Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Alfred Schnittke's Oratorio 'Nagasaki'

A month ago, I happened upon a post about 20th Century composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), described by critic Alex Ross as a "connoisseur of chaos" who "represents not only a moment in the history of Russia, but also a moment in the history of music." In his too-brief lifetime, Schnittke wrote scores for more than five dozen films, symphonies, operas, concerti, string quartets, sonatas, and much more. He is among the most renowned of Soviet modern music masters and lauded for his "polystylism", that is, the use of multiple contrasting styles or techniques in the same composition.

In looking over his output, I learned that the highly prolific Schnittke composed an oratorio, Nagasaki (listen to the first and second movements in the audio below), in 1958, when he was only 24 years old! An extraordinary subject! Written for mezzo soprano, mixed choir, and large orchestra, the oratorio comprises five movements: "Nagasaki, City of Grief", "The Morning", "On That Fateful Day", "On the Ashes", and "The Sun of Peace". Broadcast on Moscow World Service Radio in 1959, the oratorio  did not  receive another public performance until 2006, at South Africa's inaugural Cape Town International Summer Music Festival. More recently, it was one of the selections for the American Symphony Orchestra's December 10, 2014, program, "Requiem for the 20th Century". The ASO's notes indicate that Schnittke's composition draws on "three poems by Russian and Japanese authors, and was influenced by composers ranging from Shostakovich and Prokofiev to Bach, Stravinsky, and even Carl Orff". For more information about the work, read the ASO's brief program notes or Calum MacDonald's more detailed program notes.

Listen to other works, including a cello concerto, cello sonata, piano quintet, string trio, and orchestral piece.

German-Language Website for Alfred Schnittke

Sikoski Music Profile of Alfred Schnittke

Tom Service, "A Guide to the Music of Alfred Schnittke", The Guardian, April 29, 2013