Alfred Schnittke, Eclectic Composer, Dies at 63
Holland, Bernhard. "Alfred Schnittke, Eclectic Composer, Dies at 63." New York Times, 4 August 1998.
Alfred Schnittke, an iconoclastic composer who won fame in the
West as he struggled against the restraints of Soviet cultural ideology
at home, died yesterday at the University Hospital in Hamburg, Germany.
He was 63 and lived in Hamburg and Moscow.
The cause was a stroke, one of a series he had suffered in recent
years, according to his wife, Irina.
Mr. Schnittke's eclectic method of composing, a collagelike approach
in which many styles and periods came together, was particularly
emblematic of music late in this century, reflecting an international
environment in which many languages competed for attention with
none speaking in an authoritative voice. No matter the medium -,
be it Serialism, updated Romanticism, Baroque gestures or collages
made of all the above -his eclecticism was colored and weighted
by a sense of pessimism and anxiety bordering on, and often crossing
over into, despair.
Some of Mr. Schnittke's music has humorous elements, but wit's
light touch usually eluded him. More successful are the heavy comic
ironies placed against gloomy and imaginative elucidations of modern
"In the beginning, I composed in a distinct style," Mr. Schnittke
said in an interview in 1988, "but as I see it now, my personality
was not coming through. More recently, I have used many different
styles, and quotations from many periods of musical history, but
my own voice comes through them clearly now."
He continued, "It is not just eclecticism for its own sake. When
I use elements of, say, Baroque music," he added, "sometimes I'm
tweaking the listener. And sometimes I'm thinking about earlier
music as a beautiful way of writing that has disappeared and will
never come back; and in that sense, it has a tragic feeling for
me. I see no conflict in being both serious and comic in the same
piece. In fact, I cannot have one without the other."
Mr. Schnittke was born in 1934 in Engels in the Volga republic,
which was then an automonous region for ethnic Germans within the
Soviet Union. His music training began in Vienna, where his father
worked after World War II, and finished at the Moscow Conservatory,
where he subsequently taught instrumentation, score reading, counterpoint
and composition until 1972.
He came to music late in his youth because of the war. "We didn't
have a radio," he recalled. "I don't think I heard any music at
all. One of the first pieces I heard, in 1946, was the Shostakovich
Ninth Symphony, which was very refreshing but also very strange."
Between 1961 and 1984, Mr. Schnittke wrote the scores for more
than 60 films, but did so in popular styles removed from his privately
inspired compositions. His major shift into eclecticism began with
his Second Violin Concerto in 1968 but had its origins in film score
writing, a medium demanding many kinds of music. Mahler and Ives
were among its influences, as well as the rigorous Serial thinking
of Henri Pousseur.
Mr. Schnittke was a busy and productive composer and did not lack
for exposure in the United States and Europe. New York performances
of his music in recent years included all four of his string quartets,
a Piano Sonata (performed by Vladimir Feltsman, to whom it was dedicated),
a Cello Sonata, his first two cello concertos, a Sonata for Violin
and Chamber Orchestra and a Concerto for Piano and Strings.
His first opera, "Life With an Idiot," had its world premiere
at the Netherlands Music Theater in Amsterdam on April 13, 1992.
It is surreal musical satire about a man who is ordered by the Communist
Party to bring an idiot into his home as punishment for some unnamed
crime, and who suffers disaster as a result. The work was conducted
great acclaim by Mstislav Rostrovich. The Dutch press labeled the
opera "a requiem for the Soviet Union."
Mr. Schnittke belonged to a rebellious arm of Soviet composition
that included Sofia Gubaidulina, Arov Pärt and Edison Denisov. Their
nemesis was the Soviet Compose Union, which frowned on Serialism
and many forms of experimentation The premiere of Mr. Schnittke
First Symphony - a piece the composer described as "beginning like
a circus and ending in an apocalyptic, terrifying way" - lost him
the union's support in 1972, but he survived on film work and commissions
from admiring musicians.
Such famous expatriates as Mr. Rostropovich, Mr. Feltsman, Gidon
Kremer and Dmitri Sitkovetsky brought their firm belief in Mr. Schnittke's
music when they came from the Soviet Union to the West. Musicians
like these, and now increasingly those who remained at home, have
been largely responsible for his international reputation which
has been strengthening for a decade or more. Poor health, however,
slowed his activities recently.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Schnittke is survived by a son.
Reprinted with permission of The New York Times, New York
City, New York.