Alfred Schnittke Biography (BBC)
The title of successor to Shostakovich was not actively sought by any Russian composer, but it has been conferred with some justice on Schnittke. His four operas, nine symphonies, numerous concertos, sonatas, chamber and choral works, plus a plethora of film scores, are an imposing enough legacy. But it is above all their quality of unflinching confrontationalism, symbolised by daring juxtapositions of style, that gives them the feel of authentic documents of their time and place. They capture something of the glaring contradiction between appearance and reality in the last phases of the Soviet Union; and they pose the question whether such contradiction is not endemic to the human condition. Schnittke pursued his disquieting agenda at the expense of musical elegance, subtlety and professional finish, yet also with a compelling flair for Gothic-horror exaggeration. His taboo-breaking boldness made him an idol for those Soviet composers of his and the next generation who were determined to shake off the constraints of official Socialist Realism.
Schnittke’s musical education began in 1946 in Vienna, where his German-born father worked for two years as a journalist. He then studied choral conducting in Moscow and from 1953 to 1958 attended the Moscow Conservatory, studying officially under Nikolay Rakov (instrumentation) and the Nikolay Myaskovsky-pupil Yevgeny Golubev (counterpoint and composition), remaining with Golubev as a postgraduate until 1961. He also met Philip Herschkowitz, the Romanian-born Webern pupil, who fed the rebellious instincts of Schnittke and his contemporaries with a passionate commitment to Second Viennese School serialism, long prohibited in the Soviet Union.
From 1962 to 1972 Schnittke taught instrumentation at the conservatory, developing a portfolio of works that would see him become one of the most widely performed, commissioned and recorded composers of the late 20th century.
Initially blending modernist techniques with a rhythmic and gestural language indebted to Shostakovich, Schnittke’s style underwent a change in the late 1960s, incorporating quotations, pastiche and stylistic references in a manner summed up by the composer as ‘polystylistic’. This was by no means an innovative concept – the term itself had been current in Leningrad composing circles in the 1920s, and the pioneering examples of Berio and the Polish ‘sonoristic’ school were not lost on Schnittke. In 1985 Schnittke suffered the first of a series of strokes that led to a greater austerity of means but only put a temporary brake on his prolific output. In 1990 he moved to Hamburg, where he took charge of a composition class at the conservatory and where he died in 1998.
Profile © David Fanning
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