Alfred Schnittke

This material presented here combines versions of 2 articles published in the "CDC Report", the newsletter of the California District Council of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. The first article was printed in the Spring 2001 edition, in one of Ed Spomer's ongoing "Wissen Sie?" columns; the remaining information was a follow-up printed in the Fall 2001 edition, titled "Schnittke Plus", written by Richard Kisling. The "CDC Report" can be reached at 3233 N. West, Fresno, CA 93705; e-mail:

Alfred Schnittke, 63, who is widely regarded as the last great Russian composer of the 20th Century and whose work ranged from orchestral symphonies to film scores, died August 3, 1998 at a hospital in Hamburg, Germany after a long illness.

Mr. Schnittke, who was considered a genius and whose music was often compared to that of Dmitri Shostakovich, became one of the most widely performed and recorded composers in Europe. Russian President Boris Yeltsin led official tributes to Mr. Schnittke: "winning worldwide renown, he glorified our culture and enriched the tradition of Russian classical music with his unique innovative ideas."

On June 5, 2000 there was a widely known and well-attended commemorative concert performed at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art at Calgary, Alberta, Canada, dedicated to the memory of the late Alfred Schnittke. This was one of the cultural highlights of the year.

Alfred Schnittke was born November 24, 1934 in the city of Engels on the Volga River in an area that had been settled by Germans in the 18th Century. He was born to a Volga German mother and a German-Jewish father of Russian origin. He began his studies in music in Vienna right after the war. He then moved to Moscow in 1948 and continued his training at the Moscow Conservatory where he was appointed instructor in 1962. After 1990 Mr. Schnittke resided in Hamburg maintaining a dual German-Russian citizenship. He is buried in Moscow's Novodevichye Cemetery, a high honor in Russia.

While Alfred Schnittke's music is not a staple on concert programs like that of Beethoven, there are opportunities every year to hear live performances of his compositions. Last year on the West Coast for example, Vladimir Spivakov and Moscow Virtuosi performed the Sonata for Violin and Orchestra, and the Camerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer performed the Concerto Grosso #6. Both the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have performed his compositions, including the Viola Concerto. [There also was to have been a September 11 concert by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, in Marin County, which would have featured his music, had the concert not been cancelled in light of the Word Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon terrorist attacks that occurred on that day.]

Schnittke's paternal grandparents, German-speaking Baltic Jews from Libau who lived many years in Moscow, were ardent communists. His father, Harry Schnittke, ran away in 1930 from Moscow to Engels, the capitol of the Volga German republic. He was still very young, but since he was fluent in German he found work at the republic's newspaper, Nachrichten, and he later worked for the German radio, teaching diction to announcers.

The family of the composer's mother, Maria Vogel, came from the small Roman Catholic Bergseite village of Kamenka. In Engels in the early 1930s, Maria Vogel was an enthusiastic worker for the "Young Pioneers", the Communist youth organization. Twenty-five years later she became the only German employee of the German-language newspaper Neues Leben when it started publication in Moscow in 1957.

Perhaps this 1987 Schnittke quote from the Ivashkin book referenced below will help readers understand something of Schnittke's psyche: "Although I don't have any Russian blood, I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life here. On the other hand, much of what I've written is somehow related to German music and to the logic which comes out of being German, although I did
not specially want this. Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far better than German. But I am not Russian. My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages but look like a typical Jew."

Probably the best resource for information about Schnittke's music the little volume Alfred Schnittke, by Alexander Ivashkin. Published in 1996, this book is part of Phaidon Press's 20th Century Composers series. Two other notes, neither of them related to Alfred Schnittke: Readers have asked that the "Report" at least make mention of our other musical superhero, Sviatoslav Richter (1915 - 1997). He was born into a South Russian German family, and his father was choral director at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Odessa for a time. Richter was one of the great 20th Century concert pianists. He recorded prolifically, and any large record/CD store would sell his recordings.

Finally, Deutschewelle TV ran a 30-minute piece on Rudolph Kehrer (b. 1923) in May. Mr. Kehrer’s family were not colonists. They emigrated from Swabia to Tblisi/Georgia in the early 1800s and established a piano factory. Colonists or not, they suffered the same fate in 1941 as other Germans in the USSR. Kehrer was a promising young concert pianist at the time, but his aspirations as a pianist were dashed when he and his family became field laborers (cotton) in Central Asia. After 20 years of forced labor in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, he gained an opportunity in Moscow, and developed into a well-known concert pianist there. Since 1990, he has been active as a pianist and pedagogue in Germany and Austria.

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