the responses should continue to be fresh and interesting.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Thank you so much for enriching the conversation here, along with all the other gifts you have given through your course. Today, BTW, I was able to watch and listen to Babi Yar performed by the Berlin Phil conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and after, read the excerpts from Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, on the symphony. I’d had the inchoate thought that, while Shostakovich is not considered a melodist on the level of Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky, he is an exquisitely sensitive musical dramatist and interpreter of text. Elizabeth Wilson put flesh on the bones of my barely formed idea. On page 401 of the 2nd edition, she expounds elegantly on her observation that Shostakovich’s “deep-felt response to Evtushenko’s texts produced settings that saw a return to the dramatic structure and theatrical imagery of this opera, and specifically Lady Macbeth.”

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