Susan Bradshaw, The Guardian, 4 August 1998
Of part German descent, the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, always acknowledged the musically formative importance of the two years he spent in Vienna as a child. It was in the Austrian capital that he started to learn the piano at the age of 12 – incidentally becoming a fine exponent of keyboard chamber music, in which capacity he toured extensively as a young man. It was there too that he began to try his hand at composition, and to gain early insight into the nature of his wider European inheritance.
Schnittke’s early adult musical career was nevertheless very much a product of his Soviet training and environment. It was doubtless to his eventual advantage that, like others of his student generation in the USSR, he was almost totally protected from the supposedly evil influences of 20th century musical developments in Western Europe and, in particular, from those of the postwar avant-garde.
Schnittke was born in Engels, a town on the Volga river. His mother was of German descent, his father was German-Jewish, being born in Frankfurt. As a student of the Moscow Conservatory during the enforced isolation of what amounted to a musical time warp, Alfred Schnittke’s work was necessarily grounded in the Russian tradition with which he must initially have identified. It was certainly the security of this inherited identity that was later to give him the courage to maintain a childlike freshness of approach – an approach that was in turn to act as protection against the more defiant position-taking of many of his contemporaries. It could even be said that his own eventually unmistakable persona was achieved by means of a kind of musical hide-and-seek; often working from behind a neutral screen of borrowed – even purloined – stylistic fragments. It was as if he needed the safety of this emotional hiding place in order to be able to give free rein to the agony and the ecstasy that were seldom far beneath the surface of his work.
Schnittke’s musical style arose from a quite singular ability to make the commonplace seem extraordinary, to combine consonance with dissonance in the most natural-sounding way possible. But this seemingly carefree expression was hard won. Far from the carelessness all too readily assumed by his detractors, Schnittke agonised over everything he wrote. The magical contrasts he was to derive from setting the old alongside the new had to be long tried before he was able to discover a context that would enable him freely to reintroduce major and minor chords without fear of classical consequences or expectations. And it is the originality and musically expressive purpose of this particular freedom (including freedom from fear of being thought naive) which not only forms the core of the Schnittke legacy but is his most personal contribution to the second half of the 20th century.
Schnittke wrote a large amount of music in all genres. Much of it was composed following a succession of severe strokes in the summer of 1985 that left him physically weakened and partly paralysed.
His mental energies seemed undiminished, enabling him both to complete his illness interrupted Viola Concerto and to compose the first of two cello concertos in less than a year thereafter. Showing extraordinary spirit and a determination to live the rest of his musical life to the full – forced to retire from freelance work as a composer of film music, his tally of completed film scores stands at a remarkbale 64 – his later music quickly came to suggest that physical adversity may even have had creativity-enhancing consequences of a more spiritual kind. Like that of his three great Russian compatriots, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Schnittke’s mature music seems inspired by a vivid sense of urgency that can even now be intensely moving – whether suggesting a quasi-religious severity or provoking a carefully controlled musical chaos that can veer from humour to violence as part of the terrifyingly passionate involvement of even so apparently light-hearted a work as (K)ein Sommernachtstraum.
Four outstanding string quartets, a string trio and a piano quintet are fine examples of a classical high-art seriousness within a chamber music repertoire where extremes range from the seriously experimental to the frankly hilarious. But it is perhaps less for his two recent operas, Life with an Idiot and Faust, or five symphonies than for his distinctive contribution to the repertoire of instrumental concertos – mostly for one or more strings, but including three for piano and one for piano-four-hands – that he may be best remembered.
Moving to Germany in the late 1980s with his second wife Irina, he spent some time in Berlin before settling in Hamburg where he taught at the Hochschule für Musik in between travelling the world to attend performances of his works. These invitations he continued to accept with alacrity and, despite the increasing physical effort involved, with all the touching enthusiasm of a previously fettered Soviet citizen. His first marriage was dissolved. He had one son.