Alfred Schnittke's Third Symphony (1981) is an extraordinary work, even by the standards of Schnittke's iconoclastic output. Schnittke's Fourth Symphony may be more perfect, and his First more outrageousness, but Schnittke's Third remains strangely outside their canon, its visionary glance turned toward the entire Germano-Austrian symphonic tradition, perhaps the German temperament as well. This glance is wise and deeply sympathetic, but also doomed, at times fiercely tragic.
What results in Schnittke's vast but "traditional" four-movement scheme is thus a kind of German encyclopedic history, inscribed with symphonic terms and gravity. It is Schnittke's "Philosophical" Symphony, with all the sweeping scope that word implies: within its motives and forms flow the evolving spirits of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Weill, Stockhausen, and Zimmermann. Yet the Symphony is also a river of conceptual histories: its vortex swallows Kant's Enlightenment, Hegel's "Geist," Schopenhauer's Pessimism, and Nietzsche's Superman. And it also swallows Wagner's epic operatic myth of corruption, heroism, apocalypse, Das Ring des Nibelungen--and by association its terrifyingly real successor, the Germany of World War II.
That's a lot to swallow, but then not all need be grasped upon first hearing. Schnittke's Third offers many listening-levels, and even its surface promises much. The first movement's gargantuan canon, for example, creates an astonishingly rich palate of orchestral colors and shapes, carrying a motion and mood of cosmic proportions. But it also harbors an allusion, to the Rhine-music initiating Wagner's Ring-cycle; one writer called Schnittke's movement "the Ring cubed," and indeed it relives that great German music-myth in a hall of mirrors. Simultaneously, this massive introduction also reenacts a great German philosophic myth, that of a Hegelian world-spirit, comprised of the one and infinite at once, moving in great imperceptible waves of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
If the first movement speaks like a treatise, the second speaks like a play. It's Schnittke's "funhouse" movement, a sonata-form exploiting his famous "polystylism" where different styles play off and against each other to construct a large-scale work. Here "music-box" Mozart fights motoric Beethovenian arpeggios; waltzes morph from the gay 1860's of Johann Strauss to the morbid, world-weary 1890's of Mahler; Neoclassical Stravinsky even makes an appearance (what is this Russian doing in a "German" Symphony? Imitating Franz Josef Haydn, father of the Austro-Germanic symphony).
Yet under this madding crowd, full of the musical monograms of 30 German composers, lay the spirit of J.S. Bach; after the movement's vomitously violent climax, it is a Bachian chorale that resurrects the music. An astounding musical evolution ensues, warping through the 300 years of German musical gesture in only a handful of bars, until the Baroque chorale on trumpets has mutated into total serialism on solo piano, ala Stockhausen's Klavierstucke.
The following "scherzo" is a German juggernaut of terrific destructive power which eventually kills even itself. Via the Bach-monogram, its single-note demise bleeds into the profound finale, a "farewell" Adagio in the style of Bruckner and Mahler. A forest of music themes, this finale veers dangerously between aching pathos and sylvan decay; its climax seems both glorious and homicidal, but who murders and what dies remain unclear.
What ultimately materializes is a toppling, ambivalent monument to Schnittke's German consciousness, recalling author James Joyce's famous call-to-arms, "to forge in the smithee of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." In Schnittke's case, that German conscience had already been created--and in many ways destroyed. Schnittke's Symphony is hence not quite "forged" as much as "forgered" after an unrecoverable original. And as with much Schnittke, this forgery is drawn with the most respectful and melancholic of pens.