In the final years of the Soviet Union, it seemed that one figure above all others would stand as the lasting musical voice of its closing moments. Where other young composers had remained in the long shadow of Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke – born in southern Russia to German-speaking parents in 1934 – found his own way to international recognition. A large chunk of his childhood was spent in Vienna, isolated from Soviet culture and instead he explored the streets where once Mozarts and Beethovens had walked. In the 1990s, as he approached the end of his life, his place among the greats seemed assured, but his music has if anything slipped from view, left behind by a world less starkly defined by East and West.

Alfred Schnitte, by Reginald Gray © Royal College of Music, London
Alfred Schnitte, by Reginald Gray
© Royal College of Music, London

Schnittke’s music is nervy, fragile, and its textures delicate stuff. Even at its most vigorous and agitated, it seems that if we could hold it to the sun, light would bleed through. Past and the present exist together here. Like cities, all music is built on the ruins of the old, but in Schnittke, the sound of centuries otherwise lost to us is still there, like ancient wallpaper revealed where new layers have peeled away. The frisson is in the ragged overlap between both; neither old, nor new, but something else, a distant memory that resurfaced just a moment ago.

This quality in Schnittke’s music emerged in the late 1960s, after the long-standing freeze on musical modernism had begun to melt in the brief window of Khrushchev’s cultural thaw, and the composer had been able to explore the work of some of the European avant-garde. Before this peek across the Iron Curtain, he’d always been one to push the boundaries. His graduation piece at the Moscow Conservatory, titled Nagasaki, paints violent atonal pictures on its large orchestral and choral canvas.  Big statements for orchestras teem with barely suppressed chaos; the seminal First Symphony, which occupied him for five years from 1969, often feels like music from several different rooms cascading through open doors and along corridors, to where a listener sits, overwhelmed by its sheer life. And those doors might as well lead to different decades or even centuries.

Schnittke dubbed his stylistic borrowings “polystylism”, and by the late 1970s, his cut-and-paste approach to period had come to define his sound in the minds of audiences in the West. His work was given powerful advocacy by Gidon Kremer, the Latvian violinist and musical pioneer who acted as something of a representative for the composer in Western Europe, at a time when the Soviet authorities restricted the travel of their leading cultural figures. Kremer found particular success with the Concerto Grosso no. 1 of 1977, which pits two violins against a quasi-Baroque formation of harpsichord, strings and prepared piano. Here, as so often, Schnittke’s polystylism is in service of a raft of conflicting emotion, from the cracked simplicity of the prepared piano opening, to the biting, wonky wit of the Toccata that follows. And through it all runs the familiar brittleness, as though the ice might break apart beneath our feet at any moment.

The ice did break, in 1985, when the composer suffered a massive stroke, from which few thought he would recover. Shortly before, he’d been composing his Viola Concerto, a work of grim shadows that seems a premonition of the darkness about to befall its creator. He pulled through after the stroke and was possessed by an urge to pin down the new sounds that took hold in his brain. A Cello Concerto mapped out before his illness changed shape, acquiring a new finale that Schnittke described as “a present to me… I was given this music from somewhere, and I’ve just written it down.”

Finally, in his last decade, Schnittke was able to travel and receive first-hand the international acclaim that had been building for decades. He took his Sixth Symphony to New York in 1994; its startling, pared back bone-like form half emptied Carnegie Hall, as though its denuded intensity was just too much for the well-heeled patrons. In the West, he also managed finally to make the acquaintance of a great Soviet artist-in-exile, Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom he worked frequently in his final years. Further strokes sapped his remaining strength in the 1990s, though much music still poured from his pen, including two more symphonies and operas on subjects as a diverse as Lenin and the renaissance composer Gesualdo.

Like Shostakovich before him, illness had stalked his last decade. But the light shone on. New York critic Alex Ross interviewed him, somewhat in awe, during his 1994 American visit. “I caught a sense of the brilliant, caustic man behind the monkish façade,” recalled Ross at the time of Schnittke’s death in 1998. “He answered questions with a practiced cryptic air, but on the one or two occasions when I accidentally asked something intelligent his eyes opened wide – pleasure combined with ironic surprise.” Like the man, Schnittke’s music is spare, austere, deadly serious. But the flash of a wicked smile is never far away.