Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance

Swedish Radio Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste

Superlative performances of Schnittke’s most personal music: the composer’s soul seems to be laid bare in the "Psalms of Repentance". These choral pieces, based upon 15th century poems and written to commemorate 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia, reveal none of the sardonic distancing or irony that is often characteristic of Schnittke’s work. This is music from the heart, of direct emotional expression. The work takes on a special poignancy in the light of Schnittke’s death in August 1998, and the Psalms can also be heard as threnody for him.

Featured Artists Recorded

February 1996, Högalidskyrkan, Stockholm

Original Release Date


  • Psalms of Repentance
    (Alfred Schnittke)
  • 1I02:55
  • 2II05:06
  • 3III04:00
  • 4IV02:37
  • 5V03:18
  • 6VI02:10
  • 7VII06:23
  • 8VIII02:02
  • 9IX08:14
  • 10X03:42
  • 11XI04:07
  • 12XII08:26
These austere Psalms of Repentance (Stikhi Pokayanniye) written in 1988 to mark the observing of one thousand years of Christianity in Russia take on a special poignancy in the light of the composer's death last year. From these 15th century poems set by Schnittke: "Why should one complain, knowing that our lives are not forever' From the womb, howling into the world, and from the grim world into the grave. The beginning is tears, the end is tears. Where is necessity in all we do'" The prolific Alfred Schnittke maintained a sense of urgency in his compositional endeavour while afflicted with suffering that seemed indeed biblical in scale. As his friend Dennis Russell Davies remarked, "There is so much of him in his music...Schnittke obviously lived through some very hard times, and there is a combination of the elegiac and the visceral in his pieces that reflects his difficul *t experience and his strength in persevering."

Writer Laurel E. Fay, another close associate, maintained that, "In a society where art really mattered, where it had even been known to amount to a matter of life and death, Schnittke's was the music that mattered most to Russians of the post-Stalin, post-Shostakovich generation."

Schnittke's celebrated "polystylism" used the tools of irony and sardonic distancing with a new virtuosity, so cunningly indeed that critical commentators were often left helpless in their search for the "real" Schnittke. The poet Keith Waldrop memorably called Schnittke's shuffling of genres and historical periods and the overturning of boundaries in his swirling collages "the unmapping of the world". Certainly the composer evinced little interest in the assembling of an instantly recognisable musical idiom or the shaping of an homogeneous style. But the witty game-playing is set aside for Schnittke's sacred works. One can hardly doubt that these Psalms of Repentance are ess Âential utterances. Alfred Schnittke is at his most exposed in his religious music.

Born in Engels, capital of the former Volga Republic, in 1934 to a German-Jewish father of Latvian descent and a German Catholic mother, Schnittke grew up between the cultures. Although he was eventually baptized a catholic in 1982, his return to an introspective religious path - paralleling that embarked upon by contemporaries such as Pärt, Ustvolskaya, and Gubaidulina - must be dated at least a decade earlier. With the Requiem of 1975 Schnittke began his compositional exploration of the church music heritage, embracing - as befits a man torn between his Eastern and Western roots, between Judaism and Christianity - the music of many religious traditions. Musically, the Orthodox liturgy has excercised a broad influence on Schnittke's work. A number of his most important works testify to the importance of the Russian Orthodox tradition, among them the Four Hymns for Chamber Ensemble (1979), and the mo «numental Concerto for Mixed Chorus (1984/85) as well as the twelve Psalms of Repentance (1988).

From Uwe Schweikert's liner notes: "Each of the first eleven Psalms of Repentance represents a microcosm that will gradually reveal ever more shades and nuances, a musical landscape of the imagination. The Twelfth Psalm, with its wordless humming - 'bocca chiusa', with closed mouth, is marked in the score - moves beyond words. Beginning in the low voices - it is hard to tell at first whether they are singers or strings - a mysterious, magical atmosphere of searing intensity is created: singing that transcends all pain and grief, sonorities that open the gates of heaven. One is reminded of Adorno's description of music as 'demythologized prayer'."