Alfred Schnittke

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Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke (Russian: Альфре́д Га́рриевич Шни́тке, Alfred Garrievič Šnitke; November 24, 1934 – August 3, 1998) was a Soviet and Russian composer. Schnittke's early music shows the strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. He developed a polystylistic technique in works such as the epic Symphony No. 1 (1969–1972) and his first concerto grosso (1977). In the 1980s, Schnittke's music began to become more widely known abroad with the publication of 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 first 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Schnittke's music started to abandon much of the extroversion of his polystylism and retreated into a more withdrawn, bleak style.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.[1] 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 (née 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 German-language literature.

Portrait of Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray (1972). Russian Academy of Music, London.

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 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."[2] "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."[3] 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."[2]

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 his living chiefly by composing film scores, producing nearly 70 scores in 30 years.[4] Schnittke converted to Christianity and possessed deeply held mystic beliefs, which influenced his music[citation needed].

Schnittke and his music were often viewed suspiciously by the Soviet bureaucracy. His First Symphony was effectively banned by the Composers' Union[citation needed]. 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 that 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, at the age of 63. He was buried, with state honors, at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, where many other prominent Russian composers, including Dmitri 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. He 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 First 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, quite accessible to the lay listener. 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 Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who conducted the premiere. After hearing a tape of the performance, Schnittke indicated he wanted it withdrawn. After he died, though, others worked to decipher the 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, on June 16, 2007. Andrei Boreyko also has a version of the symphony.[5]

Selected works



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)

Concertante works

Violin and orchestra

  • 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 and orchestra

  • Poème for Piano and Orchestra (1953)
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1960) (1. Allegro; 2. Andante; 3. Allegro)
  • Music for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1964) (1. Variazioni; 2. Cantus firmus; 3. Cadenza; 4. Basso ostinato)
  • Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
  • Concerto for Piano four hands and Chamber Orchestra (1988) "to Viktoria Postnikova and Irina Schnittke"

Cello and orchestra

  • Concerto No. 1 for cello and Orchestra (1985/1986) (1. Pesante: Moderato; 2. Largo; 3. Allegro vivace; 4. Largo)
  • Concerto No. 2 for cello and Orchestra (1990) "to M.Rostropovich" (1. Moderato – 2. Allegro – 3. Lento – 4. Allegretto vivo – 5. Grave)

Viola and orchestra

  • Concerto for viola and orchestra (1985)
  • Monologue for viola and strings (1989)
  • Concerto for viola and small orchestra (1997)

Other instruments and orchestra

  • Accordion Concerto (1949), lost work
  • Double Concerto for oboe, harp, and string orchestra (1971) "to Heinz Holliger, Ursula Holliger and the Zagreb Soloists" (Lento)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 1 for two violins, prepared piano, harpsichord and 21 strings (1977) (1. Preludio – 2. Toccata – 3. Recitativo – 4. Cadenza – 5. Rondò – 6. Postludio)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 1 for flute, oboe, harpsichord, prepared piano and string orchestra (1988 version)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 2 for violin, cello and triple symphony orchestra (1981–1982) (1. Andantino-Allegro; 2. Pesante; 3. Allegro; 4. Andantino)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 3 for two violins, harpsichord, celesta, piano and 14 strings (1985) (1. Allegro; 2. Risoluto; 3. Pesante; 4. Adagio; 5. Moderato)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 4 [Symphony No. 5], for violin, oboe, harpsichord and orchestra (1988) (1. Allegro; 2. Allegretto; 3. Lento-Allegro; 4. Lento)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 5 for violin, [offstage] piano and orchestra (1990–1991) (1. Allegretto; 2. (without tempo indication); 3. Allegro vivace)
  • Triple Concerto for violin, viola, cello and string orchestra "Concerto for Three" (1994) (1. Moderato; 2. Larghetto; 3. Largo; 4. Minuet)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 6 for piano, violin and string orchestra (1993)
  • "Five Fragments to Pictures of Hieronymus Bosch" for tenor, violin, trombone, harpsichord, timpani and string orchestra (1994) (On texts by Aeschylus) "to Vladimir Spivakov" (1. Lento; 2. Moderato; 3. Andantino; 4. Agitato; 5. Senza tempo)

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)[6]

