David Yang on the Schnittke String Trio
Ensemble Epomeo’s violist, David Yang, talks about the Schnittke String Trio, one of the cornerstone’s of the Ensemble’s repertoire.
From the upcoming volume “Chamber Music from Adams to Zemlinsky (second edition)” by Lucy Miller Murray
Art which brings out our alone-ness in the world makes me feel particularly alive; I find myself drawn to the language of despair. This is true across the artistic spectrum – fiction, architecture, illustration, photography – but most especially with music.
While there are more cheerful pieces out there, to call this trio unrelentingly gloomy is not accurate; it contains moments of profound calm intermixed with flowing melody and sections which conjure images of distant marching armies of the dead with far off trumpet-calls to arms. But for me the general tone is overshadowed by a few moments of pure, unbridled terror. The catastrophic stroke that Schnittke suffered while writing this work is felt midway through the first movement and the repercussions of the trauma echo through to the end; this is not a grateful “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity” but a window into a soul engaged in a titanic struggle for its life. Towards the end one does attain a kind of peace but after the last, bitter chord the violin forges on alone, burrowing through to the end of the tunnel with the very last of its strength and, breaking through, finds neither light nor air but only a question: the endless dark of eternity.
For a piece that is only twenty-five minutes long it can feel as if you have been playing for hours. Apart from obvious technical demands on the ensemble there are extremes in color and dynamics which actually resulted in a fine Hill bow exploding into splinters during a rehearsal of the work. The performer walks away completely shelled by this piece and inevitably the audience responds not only to the struggle inherent in the music but the struggle of the music as well. Put another way: people react not only to what Schnittke was trying to convey but to the physical difficulty the musicians endure while acting as the medium through which his ideas are made manifest. People will often sit, stunned, for minutes afterwards as we, the performers, slowly pull ourselves back together.