The thesis proposes an interpretation of three of Alfred Schnittke's polystylistic symphonies through the cultural theories of Mikhail Bakhtin. Schnittke's symphonies use stylistic plurality to explore notions of identity, both musical and personal, and to create a sense of engagement between his music and its cultural context.
Bakhtin's writings are also concerned with the artistic potential of stylistic interaction. Bakhtin proposed a model for stylistic interaction within literary works based on the process of dialogue. In dialogue, individuals can be identified by the specific stylistic profile of their speech. The interaction of language styles can therefore be interpreted based on a social construction of artistic meaning through the process of dialogic discourse. Bakhtin considered the novel to be the only literary genre capable of fully realising the artistic potential of dialogue, and saw Dostoevsky as its greatest exponent.
The thesis takes Bakhtin's concept of literary dialogue as the starting-point for an interpretation of stylistic interaction in music. The writings of the Russian musicologist Boris Asaf'ev are used to help translate Bakhtin's language-specific theories to music through his conviction that musical semantics is closely linked to verbal communication. Each of the symphonies is discussed in terms of the ways in which polystylism is used to explore both personal and social constructions of identity. Much of Schnittke's music is motivated by the struggle for identity and each of the works discussed approaches the problem from a different angle. The Third Symphony explores Schnittke's relationship to German culture, the Fourth to liturgical culture, and the Concerto Grosso no.4/Symphony no. 5 to the legacies of Bach and Mahler. The thesis argues that Schnittke's exploration of these issues is highly dialogic, and that through polystylism and other means, the three symphonies each take on the status of "musical novels".