Alfred Schnittke was, foremost, a master of drama. Whether it was Faustus lying dismembered and bloodied in the Faust Cantana
or the terrible Voland hosting a ball of undead souls in the Master And Margarita
soundtrack, Schnittke’s music radiated tension. Indeed, even the composer’s non-programatic works convey a feeling of conflict and intrigue, such as the first Concerto Grosso, where it almost seems like the two soloists are actors in some demonic, hellish tragedy. It should, therefore, come as no great surprise that the composer was asked to provide the score for a theatrical performance of the works of Russian author Nikolai Gogol, and it should be even less of a surprise that the resulting composition, now known as the Gogol Suite
, was a resounding success.
Stylistically, the Gogol Suite
- probably Schnittke’s least demanding work - represents an often forgotten humorous side of the composer. Behind the dark, brooding, dissonant works that the composer is (rightfully) best known for was a biting, frequently-satirical wit, which is fully expressed here. Consider the Suite
’s overture: a series of majestic, solemn chords open the movement until a cymbal crash ushers in an agitated theme carried by squawking violins. Trumpets, pianos, and glockenspiels enter one by one and the music crescendoes into a tempestuous cacophony. And just when the climax is reached, the orchestra suddenly starts to play the opening measures of Beethoven’s fifth - and all this in the course of just a minute and a half! It’s highly unexpected and rather clever, and one can easily picture Schnittke grinning slyly as he writes down the notes.
The music here manages to capture the eccentric and surrealistic style of Gogol: harpsichords crawl like spiders, glockenspiels dance festive melodies, and violins spiral around in melancholy waltzes. As usual with Schnittke’s music, the Gogol Suite
is highly polystylistic - its eight movements run the gamut from classical-styled works (Mvmnt II: Chichikov’s Childhood), to distinctly modern compositions (Mvmnt VIII: The Legacy). Indeed, the fifth movement, Ferdinand VIII, is a spoken interlude in which a narrator nonsensically quotes Gogol’s Diary of a Madman
, a short story about a schizophrenic, over reprises of the pervious movement.
The Gogol Suite
is probably the best example of Schnittke’s ‘easier’ music, which was mostly limited to film scores, and is undoubtedly the best starting point for those curious about the composer’s highly extensive catalog. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Schnittke’s more challenging and, ultimately, engrossing opuses, it remains a very enjoyable work and is arguably the best musical representation of Gogol’s writings.
“But I feel much annoyed by an event which is about to take place tomorrow; at seven o’clock the earth is going to sit on the moon. This is foretold by the famous English chemist, Wellington.”
-Nikolai Gogol, Diary of a Madman