Alfred Schnittke, born Nov. 24, 1934, Engels, Volga German Autonomous S.S.R. [now in Saratov oblast, Russia], is the 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.
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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 serialism might 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.