The ballet Peer Gynt has already been labeled by some as Alfred Schnittke's masterpiece. Written for American choreographer John Neumeier's adaptation of Ibsen's play, Schnittke's score is a monumental work of will -- a massive score for huge orchestra which Schnittke continued to work on even after his first major stroke in 1985. And as a collective whole, the ballet offers perhaps the best single introduction to Schnittke's music -- to his characteristic sound-world and gestural vocabulary, to his famous "polystylistic" approach, and to his larger aesthetic philosophy.
The orchestral sound of Peer Gynt is unmistakably Schnittkean. The core is composed of Schnittke's phantasmagoric "continuo" ensemble -- bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba on the one hand, and piano, harpsichord, celesta, and harp on the other; the strings constitute work's the wide, often sprawling lyric line; and the winds and brass frequently serve an emblematic Schnittkean role as demonic, menacing forces.
Stylistically, Peer Gynt is all over the map. Schnittke pays due homage to Edvard Grieg's famous precedent with the "fakes" of Act II. But on a larger level, Schnittke's ballet also constitutes a tribute to the great ballet-tradition of his own Russian heritage, from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, through Stravinsky's Firebird and Petroushka, to Shostakovich's The Bolt, and especially the particular melodic brilliance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Upon this scaffolding Schnittke piles yet more allusive density, from faux-ragtime (on a mis-tuned upright piano reminiscent of Berg's Wozzeck), to ruthless parodies of schlocky Hollywood film scores, to the venerable Russian choral tradition summoned by Peer Gynt's extraordinary Epilogue. Finally, Schnittke's ballet is a tour-de-force of leitmotivic associations worthy of Wagner's music-dramas, its themes returning in countless and perpetual transformations through the very last bars.
As a representation of Schnittke's aesthetic stance, Peer Gynt occupies a special position, bridging the gap between his earlier career and the work he would produce following his 1985 stroke -- after which Schnittke felt everything "must be different." Whereas the Schnittke of the 1970's and early 80's "had the sense that things outside [him]self had a specific crystalline structure," he confessed in 1988 (after finishing Peer Gynt) that "things [were] different: [he] [could] no longer see this crystalline structure, only incessantly shifting, unstable forms. -- Our world seems ... to be a world of illusions, unlimited and unending. There is a realm of shadows in it…"
It is difficult to imagine Schnittke speaking in such terms before writing Peer Gynt; the entire story of Ibsen's original play by deals with the search for reality amidst "a world of shadows," in which the greatest evils are distraction and illusion, and the will of self-discovery is constantly threatened by corruption, temptation, triviality, and betrayal. While Schnittke was always fascinated with such issues, after his first stroke these concepts seem to solidify anew. Whether the composition of Peer Gynt actually transformed Schnittke's perceptual foundations, or whether it simply offered the ideal outlet for them, the ballet is Schnittke's greatest epic of the moral and artistic shadow world.
This is best illustrated by Schnittke's and Neumeier's approach to adapting Peer Gynt from the theatrical to the balletic stage. The two conceived of the story unfolding in four Kreise, or "different spheres of activity." The first three Kreise constitute, respectively, Peer's Norway childhood, his flight into a "world of illusions," and his disillusioning return home as an adult; the fourth Kreis materializes only outside reality as the pure "sound-space" of the half-hour Epilogue. Schnittke felt that the "entire music of the ballet [was] like a preliminary stage to this last Kreis."