Composer. Arguably the most famous Russian composer of the late Soviet era. His unconventional and violently expressive music put him at odds with the Communist regime and he was initially acclaimed in the West. Alfred Garyevich Schnittke was born in Engels in the Volga-German Republic of the RSFSR, Soviet Union, to parents of Russian-German-Jewish stock. He studied music in Vienna (1946 to 1948) and at the Moscow Conservatory, where he would later teach orchestration. His early works, notably the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1957), were influenced by Shostakovich. After a brief flirtation with serial technique in the mid-1960s, Schnittke emerged as a leader of the Soviet avant-garde with what he called "polystylism", a dizzying, eclectic approach that incorporated Baroque, Classical and twelve-tone modes, quotations from other composers, and jazz and rock and roll, often juxtaposed in the same composition. While this suggests anarchy, his music in this style is held together by formal and inner logic and has a direct emotional impact. The boldest polystylistic work he wrote was the Symphony No. 1, completed in 1972. It earned him the enmity of Tikhon Khrennikov, the powerful head of the Union of Soviet Composers, who banned the piece after consigning its 1974 premiere to the faraway city of Gorky. After that he was marginalized as a musician in the USSR and was denied permission to travel abroad for over a decade. He turned to writing bland film scores to make a living. Meanwhile he continued to produce major concert opuses, among them the Symphonies 2, 3 and 4 (1979 to 1983), his first three Concerti Grossi (1977 to 1985), the Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (1978, 1984), and the String Quartet No. 2 (1981). Schnittke remained little known outside his country until the mid-1980s when expatriates such as Gidon Kremer and Mstislav Rostropovich began performing his music in the United States and in Western Europe, where it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm; this emboldened Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and others to defy the authorities and champion him at home. With the advent of Gorbachev and glasnost he was finally recognized in his homeland as one of the major Russian artists of his generation. Schnittke's struggle for acceptance took a toll on his health: in 1985, at 51, he suffered the first of several strokes that would plague the remainder of his life. In his last years he was barely able to speak and had to train himself to write with his left hand. Yet he entered his most productive phase and composed some of his finest and most ambitious works: the Symphonies 5 through 9 (1988 to 1998), the ballet "Peer Gynt" (1988), the Concerti Grossi Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (1988 to 1993), two Cello Concertos (1986, 1990), and his three operas, "Life with an Idiot" (1991), "Historia von D. Johann Fausten" (1991, revised 1993), and "Gesualdo" (1991). These have more thematic unity and reflect a growing Christian mysticism. From 1990 until his death at 63 he lived in Hamburg, maintaining dual German-Russian citizenship. Although Cold War politics played an unquestionable role in establishing his international reputation, Schnittke's art has proved durable and even popular with audiences. Since 1998 over 50 albums of his music have been recorded.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards