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Alfred Schnittke - biography

Alfred Garyevich Schnittke (Russian: Альфре́д Га́рриевич Шни́тке, November 24, 1934 – August 3, 1998) was a Russian and Soviet composer. Schnittke's early music shows the strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. He developed a polystylistic technique in works such as the epic First Symphony (1969–1972) and First Concerto Grosso (1977). In the 1980s, Schnittke's music began to become more widely known abroad. In the 1980s, he wrote his Second (1980) and Third (1983) String Quartets and the String Trio (1985); the ballet Peer Gynt (1985–1987); the Third (1981), Fourth (1984) and Fifth (1988) Symphonies; and the Viola (1985) and 1st Cello (1985–1986) Concertos. As his health deteriorated, Schnittke's music started to abandon much of the extroversion of his polystylism and retreated into a more withdrawn, bleak style.


Life and career

Schnittke's father, Harry Viktorovich Schnittke (1914-1975, rus.), was Jewish and born in Frankfurt. He moved to the USSR in 1927 and worked as a journalist and translator from the Russian language into German. His mother, Maria Iosifovna Schnittke (nee Vogel, 1910-1972), was a Volga German born in Russia. Schnittke's paternal grandmother, Tea Abramovna Katz (1889-1970), was a philologist, translator and editor of the German-language literature.

Alfred Schnittke was born in Engels in the Volga-German Republic of the RSFSR, Soviet Union. He began his musical education in 1946 in Vienna where his father, a journalist and translator, had been posted. It was in Vienna, Schnittke's biographer Alexander Ivashkin writes, where "he fell in love with music which is part of life, part of history and culture, part of the past which is still alive.". "I felt every moment there," the composer wrote, "to be a link of the historical chain: all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts, and I was not a barbarian without any connections, but the conscious bearer of the task in my life." Schnittke's experience in Vienna "gave him a certain spiritual experience and discipline for his future professional activities. It was Mozart and Schubert, not Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, whom he kept in mind as a reference point in terms of taste, manner and style. This reference point was essentially Classical ... but never too blatant."

In 1948, the family moved to Moscow. Schnittke completed his graduate work in composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1961 and taught there from 1962 to 1972. Evgeny Golubev was one of his composition teachers. Thereafter, he earned income chiefly by composing film scores, composing nearly 70 scores in 30 years. Schnittke converted to Christianity and possessed deeply held mystic beliefs which influenced his music.

Music were often suspect by the Soviet bureaucracy. His First Symphony was effectively banned by the Composers' Union. After he abstained from a Composers' Union vote in 1980, he was banned from travelling outside of the USSR. In 1985, Schnittke suffered a stroke which left him in a coma. He was declared clinically dead on several occasions, but recovered and continued to compose. In 1990, Schnittke left Russia and settled in Hamburg. His health remained poor, however. He suffered several more strokes before his death on August 3, 1998 in Hamburg. He was buried, with state honors, at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, where many other prominent Russian composers, including Shostakovich, are interred.


Schnittke's early music shows the strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich, but after the visit of the Italian composer Luigi Nono to the USSR, he took up the serial technique in works such as Music for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1964). However, Schnittke soon became dissatisfied with what he termed the "puberty rites of serial self-denial." He created a new style which has been called "polystylism", where he juxtaposed and combined music of various styles past and present (the composer once wrote "The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so"). His first concert work to use the polystylistic technique was the Second Violin Sonata, Quasi una sonata (1967–1968). He experimented with techniques in his film work, as shown by much of the sonata appearing first in his score for the animation short The Glass Harmonica. He continued to develop the polystylistic technique in works such as the epic First Symphony (1969–1972) and First Concerto Grosso (1977). Other works were more stylistically unified, such as his Piano Quintet (1972–1976), written in memory of his recently deceased mother. In the 1980s, Schnittke's music began to become more widely known abroad, thanks in part to the work of émigré Soviet artists such as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Mark Lubotsky. Despite constant illness, he produced a large amount of music, including important works such as the Second (1980) and Third (1983) String Quartets and the String Trio (1985); the Faust Cantata (1983), which he later incorporated in his opera Historia von D. Johann Fausten; the ballet Peer Gynt (1985–1987); the Third (1981), Fourth (1984) and Fifth (1988) Symphonies (the last of which is also known as the Fourth Concerto Grosso) and the Viola (1985) and 1st Cello (1985–1986) concertos. As his health deteriorated, Schnittke started to abandon much of the extroversion of his polystylism and retreated into a more withdrawn, bleak style. The Fourth Quartet (1989) and Sixth (1992), Seventh (1993) and Eighth (1994) symphonies are good examples of this. Some Schnittke scholars, such as Gerard McBurney, have argued that it is the late works that will ultimately be the most influential parts of Schnittke's output. After a stroke in 1994 left him almost completely paralysed, Schnittke largely ceased to compose,. He did complete some short works in 1997 and also a Ninth Symphony; its score was almost unreadable because he had written it with great difficulty with his left hand. The Ninth Symphony was first performed on 19 June 1998 in Moscow in a version deciphered - but also 'arranged' - by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who conducted the premiere. After hearing a tape of the performance, Schnittke indicated he wanted it withdrawn.

After Schnittke's death, others worked to decipher his score. Nikolai Korndorf died before he could complete the task, which was continued and completed by Alexander Raskatov. In Raskatov's version, the three orchestral movements of Schnittke's symphony may be followed by a choral fourth, which is Raskatov's own Nunc Dimittis (in memoriam Alfred Schnittke). This version was premiered in Dresden, Germany June 16, 2007. Andrei Boreyko also has a version of the symphony.

