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Accordion World Magazine The following essay was originally published in the January/February 2005 edition of Accordion World magazine (editor: David Keen).
This essay was written by Friedrich Lips with an introduction written by David Keen. This work is presented here by the permission of Accordion World.
(See our review of Accordion World Magazine) .

(It seems like yesterday, Part 5)

'A German Composer from Russia'

Friedrich Lips continues his autobiographical series of articles 'It seems like yesterday' with an account of his acquaintance with Alfred Schnittke, one of the great figures of 20th century music. It may help readers of 'ACCORDION WORLD' to begin with a short note on Schnittke's life and the events of 20th century history alluded to in Lips' article.

Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934 in Engels, in the former German Volga Republic of the Soviet Union, an area of Russia settled by German emigre in the 18th century. His family spoke German at home, his father very correct high German and his mother the Volga German dialect. When Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, Stalin deported the German emigre to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The Schnittke family managed to stay in Engels, arguing that they were Jews.

Alfred's father Harry Viktorovich served in the Red Army and ended the war in Vienna as an interpreter. He then got a job in 1946 with a newspaper.

With considerable difficulty Alfred's mother Maria took Alfred and her two other children, Viktor (b.1937) and Irina (b. 1940) to join their father in war-torn Vienna where they lived from 1946 until 1948. Living in Vienna between the age of 12 and 14 had a considerable formative influence on Schnittke. He spoke Russian with a German accent and German with a Viennese accent all his life. In later years he claimed that his real musical awakening began during his years in Vienna especially with the music of Mozart and Schubert.

When the newspaper closed in 1948 the family returned to Moscow, Alfred trained as a pianist at a music college in the suburbs of Moscow until in 1953 (aged 19) he entered the Moscow Conservatory to study composition. He had at this stage been influenced by the music of Skryabin, Rachmaninov, Wagner and Mahler. After the death of Stalin in March 1953 and later in the era of the Khrushchev thaw (1958-64) there was a gradual relaxation in the Communist Party's clamp down on modernist western influences on Soviet music. Between 1948 and 1953 Party officials in charge of Conservatoires ensured that the music of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg and his pupils were not heard or played by students. Special permission was necessary to consult the scores of these composers and there was no foreign travel allowed.

During the mid to late 1950's Schnittke began to study the works of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Carl Orf. The clamp down came again in the Brezhnev era when all composer's scores had to be approved by the Musicians Union run by the Party and little was performed or published without their permission.

As Lips' article makes clear, Schnittke earned his living, apart from teaching, writing music for films where the control of music by the Party was less tight and the demand by film makers was considerable. Cartoon films in particular (which were regarded as primarily for children) gave composers almost a free hand to experiment with musical form. Some of Schnittke's very large output of film music afterwards became the source of his serious compositions for concert performance and publication. His well-known 'Suite in Old Style' for violin and piano or harpsichord (sometimes heard using a free bass accordion for which it is said the composer gave permission) was orisinally a film score. His second violin concerto (1966) and Symphony No.1 (1974-1977) were also adapted from film scores.

His style of composing changed over the years from strict serialism in the 1960's to a musical language of his own, combining elements of style across the centuries e.g. his popular Concerto Grosso No. 1 and his Symphony No.1. His works in the 1970's and 1980's were often a subtle blend of musical history using what he called "polystylistic tendencies". His output of concert works was enormous across the last 20 years of his life -- 9 symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, cello and wind instruments, solo works, choral works and stage works.

Some of his struggles with the Soviet authorities (before the Gorbachev era began in 1985 ) are dealt a with in Lips' article. In 1985 however Schnittke suffered his first stroke and from then onwards when restrictions were lifted his biggest battle was with his own health. He received many musical honours towards the end. Not the least of these was an Hon RAM from the Royal Academy of Music,London, from the hand of the late Diana, Princess of Wales in the same ceremony as our own Owen Murray received the same honour. His lost 'Accordion concerto' written in 1948/49 when he was 14/15 years of age, when he first knew that he wanted to be a composer, is obviously another tragedy for accordionists. Against the background of his life his remarks about the problems of writing for the accordion in the conversations Lips records are of great interest.

CD's of Schnittke's works are plentiful in record shops. A detailed account of his life and works and other references can be found in the biography of him by Alexander Ivashkin, published in English by Phaedon (1996).


Alfred Schnittke, genius of the 20th century, did not write a single work for the bayan, but some creative contacts with him, which unfortunately did not bear fruit, remain anchored in my memory. A negative result, as scholars say, is still a result. In this case, the contacts for me (and hopefully not only me) were very interesting and informative.

