Alfred Schnittke

Russian, 1934- 1998

Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934, near the Volga River. He began his private music study while in Vienna as a boy; this exposure to the Austro-German tradition would later influence his work throughout his career. He pursued his postsecondary education in Moscow, including at the Moscow Conservatory where he later taught. A profoundly versatile and prolific composer, his oeuvre spans from children’s piano pieces to works for orchestra, opera, and the theatre, including 66 film scores for Soviet film companies. He was also an engaging and creative musicologist/ music journalist, writing a large number of articles about various issues in contemporary music.

In spite of a burgeoning reputation, he had an unavoidably complicated relationship with the Soviet regime and its program of artistic censorship, beginning with the condemnation of his 1958 opera Nagasaki. During the more liberal Kruschiev period, Schnittke was about to analyze not only 20th-century masterpieces of Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School, but also more recent works of Nono, Stockhausen, and Ligeti. These studies eventually led to his abandonment of serialism and a fuller embrace of his highly personal, polystylistic aesthetic. Condemnation of his work continued throughout, changing only when Gorbachyov ascended to power in 1985. Unfortunately, just as Schnittke was able to travel widely for the first time, he was plagued by severe health problems, suffering several serious strokes. While his music became more introspective and austere, he continued composing until his death in 1998, in his adopted city of Hamburg, Germany.

Selected works by Alfred Schnittke:
“Once when father (George Ives) was asked: 'How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (who was the best stonemason in town) bellow off-key the way he does at camp-meetings?' his answer was: 'Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds!'”
--Charles Ives