Selected works



  • Symphony No. 0 (1957)
  • Symphony No. 1 (1969–74)
  • Symphony No. 2 "St. Florian" (1979)
  • Symphony No. 3 (1981)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1983)
  • Symphony No. 5 [Concerto Grosso No. 4] (1988)
  • Symphony No. 6 (1992)
  • Symphony No. 7 (1993)
  • Symphony No. 8 (1994)
  • Symphony No. 9 (1996–97; reconstructed by Alexander Raskatov)

Other orchestral

  • Pianissimo (1968)
  • In Memoriam... (1977–78) (orchestral version of the Piano Quintet)
  • Passacaglia (1979–80)
  • Gogol Suite [Suite from 'The Census List'] (1980)
  • Ritual (1984–85)
  • (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (1985)
  • Symphonic Prelude (1994)
  • For Liverpool (1994)


Concerti grossi

  • Concerto Grosso No. 1, for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and strings (1976–77)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 2, for violin, violoncello and orchestra (1981–82)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 3, for 2 violins, harpsichord and strings (1985)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 4 [Symphony No. 5], for violin, oboe, harpsichord and orchestra (1988)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 5, for violin, offstage piano and orchestra (1991)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 6, for piano, violin and strings (1993)

Violin concertos

  • Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (1957, revised 1963)
  • Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1966)
  • Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1978)
  • Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra (1984)

Piano concertos

  • Music for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1964)

Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979)

  • Concerto for Piano Four Hands and Chamber Orchestra (1988)

Cello concertos

  • Concerto No. 1 for Violoncello and Orchestra (1986) - shares a theme with the String Trio from 1985
  • Concerto No. 2 for Violoncello and Orchestra (1990)

Viola concertos

  • Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1985)
  • Monologue for Viola and Strings (1989)
  • Concerto for viola and small orchestra (1997)

Other instruments

  • Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Strings (1971)
  • Konzert zu Dritt, for violin, viola, violoncello and strings (1994)

Choral music

  • Nagasaki — oratorio (1958)
  • Voices of Nature (1972)
  • Requiem (1974–75)
  • Minnesang, for 52 voices (1981)
  • Seid Nüchtern und Wachet... [Faust Cantata] (1983)
  • Three Sacred Hymns (1983–84)
  • Concerto for Mixed Chorus (1984–85)
  • Psalms of Repentance / Penitential Psalms (1988)

Chamber music

  • Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano (1963; orchestrated, 1968)
  • Dialogue, for violoncello and 7 instruments (1965)
  • String Quartet No. 1 (1966)
  • Serenade for violin, clarinet, double-bass, piano and percussion (1968)
  • Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano "Quasi una Sonata" (1968; orchestrated, 1987)
  • Canon in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, for string quartet (1971)
  • Suite in the Old Style, for violin and piano or harpsichord (1972)
  • Gradulationsrondo, for violin and piano (1973)
  • Hymns I-IV, for violoncello and ensemble (1974–79)
  • Prelude in Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich, for 2 violins (1975)
  • Quintet for piano and strings (1972–76)
  • "Stille Nacht", arr. for violin and piano (1978)
  • Sonata No. 1 for violoncello and piano (1978)
  • Stille Musik, for violin and violoncello (1979)
  • Hommage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, for piano six hands (1979)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1981)
  • Septet (1981–82)
  • A Paganini, for solo violin (1982)
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1983)
  • String Trio (1985, also arranged as Piano Trio, 1992) - shares a theme with the *Cello Concerto No. 1 from 1986
  • String Quartet No. 4 (1989)
  • Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan, for solo violin or violoncello (1990)
  • Musica nostalgica, for violoncello and piano (1992)
  • Peer Gynt: Epiloque, for violoncello, piano and tape (1993)
  • Sonata No. 2 for violoncello and piano (1994)
  • Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano (1994)

Solo instrumental

  • Fuga for solo violin (1953)
  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1987)
  • Klingende Buchstaben for solo cello (1988)
  • Five Aphorisms, for piano (1990)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2 (1990)
  • Piano Sonata No. 3 (1992)
  • Improvisation, for solo cello (1993)


  • Life with an Idiot, opera in 2 acts, libretto by Viktor Yerofeyev (1992)
  • Historia von D. Johann Fausten, opera in 3 acts and an epilogue, libretto by Jörg Morgener (Jurjen Köchel) and Alfred Schnittke (1991–1994)
  • Gesualdo, opera in 7 tableaus, a prologue and an epilogue, libretto by Richard Bletschacher (1993)


  • Labyrinths, ballet in five episodes. Libretto by Vladimir Vasilyev. (1971)
  • Sketches, ballet in one act. “Choerographic fantasia” by Andrei Petrov after the themes by Nikolai Gogol. (1985)
  • Peer Gynt, ballet in three acts by John Neumeier based on Henrik Ibsen’s drama (1988)


  • Adventures of a Dentist, motion picture directed by Elem Klimov (1965, material reused in Suite in the Old Style)
  • The Glass Harmonica, animated film directed by Andrei Khrzhanovsky (1968, much material reused in Second Violin Sonata)
  • Sport, Sport, Sport, motion picture directed by Elem Klimov (1971)
  • The Agony, two-part motion picture directed by Elem Klimov (1974, main theme reused in the finale of the Second Cello Concerto)
  • Little Tragedies, three-part TV film directed by Mikhail Shvejtser (1979)
  • Ekipazh (Air Crew), motion picture directed by Alexander Mitta (1979)
  • Skazka Stranstviy (The Story of the Voyages), motion picture directed by Alexander Mitta (1982)
  • The Last Days of St. Petersburg (1992, new score for 1927 motion picture, co-written with the composer's son Andrey)

Master and Margarita, motion picture directed by Yuri Kara (1994)

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Alfred Schnittke

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