Strange to say. I only vaguely remember the moment of our first meeting, but remember all our subsequent meetings all the clearer. My first creative contact was in July 1974. I remember that as a young teacher I was attending a summer examination and waited impatiently for the time scheduled for our meeting with Schnittke in the entrance hall of the Gnessin Institute. He wanted to find out more about the possibities of the modern bayan; moreover, he usually wrote for a particular musician and needed to be well acquainted with his/her performance, in order to make the most of the artistic capabilities of the soloist, ensemble or conductor.

Schnittke was punctual. We withdrew with him into one of the classrooms, and I played for him the Third Sonata of Vladislav Solotaryov. Afterwards we talked for quite a long time, not only about the sonata, but also about many other things. He liked the first and third movements; he was slightly critical of the Finale (as Denisov was earlier). He was enchanted with the sonority of the second movement.

'Solotaryov is very talented: if would be good for him to bring his creative thinking into order. He must get involved with religion and read the Bible.
"But he knows the Bible well', I replied. 'He is also familiar with many philosophical works.'
'Then he should get more involved with the Indian religion. It disciplines and orders thought.'

As a result Schnittke began to think about the possibilities of the bayan in chamber and film music It is well known that at that time composers were working on music for the cinema. Chamber music and symphonic works did not pay.

'For a solo work I need a definite idea. For the present I have none. Do you know that my very first experience as a composer was a "Concerto for Accordion"'? Our family lived in Vienna, Austria. after the war and apart from an accordion, there was no other musical instrument available."

In the course of the conversation it became apparent that our parents came from one and the same place: his from Engels in the Saratov district, and mine from Balzer (now Krasnoarmeisk) near Engels. The conversation was very friendly, even intimate. In those years there was an exodus among the Jews and consequently also among German Jews. Many musicians and other artists stayed abroad after concert tours. I therefore asked him whether he intended to emigrate, because of the troubles in official circles with the music of composers of the so-called "Soviet Avant-garde".

'No, I have no such plans', retorted Schnittke resolutely. 'I am not facing the problem of emigration. I want my music to be acknowledged here first of all, in this country: after that, we shall see -- perhaps the question will than become urgent.'

I should mention that Schnittke formulated his thoughts so perfectly (I was more sure of it as time went on) that even a trivial conversation was conducted at a very high level. His conversation, any utterance, could with certain provisos be published immediately without any editing. He spoke quietly, softly and quite kindly. A meeting with him always proceeded in a special atmosphere, which led me to higher spheres until then inaccessible to me: I was fully aware that Schnittke had already crossed the boundary of talent, to put himself permanently in the category of a genius.

When we parted, we agreed to keep in touch. I found it rather distressing. even curious, that I did not know his father's first name, and I did not know how to address him. When I finally resolved to ask him this, he suddenly stared at me, as if he were about to judge my age or the level of our possible future meetings, and said: 'Call me Alik'. When I objected, he answered shortly just 'Alik'. Of course, later I came to know his father's first name, and Schnittke was for me always Alfred Garrievich! (see Editor's note 2)

In spring 1978 there appeared quite unexpectedly in "Pravda", the newspaper of the Communist Party's Central Committee, an article by A Shvuraitis, "On the Protection of Pique Dame (Queen of Spades)", which began with the harsh words: "Be prepared for a huge campaign now! The victim is a masterpiece by P I Tschaikovskv, the Genius of the Russian classics. Not for the first time has someone criticised his unique work, 'The Queen of Spades'. The excuse is that the libretto does not totally coincide with Pushkin's text. The self-appointed 'executors of Pushkin's will' have, in short, achieved the complete annihilation of the idea and spirit of this well-known opera, which is to be staged in the 'Grande Opera' in Paris. The new version of the opera came from the director, B Pokrovsky, the composer, A Schnittke and the conductor G Rozhdyestvensky". The whole tone of the article was humiliating, (its climax was that Schnittke was a "pseudo-Avantgarde-composer".

The humiliation was actually intended for all three:

"This is a deliberate campaign to destroy a monument of Russian culture.. Have the authorities responsible not shown far too much patience with regard to this mockery of a Russian classic? All those to whom the great heritage of Russian culture is dear, must protest against this immorality in dealing with the Russian classics and condemn the initiators and authors of this mockery of a masterpiece of the Russian opera."
So the article ends. It must be said, that after the notorious Party resolution in 1948, when the whole flower of Soviet composers under the leadership of D Shostakovich was smashed, this was the most grievous blow to the creators of musical culture. Nobody could understand why Shyuraitis, the Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, took the initiative for this article. He did not at anytime make public appearances, nor publish articles. I heard later that the article was drafted on orders "from above" (M Suslov) and Shyuraitis was "asked" to sign it. After I had finished reading the article. I simply had to telephone Schnittke. This was a difficult situation for him: he needed some help and moral support.

