Alfred Schnittke (Al’fred Garrievič Šnitke, b. 1934–d. 1998), a composer of Jewish-German ancestry born in Russia, became one of the most recorded and performed composers writing in the Western art music tradition at the end of the 20th century. Spurred on by the larger interest in Soviet composers generated by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and championed by a number of virtuoso soloists—among them violinist Gidon Kremer, violist Yuriy Bashmet, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich—Schnittke achieved worldwide prominence. His polystylistic compositions drew the most attention, most notably his First Symphony, First Concerto Grosso, Piano Quintet, Third String Quartet, Viola Concerto, and his searing opera Life with an Idiot (Zhizn’s idiotom). After an initial period in the 1960s of experimenting with twelve-tone and aleatory techniques, he settled into a more traditional, albeit polystylistically inflected, approach. Schnittke has been cast by commentators as the “heir of Dmitri Shostakovich,” a comparison that draws upon the highly emotional, narrative-like style common to both composers. However, Schnittke’s polystylism more frequently relies on jarring juxtapositions of different genres, including those from the past, especially the Baroque period, as well as idioms drawn from the contemporary soundscape, especially from popular genres, jazz and tango among them. In contrast, Schnittke’s late music, notably his final symphonies, returns to the more attenuated, somber mood of Shostakovich’s own final period. While Shostakovich served as an important model, Schnittke also drew avidly upon developments in postwar European music, especially those of Ligeti, Berio, and Pousseur. After a (lingering) period of general appreciations of Schnittke and his output, serious scholarship on the composer has begun to appear. Foundational references are being published, among them collections of his writings and a comprehensive scholarly edition of his scores. Scholars have started making informed use of his sketches and have started placing his work in its broader sociocultural and political contexts. With notable exceptions, few detailed examinations of the scores exist. Fundamental stylistic features generally have been mapped, with polystylism drawing the bulk of the attention. Larger questions regarding form, genre, harmony, melody, and timbre remain, alongside questions of censorship and reception. Further work on the many sociocultural roles of Schnittke’s music also remains to be done. Although key documents have been translated into both German and English, many of the essential sources are only in Russian, and may be difficult to obtain outside of Russia.
Article. 7648 words.
Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy
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