Chamber music

  • Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano (1963; orchestrated, 1968) [note 1]
  • 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)
  • Gratulationsrondo, for violin and piano (1973)
  • Hymn I for cello, harp and timpani (1974)
  • Hymn II for cello and double-bass (1974)
  • Hymn III for cello, bassoon, harpsichord and bells or timpani (1974)
  • Hymn IV for cello, bassoon, double-bass, harpsichord, harp, timpani and bells (1974–1979)
  • Prelude in Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich, for 2 violins (1975)
  • "Cantus Perpetuus" for keyboard instrument and percussion (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 for flute, two clarinets, violin, viola, cello and harpsichord or organ (1981–1982) (1. Introduction. Moderato; 2. Perpetuum mobile. Allegretto; 3. Choral. Moderato)
  • "Course of life" ("Lebenslauf") for four metronomes, piano and three percussionists (1982) "to de (Wilfried Brennecke) and John Cage"
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1983)
  • Sound and Echo (Schall und Hall), for trombone and organ (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)
  • Six Preludes, for piano (1953–1954)
  • Variations for piano (1954–1955)
  • Improvisation and Fugue, for piano (1965) (1. Lento; 2. Vivo)
  • Variations on one chord, for piano (1965)
  • "Potok" ("Stream"), electronic composition (1969)
  • Eight Pieces, for piano (1971) Dedicated to his son Andrei (1. Folk Song – Andantino; 2. In the Mountains – Moderato; 3. Cuckoo and Woodpecker – Vivo; 4. Melody – Andante; 5. Tale – Lento; 6. Play – Allegro; 7. Children's Piece – Andantino; 8. March – Allegretto)
  • Cadenza to Mozart's Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491 (first movement) (1975)
  • Two Cadenzas to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, for solo violin, 10 violins and timpani (1975–1977)
  • In Memoriam Igor Strawinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich for piano six hands (1979) (Based on "Chinese March" from The Nightingale, Humoresque Scherzo and Polka from The Golden Age.)
  • Two Short Pieces, for organ (1980)
  • A Paganini, for solo violin (1982)
  • Cadenza to Mozart's Piano Concerto in C major KV 503 (first movement) (1983)
  • Two Cadenzas to Mozart's Bassoon Concerto in B flat major KV 191 (1983)
  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1987–88)
  • Klingende Buchstaben, for solo cello (1988)
  • Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan, first version for violin solo (1990)
  • Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan, second version for cello solo (1990)
  • Three Fragments, for harpsichord (1990) (1. Andante; 2. Vivo; 3. Lento)
  • Five Aphorisms, for piano (1990)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2 (1990)
  • Cadenzas to Mozart's Piano Concerto in B flat major KV 39 (1990)
  • For the 90th Birthday of Alfred Schlee, for viola solo (1991)
  • Piano Sonata No. 3 (1992)
  • Improvisation, for solo cello (1993)
  • Sonatina for piano four hands (1995) (Allegro moderato – one movement)



  • Labyrinths, ballet in five episodes. Libretto by Vladimir Vasilyev. (1971)
  • Der Gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound), ballet suite. Libretto by Wassily Kandinsky. (1973)
  • Sketches, ballet in one act. “Choerographic fantasia” by Andrey Petrov after the themes by Nikolai Gogol. (1985)
  • Peer Gynt, ballet in three acts by John Neumeier based on Henrik Ibsen’s drama (1988)



  1. Interviews with Alfred Schnittke.
    Alfred Schnittke: a crazy mixed-up kid
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ivashkin, 32.
  3. As quoted in Ivashkin, 32.
  4. "Alfred Schnittke Biography". Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Retrieved 2008-08-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Alexander Ivashkin, booklet notes to BIS-CD-1727 (2009).
  6. Stikhi Pokayanniye, as translated for instance by ECM Records [1] / or by Naxos Records [2]


  1. In 2004 Stephen Baynes choreographed a ballet Unspoken dialogues on this music (premiered at The Australian Ballet).[citation needed]

Further reading

  • Peter G. Davis (28 February 1994), "Uneasy-listening Music", New York, 27 (9): 125, retrieved 25 December 2012<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Amrei Flechsig, Christian Storch (Ed.) (2010). Alfred Schnittke. Analyse, Interpretation, Rezeption. Olms. ISBN 978-3-487-14464-1.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Alexander Ivashkin (1996). Alfred Schnittke. Phaidon Press. ISBN 0-7148-3169-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Enzo Restagno (Ed.) (1993). Schnittke, EDT, ISBN 978-88-7063-177-7
  • Peter J. Schmelz (2009). Such freedom, if only musical: The beginning of unofficial Soviet music during the Thaw. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534193-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Alfred Schnittke (2002). Alexander Ivashkin (ed.). A Schnittke Reader. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33818-2. Retrieved 25 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Альфред Шнитке (2003). Александр Ивашкин (ed.). Беседы с Альфредом Шнитке. Классика XXI. ISBN 5-89817-051-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Christian Storch (2011). Der Komponist als Autor. Alfred Schnittkes Klavierkonzert. Böhlau. ISBN 978-3-412-20762-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links