Alfred Schnittke

1934 1998

Alfred Schnittke

Composer • Piano


Alfred Schnittke's music represents the essence of polystylism, a term he himself coined during the composition of his first symphony, and is, with its sheer size, a behemoth of work spanning the latter half of the 20th Century. He was a highly influential composer, attracting a dichotomous fervour of criticism and praise and he spawned many imitators. Born to a secular family, he later converted to the Roman Catholic faith and believed he was, through his music, searching for spiritual meaning. He was the most prominent of the censored composers in the Soviet Union at the time, refusing to adjust to the criticism received from Khrushchev and his associates in the Union of Composers. His later work was marred by a stroke in 1985. A second stoke in 1998 killed him.

Schnittke was born in Engels, on the Volga river on 24 November 1934 in the Soviet Union. His mother was of German ethnicity, born in Russia and his father was an atheist, born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family of Russian origin. Much has been made of this cultural melting pot that influenced the young Schnittke and became a force in his work. His father, a journalist, was relocated to Vienna and the young Schnittke began his musical education there in 1946. This early musical exposure to the Austro-German tradition of Western music must have been a crucial influence manifested in his later work.

Schnittke returned to Russia in 1948 and in 1949 he began his studies in the Choirmasters' Department at the October Revolution Music College, Moscow. In 1953 he went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory, finishing an undergraduate degree in 1958 and completing postgraduate studies between 1958 and 1961. His teachers were Yevgeny Golubev and Nikolay Rakov. During his studies he was heavily influenced byShostakovich and Mahler but a subsequent exposure to the works of Schoenberg caused him to embark on a study of serialism. For his graduation he actually presented a traditional oratorio, Nagasaki (1958) but it was criticised as too modernist by the Union of Composers.

Following his studies he earned a living as a composer for film producing 66 scores for screen between 1962 and 1984. During this period he was to have a meeting with the Italian composer Luigi Nono which had a lasting effect on his artistic outlook. This meeting propelled him into the world of the Western European avant-garde, thus entrenching himself as a censored and controversial figure in the culture of the Soviet Union. He wrote extensively about the subject of contemporary music and was very active as a lecturer. It is thus easy to trace in words his evolution as an artist and the subsequent polystylistic tendencies. The influence of his work as a film composer no doubt had a profound influence on his concert music. The many styles he was required to produce for the film scores gave him a technical prowess and also laid to foundation for the idea of a polystylistic music.

As he became more acquainted with the avant-garde in its totality, with Stockhausen andLigeti also, he abandoned strict serial techniques. He became critical of- and disillusioned by them, calling them the 'the puberty rights of serial self-denial'. In his essay ‘Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music’ (1971), he explained his journey towards his now instantly recognisable aesthetic.

Left: Portrait of Schittke by Reginald Grey , courtesy of the Royal College of Music London

His First Symphony (1972) is the first major work in this style. In the piece there are mixed quotations fromBach and Beethoven, pastiche gestures, Soviet march music,Chopin, Grieg, jazz riffs and at one point complete free improvisation from the entire orchestra. The effect of the 'kitchen-sink' material is staggering, one that, if lasting a short period of say 10 minutes, could be interpreted as a musical joke, but the immense scale over an hour, rigorously structured in a traditional four-movement setting, enshrines this music as a serious statement. The Moscow premiere was inevitably cancelled after work began in rehearsals. As with a lot of the censored Russian composers, his name started to appear in the West.

A seminal work which established his fame was the 'Concerto Grosso no. 1' (1977). There are dense serial textures, a prominent theme of Bach, (the B-A-C-H) motif and tango rhythms. The weaving of the material is much more transparent and skillful in this work and the many differing musical objects form a very convincing whole. In this work he said he 'wanted to overcome the gap between 'E' (Ernstmusik, serious music) and 'U' (Unterhaltung, music for entertainment), even if I break my neck in doing so!.'

In 1982 Schnittke converted to Christianity, which was by all means a strange move, born into an atheist Russian Jewish family. His later music is a testament to this newfound spirituality. The 'Concerto for Mixed Chorus' (1980s) is an example of the religious subject matter finding a place in his music. At this time his health was beginning to suffer and it has been said his altar music with its religious commentary and austere landscape is a reflection of his own rumination on mortality.

His 4th Symphony in 1983 continued this religious theme. It is a single movement of 22 variations lasting roughly 45 minutes. The structure of the piece is based on the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary in the tradition of the Catholic Church. The material comes from 3 different types of church music, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant mixing material reminiscent of Gregorian chant, Lutheran chorale and Synagogue cantillation.  It received its premiere in Paris in 1983.

Schnittke's polystylism has been described as the essence of post-modernism in defiance of the self-appointed guardians of musical purity or aesthetics. It has also been remarked as being a sort of musical nihilism, a grotesque but vast and impressive structure built out of immense cultural objects of the past, holding up a mirror to our own vapid existence, crushed by modernism and our unstoppable acceleration into the future. Wherever one falls on the spectrum the importance of Scnittke's art cannot be overstated. His vast output of work has been one of the most influential oeuvres of the 20th Century and his purity of voice is surely contained in his wish to ask the biggest musical question; what is 'musical truth' in today’s world.