Structural threads in the patchwork quilt: Polystylistics and motivic unity in selected works by Alfred Schnittke

Date of Completion

January 2000






Polystylistics, a twentieth-century compositional process, is marked by the occurrence of two or more different stylistic features in a single composition, and it incorporates the practice of musical borrowing—either through direct quotation or allusion. One of the style's principal exponents is the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998), and his works are a commixture of contrasting musical elements—for example, diatonic and chromatic, tonal and atonal, or Baroque-like contrapuntal figurations and dense chordal clusters. Such stylistically diverse compositions present a unique set of challenges for musical analysis, a process that typically strives to elucidate the unifying, rather than contrasting, features of a composition. While the issue of unity may seem foreign to the conception of such works, Schnittke's music consistently uses motivic elements which cut across varying stylistic layers to form deeper level connections. Basic techniques of set-theoretical analysis provide a method for identifying and interpreting motivic structure in Schnittke's works, particularly those composed during the third phase of his polystylistic career (ca. 1977–1985). These procedures are demonstrated through brief excerpts from Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, Septet, and String Quartet No. 3 and through the more complete analyses of Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 3. ^ Principal motivic ideas, derived from shared intervallic components between themes, can be generalized as unordered pitch-class sets (for instance, [0,1,31 and [0,1,4] in Concerto Grosso No. 1). Others can be identified more specifically as ordered sets (for example, the B-A-C-H monogram in Concerto Grosso No. 3). Unity in Schnittke's works derives from various manifestations and treatments of these motives in markedly contrasting stylistic contexts. Motives may appear as independent pitch-class sets, as invariant formations within twelve-tone rows employed in the work, and within the progression of individual voices in tonally conceived harmonic progressions. They also function as important delineators of formal divisions. Schnittke's stylistic diversity coexists with motivic consistency, and compositional coherence in such works supports the inherent beauty of the stylistic juxtapositions and superimpositions. ^