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Jean-Benoît Tremblay

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Polystylism and Narrative Potential in the Music of Alfred Schnittke

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This dissertation examines the narrative potential created by polystylism in selected works of Alfred Schnittke. “Polystylism,” the combination of many styles in a single work, is Schnittke’s answer to a compositional crisis that he experienced as a young Soviet composer. Polystylistic works often present blunt juxtapositions of styles that cannot be explained by purely musical considerations. I argue that listeners, confronted with those stylistic gaps, instinctively attempt to resolve them by the construction of a narrative. Three works, each showing different approaches to polystylism, are examined.

The Symphony No. 1, which constitutes a kind a polystylistic manifesto, presents a number of exact quotations of Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Chopin among others. It also makes uses of the Dies Irae and of various stylistic allusions. The result is a work in which Schnittke, asking how to write a Symphony, eventually kills the genre before resurrecting it.

Elaborated from a fragment of a pantomime by Mozart, Moz-Art is a reflection on the opposition between the old and the new, between the past and the present. The work builds upon the plurality of styles already present in Mozart’s music.

For the Concerto Grosso No. 1, Schnittke devised a program, albeit a secret one. The piece is at the center of a complex network of references, some unveiled in the work’s sketches, others originating from the film music of the composer. A story involving the Jungian concepts of animus, anima and collective unconscious is developed around musical elements as diverse as the BACH musical motive, a folktune, a dodecaphonic waltz and a tango.

The tango, which periodically reoccurs in Schnittke’s work, is the topic of the last chapter. Over the course of several works, the tango accumulates diverse meanings in Schnittke’s music. In the Symphony No. 1, it is an easy solution to a composer’s problem; in Agony, it is a lure appealing to Rasputin’s inner demons; in the Concerto Grosso No. 1, the tango takes part in a stylistic Utopia; in Die Historia von D. Johann Fausten, it is the feminine; in Life with an Idiot, it is the violence present in everyone.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 14 April 2012 15:22