It was conceived as an “un-symphony.” Decades before orchestras recognized the need to reinvent themselves and their mission for the future, Alfred Schnittke challenged listeners and performers alike to question the continued viability of the cornerstone of the orchestral repertory — the symphony — in his iconoclastic Symphony No. 1 (1969-72).
“It is an attempt,” Schnittke explained, “to reconstruct the classical form of the four-movement symphony (with dramatic sonata form, a ‘funfair-scherzo,’ a philosophical Adagio and a liberating finale) — a form which has meanwhile been destroyed by the development of music — from fragments and leftovers, supplying new material where it was missing.”
Schnittke’s “leftovers” came from Beethoven, Chopin, Strauss, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Gregorian chant, not to mention his own earlier music for film and theater, which supplied the lowbrow bits and banal scraps ranging from ragtime and band marches to pop. The new material included a lengthy free jazz improvisation. This is music that brooks no complacency; the fragments and allusions collide and refract in an unsettling kaleidoscope of chaos, though a haunting lyricism also emerges.
Eye-opening as well as ear-opening, Schnittke’s Symphony No. 1 was also conceived as performance art. The drama of symphonic performance so often taken for granted (the conductor’s and players’ numerous entrances and exits, even their internal spats), was explicitly “choreographed” by the composer.
Permitted only a single, now legendary, performance in the provinces of Soviet Russia in 1974, Schnittke’s Symphony No. 1 was his breakout work. It cemented his reputation as an original, “polystylistic” composer. In 1988, when American audiences heard the work for their first and only time presented by the Boston Symphony (conducted by its dedicatee Gennady Rozhdestvensky), some audience members stormed out in indignation. The rest stood and cheered enthusiastically.