Alfred Schnittke ponders the difficulties surrounding the distribution of innovative music.
  • Alfred Schnittke ponders the difficulties surrounding the distribution of innovative music.
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The conclusion of the Mainly Mozart Festival included a piece of music by Alfred Schnittke. I wrote that Schnittke was trying too hard to be innovative with the marching of the players around the stage and the lighting effects.

Schnittke died in 1998 which is coming up on 20 years ago, so perhaps “his time” hasn’t come yet. There is a problem with this idea of being too innovative and being “ahead of your time.”


Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 1

We often like to point to composers such as Mahler and Bruckner, who were not popular in their own day, and say they were too far ahead of the idiots whom apparently filled their culture at large. Van Gogh was so innovative that he didn’t sell any of his paintings while alive. Not one.

Do any of us want to be one of the idiots who didn’t understand the importance of a great contemporary composer? Do we want to be part of an epoch which didn’t get Van Gogh? Of course we don’t.

Here’s the rub. How many people actually saw Van Gogh’s art during his lifetime? Yes, there was push back against his style from the establishment, and he had his demons, but what percentage of the population had access to his paintings? Van Gogh created over 2000 pieces in just over 10 years. How much time did Van Gogh have to distribute his art? Furthermore, the classic dilemma is the artist who doesn’t know how to sell and the salesperson who has no artistic insight.

Based on your knowledge of artsy people, how many don’t “make it” because they never put it out there? Based on your knowledge of salespeople, how many make it even though they’re selling crap?

We often credit Mendelssohn for rediscovering J.S. Bach. This is a huge feather in Mendelssohn’s artistic cap and appears to be an indictment against the culture of the day which let Bach’s masterpieces fall into the shadows.

What percentage of the population had access to Bach’s scores? When Bach was born (1685) the printing press was just over 200 years old. At the start of the 17th Century there were fewer than 100 printers in what is now Germany. What was the distribution like? How many books were shipped and how far? In 1700, Germany had a population of 16 million. How many heard Bach’s music?

I could use more examples but I hope the point is coming across. Besides the thick-minded establishment which held down “innovative” composers and artists, there was a distribution problem.

Mahler and Bruckner continue to be an acquired taste for many even though they are in the classical mainstream. Mahler specifically entered the mainstream when Leonard Bernstein began championing his music by using mass media such as recordings and broadcasting. Without mass media how popular would Mahler be these days? It’s impossible to say, but probably less so.

Here’s the point: if a 20th Century artist such as Schnittke remains somewhat obscure it is because his music is esoteric and has a limited emotional appeal. There is no lack of distribution. Since that is the case, I’ve listened to several Schnittke pieces including his hour-long Symphony No. 1. I find it innovative, and impressive but not moving.

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