Happy Birthday, Alfred Schnittke!

Join us listening to Schnittke on Clubhouse — The Aristipposian Poet, at 6pm EST., today, November 24.

Alfred Schnittke, (born Nov. 24, 1934, Engels, Volga German Autonomous S.S.R. [now in Saratov oblast, Russia]—died Aug. 3, 1998, Hamburg, Germany), postmodernist Russian composer who created serious, dark-toned musical works characterized by abrupt juxtapositions of radically different, often contradictory, styles, an approach that came to be known as “polystylism.”

Schnittke’s father was a Jewish journalist who had been born in Germany but was of Latvian descent, and his mother was a Volga-born German Catholic; he found inspiration for his music in his German origins and in his homeland. From 1946 to 1948 the family lived in Vienna, where Schnittke learned to play piano and studied music theory. His studies were completed at the Moscow Conservatory, where he later taught composition. Like most Soviet composers, Schnittke was required to produce many works in easily digestible Socialist Realist style, particularly film scores, of which he wrote more than 60 between 1961 and 1984.

Schnittke’s works embraced a wide range of genres and include seven symphonies, numerous string concerti, a piano concerto, the oratorio Nagasaki (1958), six ballets, much choral and vocal music, as well as arrangements of works by Dmitry Shostakovich, Alban Berg, and Scott Joplin. His best-known works include the Concerto Grosso No. 1 and the Violin Concerto No. 4, for which the violinist was instructed to mime the cadenza rather than actually play it.

Like his great predecessor Dmitry Shostakovich, Schnittke intermingled disjointed elements within a single work, but his combinations were far more jarring—an offhand Beethoven quotation, a distorted folk song, fragments of a medieval chant, and passages of ferociously dense, dissonant serialismmight appear within the space of a few minutes.

Schnittke’s more demanding experimental works were viewed with official disfavour. Virtually unknown outside the Soviet bloc until the mid-1980s, Schnittke rather suddenly acquired a large following in the West through the efforts of a number of prominent Russian musicians, including Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Gidon Kremer, Yury Bashmet, and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1985 Schnittke suffered the first of two severe strokes. Upon recovery, he continued to compose. In 1992 he was a winner of the Praemium Imperiale, awarded by the Japan Art Association for lifetime achievement in the arts. In 1994, in New York City, he attended the National Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere of his spectral Symphony No. 6 (1993), dedicated to and conducted by Rostropovich. (Source: Britannica)

Artist Biography

by James Manheim

One of the most stylistically diverse composers of the 20th century, Alfred Schnittkewrote music that both fell into distinct periods and often displayed multiple influences within a single work. His music was described as polystylistic and postmodern, largely before those terms came into vogue.

The multiplicity of Schnittke’s music was partly a result of his biography. He was raised Jewish but converted later in life to a mystical strain of Christianity. Of Russian, German, and Jewish background, he moved between Russian and German cultural spheres over his entire career. Schnittke was born in the Russian city of Engels on November 24, 1934. His father was a Jewish journalist and translator, and his mother was of German-Russian background. In the wake of World War II, Schnittke’s father was sent to Vienna, and the young Schnittke soaked up the musical atmosphere there and began to dream of a career as a composer. The family moved to Moscow in 1948, and Schnittke enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory in 1953, remaining there through 1961 and earning a master’s degree. He composed a symphony in 1956 but later numbered it as Symphony No. 0. He taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1962 to 1972 and also earned money as a film composer; he penned some 70 film scores over 30 years. For much of his career, Schnittke divided his time between Moscow and Hamburg.

Schnittke’s mature compositions began to appear in the 1960s, a period during which his style was influenced at first by that of Dmitri Shostakovich and then by serialist Luigi Nono. Among his first pieces to make an impact were the String Quartet No. 1 and Violin Concerto No. 2 (both 1966) and a pair of violin sonatas (1964 and 1968). Later in the decade, he became interested in Western avant-garde and aleatoric styles, quickly becoming a hero to other experimentally minded young Soviet composers. His Symphony No. 1 of 1972, mixing Soviet socialist realism with a host of other styles, was a breakthrough work; he feared that it might be repressed by the Soviet state’s cultural apparatus, but the atmosphere was liberalizing, and it was accepted. Other widely performed Schnittke works of the 1970s were a Piano Quintet (1976) and the Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977). Befriending such major Soviet performers as violinist Gidon Kremer, violist Yuri Bashmet, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Schnittke penned for them four violin concertos, a viola concerto, and two cello concertos, as well as a concerto for choir. Schnittke composed eight symphonies, with an almost completed ninth orchestrated and arranged after his death by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Schnittke’s works embody a great variety of genres and forces; in 1980, he wrote a Minnesang for 52 voices.

In 1985, Schnittke suffered a stroke and was declared clinically dead but recovered and continued to compose prolifically. The music from the last part of Schnittke’s life has a dark, often spiritual flavor sometimes influenced by his adopted Christian faith. Schnittke moved to Hamburg for good in 1990. Several of his symphonies date from the 1990s. Schnittke died on August 3, 1998, in Hamburg. He is buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, the resting place of Shostakovich and other noted Russian composers.

Recordings of Schnittke’s music have steadily become more common, and he has been championed by both Russian and Western performers. His Symphony No. 1 was recorded for the BIS label by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonicunder conductor Leif Segerstam. Several volumes of Schnittke’s film music have been recorded by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. By 2020, some 140 of Schnittke’s works had been recorded. (Source: allmusic)

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