It was the longest and warmest conversation during the whole of our friendship. At that moment he was really downcast and needed sincere words of support, and I felt how glad he was to have my call. Certainly many of his close friends rang him up, but many opponents rejoiced at his problems. I remember some words of sympathy like "clever people understand everything" or "try not to take it all to heart". He said he didn't want to alter a single note of Tschaikovsky's, but simply to come as near as possible to the authentic source, namely Pushkin. Between the acts of the opera, music was to be played on the harpsichord whilst an actor read a (French) translation of the text sung in Russian. 'Furthermore', said Schnittke, livening up, 'Rozhdyestvensky intends to write a reply in the press. He has counted up the number of cuts, which Shyuraitis himself had permitted in the opera'. The reply from Gennady Nikolayevich (Rozhdyestvensky) was, of course, not published anywhere.

Gradually the conversation came round to our proposed work for Bayan. 'I have a lot of commissions; I am booked up in advance for a few years.' After a short pause Schnittke suddenly and decisively made the following suggestion: 'You know. I have a list where the order of my commissions, on which I have to work, is noted. It is here in front of me. At the end of it there is a viola concerto for Yuri Bashmet planned for 1983. In order to move on from word to deed, I will put you down for a bayan concerto in 1984. Whenever Yuri sees me, he always reminds me about 1983!' When we finished the conversation, Schnittke said: 'Ring me up more often! Why do you ring me so infrequently' I answered rather foolishly: 'I feel like a subordinate, and rank prevents me from troubllng you more often'. 'Pardon?' he reacted emotionally, 'a subordinate in rank is a military term from a soldier's vocabulary. Do ring me!'

When I told other bayan players that Schnittke had put me on his list for 1984. some laughed: 'What is that, a waiting list? Why is it so long?' They understood nothing and were just foolish.

I was very conscious of the magnitude of Schnittke's personality and, being simply in love with his music, I was prepared to wait as long as necessary. And in fact, until 1984 there was nothing much else left to do. Soon after that there was the premiere of 'The History of Dr Faustus' (Faust Cantata) in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and then the 'St John Passion'. There was such power, such spiritual presence; with each of his new works Schnittke went down convincingly in the history of modern music. Beginning with his 'Hymns', which drew me in my student days into the Great Hall of the Composer's House to hear them, a very close spiritual world was opened up for me. As with the music of Vladislav Solotaryov, it was in absolute harmony with my feeling about the world. It was always full of special artistic freshness and unexpected artistic devices. The modernity of his musical language was never expressed in superficial complexity. There was even Tango rhythms inserted, which I very much appreciated. Irrespective of the natural complexity of his composition, this music was easy to listen to.

The year 1984 arrived. Schnittke completed the Choral Concerto on a poem by Grigor Narekatsi as well as the Viola Concerto. 'I over did it in these works', he said later. The intensive effort on such big works affected his health. He overworked and suffered his first stroke. If only this fatefull illness had not happened.. from that moment he was already working for posterity. I felt that he could no longer return to the idea of the bayan concerto. The period began in his life, where 'one must finish work before one is overtaken..'. In 1988, on the initiative of the conductor Sara Coldwell, a director of the Boston Opera, a Festival of Soviet Music took place under the title 'Let's Make Music Together'. The leader of our delegation was R Schedrin. Besides him, the composers included were: A Schnittke, S Gubaidulina, B Tishenko, W Silvestrov, K Khachaturian, G Kanchell, N Komdorf, G Dimitriev. Each composer was allowed to invite his/her own performer to America.

Gubaidulina suggested that together with W Tonkha, we perform her music at this prestigious Festival. At her Composer's Evening 'Ten Studiest' for cello, 'De Profundis' for bayan and 'Seven Words' for cello, bayan and strings were performed. The concert was a brilliant success. The newspaper 'New York Times' appeared with the headline over the whole page: 'America Opens the Genius of Gubaibulina'. This was a true recognition at international level, which she had long earned: at last this was her finest hour. After the concert we were waiting, together with Alfred Schnittke, for transport to our hotel. (I was waiting for my American colleague, Peter Soave who had travelled from Detroit especially for this concert.) He had promised to invite me afterwards to a Japanese restaurant -- that is another story, which I still remember today. 'You understand.' said Schnittke, continuing our long-standing conversation. 'everything that one hears played on the bayan is rooted in popular music. Only Gubaidulina has succeeded in achieving a new quality; in her case one feels nothing of the popular style'

I began to offer resistance. 'The bayan is a versatile instrument and can be used in very different ways. Naturally, one hears folk music, but it can also sound like an organ, a harpsichord, a woodwind quintet, a bandoneon. It has many faces!'

