In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alfred Schnittke

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Archives
  • Periodicals
  • Biographies and Reminiscences
  • Life and Works
  • Writings by Schnittke
  • Correspondence
  • Interviews
  • Critical Essay Collections
  • Reception
  • Documentaries

Music Alfred Schnittke
Peter Schmelz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0127


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.

General Overviews

There are several general overviews of Schnittke and his place in Soviet or late-20th-century musical life. Schwarz 1983 has been superseded, and relies too heavily on official Soviet publications, but nonetheless it remains a helpful summary and reference. Hakobian 1998 presents an opinionated albeit informative insider’s interpretation of Soviet musical history. Savenko 1997 similarly writes as a former Soviet citizen, perceptively tracing the most important developments in postwar music. Gerlach 1984 offers a compendium of Soviet composers with primary sources, worklists, and selected bibliographies, and Danuser 1990 also collects numerous sources related to Soviet composers. Raaben 1998 discusses Schnittke’s engagement with “the spiritual renaissance in Russian music” during the late Soviet period. Schmelz 2009 examines Schnittke alongside other leading composers from his generation, drawing upon oral histories, archival documents, and examination of little-known early Schnittke scores.

  • Danuser, Hermann, Hannelore Gerlach, and Jürgen Köchel, eds. Sowjetische Musik im licht der Perestroika. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1990.

    A reliable compendium of essays, interviews, biographies, and reference materials relating to Soviet composers “in the light of perestroika,” among them Schnittke. It includes German translations of an early 1980s essay by Schnittke (Schnittke 2002g cited under Writings by Schnittke) and excerpts from an important late 1980s interview with Julia Makejewa and Gennadi Zypin (Yuliya Makeyeva and Gennadiy Tsïpin; the entire interview originally appeared as Shnitke, et al. 1988, cited under Interviews).

  • Gerlach, Hannelore. Fünfzig sowjetische Komponisten der Gegenwart: Fakten und Reflexionen. Leipzig: Peters, 1984.

    Contains short biographical sketches, work lists, and selected bibliographies for fifty Soviet composers “of the present day.” Schnittke’s entry, like many in the volume, provides primary source information unavailable elsewhere, especially excerpts of letters from Schnittke to Gerlach describing his works and aesthetic values.

  • Hakobian, Levon. Music of the Soviet Age, 1917–1987. Stockholm: Melos Music Literature, 1998.

    Although he presents an often-idiosyncratic survey of Soviet music, Hakobian’s treatment of Schnittke is worth sampling for its clear synthesis and compelling interpretations. The discussion of Schnittke appears on pp. 271–284.

  • Raaben, Lev. O dukhovnom renessanse v russkoy muzïke 1960–80-kh godov. St. Petersburg, Russia: Blanka, Boyanïch, 1998.

    Raaben examines seventeen leading Russian composers in individual chapters, placing each composer’s development against the momentous changes of the late Soviet period. The chapter on Schnittke is perceptive and thoughtful.

  • Savenko, Svetlana. “Poslevoyennïy muzïkal’nïy avangard.” In Russkaya muzïka i XX vek: Russkoye muzïkal’noye iskusstvo v istorii khudozhestvennoy kul’turï XX veka. Edited by Mark Aranovskiy, 407–432. Moscow: Gosudarstvennïy Institut Iskusstvoznaniya Ministerstva Kul’turï Rossiyskoy Federatsii, 1997.

    One of Russia’s leading musicologists surveys Russian postwar musical trends, making many compelling insights and observations.

  • Schmelz, Peter J. Such Freedom, If Only Musical: Unofficial Soviet Music During the Thaw. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195341935.001.0001

    Examines Schnittke’s music alongside that of his fellow composers Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt, Andrey Volkonsky, and Valentin Silvestrov, while placing these artists against the political and social changes of Khrushchev’s “Thaw” and its aftermath. It especially focuses on Schnittke’s early serial compositions, his transitional works from the late 1960s, as well as his Symphony No. 1.

  • Schwarz, Boris. Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia: Enlarged Edition, 1917–1981. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

    Based on the author’s own first-hand experiences in the Soviet Union, this extremely detailed survey suffers from an overreliance on official reportage. Although it should be used with some caution, and benefits from being checked against more recent sources, it remains a helpful summary and reference for the period (note that Schwarz refers to Schnittke as “Shnitke”).

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