Obituary published 4 August 1998 in The Daily Telegraph. I have not yet identified the author.
Alfred Schnittke, Russian composer whose work became a vogue in the West despite his pushing pastiche beyond irony and into the grotesque
Alfred Schnittke, who has died aged 63, was the leading Russian composer of the generation which followed Dmitri Shostakovich.
Schnittke’s music enjoyed a vogue in the West, where he had lived since 1990. Many of his works, for all their dissonance and occasional bizarre features of orchestration, borrow elements from music past and present, from plainchant to rock, rather as Mahler and Shostakovich borrowed.
This technique of mixing direct quotations, original invention, historical cross reference and pastiche was called “polystylism” by Schnittke. Before him, Mahler, Charles Ives, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky had explored a similar avenue, but none of them had advanced as far along it.
Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 of 1977, for example, is a parody of the Baroque style and very entertaining. The juxtaposition of 18th century manners with contemporary acerbity proved to be both successful musically and accessible.
His (No) Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in Salzburg in 1985, is a pastiche that led some listeners to declare that the tunes were by Mozart. Schnittke confessed: “I faked them.”
A Salzburg audience some years earlier had booed the cadenzas he wrote for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which included references to many violin concertos composed between the times of J.S. Bach and Berg.
In Schnittke’s Third Symphony (1981), the themes are developed from the monograms of more than 50 German composers from Bach to Bernd–Alois Zimmermann, the finale being based on B-A-C-H.
In the Fourth Violin Concerto, the soloist mimes during a particularly loud orchestral passage and in the Fourth Symphony there is a cadenza for conductor.
The question must arise, as it sometimes does with Shostakovich, whether there is a real man behind the mask of clown or tragedian.
Undoubtedly Schnittke carried irony into a grotesque region which Shostakovich approached but never entered, except perhaps in the Gogol opera The Nose.
Schnittke’s achievement was to convince the majority of listeners that, notwithstanding all the quotations, what they were hearing was a piece of genuine invention.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the Third Concerto Grosso of 1985. This ostensibly paid tribute to five composers – Schütz, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and Berg – who had anniversaries that year. For all the nods in their direction, the final impression is of a contemporary composer of remarkable individuality. When so much new music seems anonymous this is a considerable feat.
Alfred Harrievich Schnittke was born at Engels, near Saratov, in what was once the German Republic of Volga on November 24 1934. His father was a journalist and his mother a German teacher. Schnittke’s musical studies began in 1946 in Vienna, where his father was correspondent for a German-language Soviet newspaper.
He studied the piano with Charlotte Raber and began to compose. IN 1948 he moved to Moscow where he gained a diploma as a choirmaster. From 1953 to 1958 he studied composition with Yevgeny Golubev and orchestration with Nicolai Rakov at Moscow Conservatory.
At the same time he was helped by a Webern disciple, Philipp Herschkowitz. From 1962 to 1972 Schnittke taught orchestration at the Conservatory.
During this decade he published several musicological essays on such subjects as the orchestral harmonisation in works by Shostakovich and Stravinsky, and on the music of Bartók, Webern, Berio and Ligeti. After 1972 he concentrated on composing.
The bewildering stylistic kaleidoscope of Schnittke’s music was probably also his method of countering the stifling formal prohibitions of Soviet artistic policy.
After Shostakovich’s death in 1975, Schnittke became the Soviet establishment’s main target among musicians. Under Brezhnev, his symphonies were virtually banned. During this time, Schnittke composed music for 60 films and eight plays (including Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra).
He had brave advocates. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted the first performance of the First Symphony in 1971 in Gorki and premiered the Second Symphony for chorus and orchestra in London in 1980.
The violinists Gidon Kremer and Mark Lubotsky and the violist Yuri Bashmet commissioned and performed concertos, as did the oboist Heinz Holliger.
Some of Schnittke’s early works employ the aleatory technique – when players, within prescribed limits, make up the music as they go along – but he gradually abandoned these avant–garde procedures for eclecticism. In doing so he was followed by a talented group of younger Russian composers such as Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov.
A piece like Ritual, composed in memory of the victims of the Second World War, is a profoundly serious and impressive work, progressing from growling brass to a tremendous climax with bells and organ and fading away to a gentle tolling of a single bell. This is very Russian music, yet it is also oddly homeless.
Schnittke travelled to Germany, Austria, Britain and France but characteristically did not finally leave Russia until the freer Gorbachev regime was established. In 1990 he emigrated with his family to Hamburg, where he became professor of composition at the Music School.
In 1985 he had the first of several strokes. These did not affect his ability to compose, also his scores became sparser and more economical. His illness brought about a change of style. Gone was the time travelling and idiom-mixing; in their place came a dark and morose contemplation of the unknown, relieved occasionally by bizarre outbursts of grim humour.
This nihilistic preoccupation can be heard in the Viola Concerto and First Cello Concerto of 1986 and in the sixth, seventh and eighth symphonies. It is also evident in the Concerto for Three, which he wrote in 1993 for three friends – the cellist Rostropovich, the violist Bashmet and Gidon Kremer.
Schnittke’s 60th birthday was marked by the first performance of his Eighth Symphony in Stockholm in November 1994. Another stroke prevented his attending it.
In 1990 he was composer-in-residence at the Huddersfield Festival where his Faust Cantata had its first performance.
The Town Hall, where generations have sung Messiah, has not often witnessed the sight of a mezzo-soprano without the support of a brassiere in a clinging gown slinking up the aisle, picked out by a coloured spotlight and singing in tango rhythm into a hand-held microphone about Faust’s gruesome death.
This cantata was based on material from his Faust opera commissioned by Frankfurt, a project which had occupied him for many years.
His opera Life with an Idiot, based on a 1980 short story by Viktor Veroleyev, who wrote the libretto, was first performed by Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in April 1992 when Rostropovich conducted. The principal character, an asylum patient who murders a university lecturer and drives the lecturer’s wife insane, was presented as a “lookalike” of Lenin. It had its first British performance, conducted by Richard Armstrong, at the Coliseum in 1995.
Schnittke’s long list of works includes transcriptions and arrangements of music by other composers, among them Shostakovich, Scott Joplin and Nietzsche.
Alfred Schnittke married first, in 1956 (dissolved 1958) Galina Koltsma, he married secondly, in 1961, Irina Katayeva; they had a son.