Alfred Schnittke On Polystylism

Alfred Schnittke On Polystylism

Some of Alfred Schnittke's thoughts on Polystylism in music extracted and analyzed.

The Guardian

Alfred Schnittke wrote an essay entitled, “Polystylistic Tendencies in Contemporary Music” in 1971, and a section of it, titled “New Eclecticism”, addressed the principles and use of Polystylism. Polystylism is defined as the use of at least two or more different styles or techniques within the same piece of music that were originally used in a bygone era or another nation. Schnittke ascribed to this technique because he believed that it widens the range of expressive means, and it allows for an integration of both high and low styles that produces a broader musical world and achieves a general democratization of style. This in turn creates an ability to obtain an objective musical reality all while still creating new possibilities for the embodiment and interpretation of “eternal problems” like war, peace, life, and death in all different life stages and different time periods. This technique allows for a bridge to be built between eras and to allow things to be understood on a much deeper level that transcends a life’s time restrictions. In fact, Schnittke even said, “One will hardly find a more compelling musical means for conveying the philosophical idea of “links between the ages” than polystylistics.”

Schnittke breaks the broad topic of polystylism down into two main principles. The first is the principle of citation. The principle of citation can be demonstrated in a wide variety of ways, but usually begins with the citation of elements from a style specifically belonging to another era or another national tradition and finishes with exact or adapted quotations or pseudo-quotations in the piece. He provides examples of composers and pieces that fit his definition that all have extremely different musical aesthetics on purpose. This list includes Neoclassical composers like Shostakovich and his Piano Trio, Berg’s Violin Concerto which sites a Bach Chorale, Penderecki’s Stabat Mater from the St. Luke Passion that uses a pseudo-quotation of Gregorian Chant for the basis of the whole work, and Pärt’s Pro et Contra, which makes use of Baroque cadence formulas to determine the form. Using these examples, he pulls out specific style features that are clearly indicative of borrowing from long past trends and styles, from all across musical history.

As a form of subcategory, Schnittke also indicates adaptation as an important element to Polystylism. He defines adaptation as the paraphrasing of someone else’s written score using one’s own musical language or the free development of someone else’s work in one’s own style. It is similar to how one would complete a research paper. While looking for information on the topic, a majority of the absorbed information would be paraphrased in the writer’s own words and then used to write the paper. Occasionally, the writer may use a direct quotation from the research material in order to have a desired effect on the reader. It is the same principle here. Adaptation is essentially taking a basic idea or technique from another composer’s work or style and then “rewording” it so that the same idea is gotten across, but using the newer composer’s own “words”. The principle of citation, the first point, correlates as the “direct quotation” method in this analogy, where techniques are flat-out borrowed, and sometimes even specific pieces or composers are alluded to. Again, Schnittke provides examples for adaptation. He cites Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s Ricercar, which he adapted using Klangfarben Melodie, or Tone Color Melody, to create a multitimbral fragmentation of the original.

The next point Schnittke made is that the citation of techniques from contrasting styles, such as the reproduction of forms, rhythms, or textures from seventeenth and eighteenth century music as well as the devices used in choral polyphony found in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries can be found to have influences all through serial and post-serial music. Neoclassicists in particular tended to draw from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and even earlier. This implies the use of a polystylistic approach long before it was actually labeled as such. As a branch of this point, polystylistic hybrids, which can arise baring three, four, or even more traits of varying other styles also play a role in how new music and music that is being drawn from interact in newer compositions. Schnittke notes that sometimes the mixing of the composer’s own style and the elements that were borrowed from a composer from the past can be so well blended and organic that the composition passes the borderline between citation and allusion.

This leads to his second major principle, the principle of allusion. Barely defined as “hints that hover at the brink of citation but do not cross it”, Schnittke says himself that the principle of allusion is impossible to clearly define or classify and the best way to help someone understand it is to give specific examples of it. The best example he gives for the principle of allusion is to say that it is characteristic of 1920s Neoclassicism, making particular reference to Stravinsky, whose music is heavily colored with references to past styles, albeit vividly individualized.

He brings up as a final point that Polystylism and Polystylistic tendencies have existed for a long time in European Music, but in bygone eras, it never went beyond a certain point. The breakthrough for this was an “expansion of musical space”. As time progressed from the very beginnings of music making, “musical space” expanded naturally as new elements, techniques and trends surfaced and made their own marks in the field. However, the further time and music progresses, the more things each composer has to choose from, implying a reliance on horizontal transmission. As time goes on and new depths of musical space are found, there are always questions regarding how many layers of musical space there are or what the rules are for these new, particular spaces. This is part of the reason why newer composers tend not to borrow from other newer trends as much as they borrow from older, more solidified ones. It is rather difficult to borrow from a style that hasn’t been objectified yet to the point where the standout elements that identify it as something that absolutely came from a particular era can be isolated and effectively used. Despite this restriction, when a composer is using a patchwork of references from other composers from different eras and different nations to create a foundation, these different borrowed elements throw the specific, identifiable style features that unmistakably belong to the new composer into relief and cause them to stand out, even among the many styles they may have pulled from. This specific act of highlighting each composer’s own “flavor” among the web of various influences makes for a much wider range of expressive means, and ultimately helps both new and old music reach a new, artistic high point.

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