Obituary by Bernard Holland
Obituary by Bernard Holland published 4 August 1998 in The New York Times.
Alfred Schnittke, Eclectic Composer, Dies at 63
Alfred Schnittke, an iconoclastic composer who won fame in the West as he struggled against the restrainst of Society 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 up of all the above, his eclecticism was colored and weighted by a sense of pessimism and anxiety bordering on, and aften 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 life.
“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 recenty, 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 listenter. 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 autonomous 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 work 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 a surreal musical satire about a man who is ordered by the Communist Party to bring an idiot into his home as a punishment for some unnamed crime, and who suffers disaster as a result. The work was conducted to great acclaim by Mstislav Rostropovich. 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 Gubaidulin, Arvo Pärt and Edison Denisov. Their nemesis was the Soviet Composers Union, which frowned on Serialism and many forms of experimentation. The premiere of Mr. Schnittke’s 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.