A Case for the Schnittke Concerto by Jill Valentine

I was riding in the car once with a friend who loves classical music. She had volumes in her car with titles like Classical Chill Favorites, Serenity Classical, and 100 Classics for Relaxation. A dose of Zen in the car was how she survived her daily grind. I was happy to take off the analytical ears myself and enjoy our drive as well. Besides a little too much reverb, it was a well-rounded sampling of major works musicians know well and audiences always love. But it got me thinking.

I had my own music on shuffle once on the highway, and appallingly, after a Jack Johnson track, came the second movement of the Schnittke Viola Concerto. As the buzz kill subsided, I considered what a Classical Not Chill or 100 Best Overwhelming Classical Pieces collection would have on it and how well it would sell. Very often I’ve observed that musicians’ lists of favorite pieces don’t include many purely “relaxing” works. We seem to love the works that emotionally exhaust us from listening, be it from the level of romantic emotion, struggle, despair, joy, etc.

If you’re looking for something to add to that playlist, I would recommend the Schnittke highly.

Nobody should be able to drive down the open road with the windows down loving life while listening to this concerto, but the Schnittke is not made for that. I would argue that it’s made not only to disturb you, but to also make you laugh (uncomfortably) and to drain your energy. It’s one of those rare works when a composer pours his autobiography and his fear wholeheartedly into it, and a work where the viola‘s “weakness,” especially in projection, is rhetorically valuable in itself. Schnittke wrote the concerto in the 1980s while he suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes that eventually took his life. He essentially died and lived to write about it, knowing his time thereafter was limited. It reminds me a lot of the Bartók concerto in that way, but in Schnittke‘s case, we know this is him talking the entire time, and we see his own death in his own words at the end of the piece.

The three-movement rollercoaster is all levels of disturbing and heartbreaking, rich with “should-I-be-laughing” humor and very toneful throughout. It is’‘t serial, and it has enough Romantic influence that I’‘s accessible once you get past the intensity. There’s a melody at the onset, and it even comes back a few times!

The concerto is incredibly difficult to play in many respects. I don’t want to think about how long I have worked on it, and I still can’t play it. But I’ll put it down for a few years and try it again later for sure.

Technical problems include the typical modern-music issues like large jumps, connecting disjunct lines, extended left-hand technique, and endurance with minimalist rhythms that tire your bow arm. Here are some clippings to illustrate:


This is an example of the disjunct, but very connected phrases that happen a lot in the outer movements, which involve big shifts, string crossings, and double stops with awkward replacements. This is also one of the most beautiful moments in the piece, if you ask me 🙂

Not only are the technical aspects challenging, but memorization is also incredibly difficult. The outer movements have many long notes that extend over mixed-meter bars, so anyone with photographic memory will have a huge advantage. I struggled with memorizing the order of time signatures/rests as much as the notes and rhythms themselves.


This note at rehearsal 19 lasts for many beats over many meter changes, and the piano plays straight quarter notes the entire time. It’s very easy to lose count! Cues, such as the (blank) bar where the piano rests, are a good things to have.

The second movement is an overload of chords and notes. Visually, some pages look like a black wall. The chords move in patterns that make it easy to skip one or play one too many times. It’s the most terrifying movement to play without the music, especially the passages that have 16th-note chord accompaniment.


Here’s the first page of the second movement. There are three or four more pages later in the movement that look very much like this one. The notes aren’t hard, but there are a lot, and every restatement has a slight pattern differences.

After you’ve learned the piece by memory (congratulations!!) comes the most important element. You need to sell this piece, a composer’s 40-minute lament over his own looming death. He uses the weak registers of the viola to show his own frailty, the shrill upper register to show himself screaming. Every shortcoming the viola has is used for what it is, and the very human element that results from that is chilling. After I played it in a recital, a friend from the audience said (as a compliment, he assured me) that he “wanted to walk out several times.” Another friend described it as a car crash you couldn’t look away from. While you’re pouring yourself all over the stage and your audience is shifting around uncomfortably, try to save enough energy to make it through the piece, because the structure provides no time for rest. The movements get progressively longer and harder. The second movement has all the notes, but in my experience the third movement is the hardest, because when you come off of the exhausting second movement, rather than relaxing, you have to regroup and get through the longest, slowest, most emotional movement yet.

I’m making it sound horrible. And it is, but it’s worthwhile. We play pieces like this and wonder why we love them so much, when they’re so painful for all parties involved. It’s an acquired taste, I guess, and of course not everyone will like it. But I highly recommend the Schnittke, especially if you are looking for something on the darker side of the repertoire. It won’t make it onto your car-jams or study playlist, and because of its structure it probably wouldn’t bode well in an audition. But the Schnittke will definitely challenge you and your listeners and invite you to appreciate a different kind of “beautiful” in music.

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