'That is just what confuses me, it can actually be everything: it can sound like a harmonica, an organ or harpsichord, but where is its own true face? The bayan's lack of a face of its own frightens me.'

We fell silent, each trying to think up new arguments. Schnittke continued his reflections and suddenly found a new turn. 'But cannot the lack of a face of its own just be its actual face? Do you know, until now no idea has yet occurred to me; take my "Two Short Pieces" for organ and make a transcription for bayan.'

Some years later I took a transcription of these two pieces for organ to a recital of mine in Amsterdam for their premiere, and afterwards prepared the manuscript, at the request of the Austrian publisher "Universal Edition" for publication and sent it to Schnittke for authorisation. The "Two Short Pieces" were then published in Vienna and later in Moscow by the publisher "Muzika".

For some reason the transport was late, and just at the right moment Peter Soave drove up with Lana Gore. I asked him to take Schnittke to the hotel first. Peter was delighted to make Schnittke's acquaintance and did this favour for us joyfully. Naturally, the discussion continued in the car...

I met Schnittke next at the Contemporary Music Festival in Huddersfield (England) where among well-known composers present from various countries were Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Takemitsu (Japan). I gave a recital there and a performance of "Seven Words" with W Tonkha and G Rozhdyestvensky. Our meeting was so friendly and warm that I thought I had almost achieved my aim. At some time in the late 1980's - early 1990's Schnittke and his wife Irina emigrated to Germany. They lived near Hamburg where he was constantly under medical observation because his health was deteriorating steadily.

In 1990 the musical agent "De Ijsbreker" in Amsterdam organised an Accordion Festival to which many well-known bayan and accordion players were invited: M Ellegaard, M Rantanen, M Dekkers, J Marcerollo, among others. My concerts and master classes attracted notice; soon afterwards the Manager of "De Ijsbreker" invited me again to give a recital. The concert was so successful that the agency proposed commissioning some composer to write a bayan work for me. I asked them to contact Alfred Schnittke immediately. When after a certain time there was no reaction from him, I rang Schnittke myself from Spain, where I was working at the time. During our conversation I was acutely aware of the after-effects of the strokes: he spoke very slowly, searching for words. In responding to the agency's idea he asked me: 'Friedrich, in which halls do your concerts take place?'

I began to count them up: the Great Hall of the Conservatory (Moscow), Santory Hall (Tokyo), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Lincoln Center (New York), among others. He answered: 'That's not bad! That's wonderful! That, of course, changes the whole situation!'

I understood his desire to have his music played in the world's major concert halls, but during this latest telephone conversation I sadly realised that it was all too late. He was already too ill.

A few months before his death in 1998 he was awarded the "Gloria Prize" in Moscow. M Rostropovich handed the prize over to his wife (the composer himself was confined to his bed), and G Rozhdyestvensky conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony by Alfred Schnittke. I had the impression that in this symphony he achieved a final end point to 20th century music. The Ninth Symphony turned out to be the last for Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, Mahler (he certainly still had the time to start the Tenth)... Now it was the same also for Schnittke. Probably the Ninth Symphony was also to be the last in his life, although, in my opinion, it was not his best work.

Alfred Schnittke often stressed that two cultures exerted a great influence on his view of the world: the Russian and the German. Shortly before his death an interview with him was published in a newspaper, with his words quoted in the headline: "I am a German composer from Russia". Regardless of the fact that he had spent his final years in Germany, his remains were interred in Russian soil (he was buried in the Novodyevichy Cemetery in Moscow). Naturally I went to his funeral in the Great Hall of the Conservatory, where his premieres were huge triumphs. Probably no one had had such a send-off since the time of Shostakovich.

I am infinitely sorry, indeed I feel to some extent to blame, that my contact and discussions were inadequate. I had nothing to add to his ideas, and I was unable to persuade or convince him, and did not achieve the desired result: I sometimes feel despair and stand powerless before the obvious fact of history: Alfred Schnittke, genius of the 20th century, wrote not a single work for the bayan.


1. A German translation of this article was carried out by Dr Herbert Scheibenreif and was authorised by Friedrich Lips. The English translation by Barbara Harrison comes from Dr Scheibenreif's German version with the author's permission. The draft of the English version greatly benefited by suggestions made by the composer Artem Vassiliev, currently at the Royal Academy of Music in London, who read the Russian original and the English text.

2. To understand this paragraph, English readers need to know that in Russian the polite form of address, especially from a junior to a senior person (Lips was 24 in 1974 and Schnittke 40), the Christian name is always followed by the patronymic (i.e. the father's Christian name plus a suffix, meaning son of). Russians do not address one another by the Christian name followed by the surname. Alfred Schnittke's father's name was Harry Viktorovich. return to article

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