A great composer would have been 80 today

A great composer would have been 80 today


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2014

Where are the media commemorations for Alfred Schnittke, who was born on November 24, 1934 and died in Hamburg 16 years ago? Where are the new recordings?

The most inventive, disturbing and seditious Russian composer after Shostakovich, Schnittke has fallen into temporary desuetude. His time will come, again.


(c) Horst Tappe/Lebrecht Music&Arts

(c) Marion Kalter/Lebrecht  Music&Arts


  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    I once sat with a renowned pianist at the Dress Rehearsal for Schnittke’s Life of an Idiot. I’ve played Schnittke’s Piano Sonata No.2 23 times, he said. What’s it like?, I asked. Wonderful, he said. You can make as many mistakes as you like and NOBODY knows!

    • M. Villeger says:

      Well here is classical music’s problem: when a supposedly “renowned” pianist can only think of this masterpiece in those terms…

  • Reader says:

    I whole-heartedly agree. I know of only one commemoration: the Yale School of Music featured a recital last week with a number of faculty members performing the 1st Violin Sonata, the Suite in the Old Style (arranged for viola), and the 1st Cello Sonata. Wei-Yi Yang performed the piano part on all and was simply fantastic. It was a wonderful recital. I look forward to another era of Schnittke popularity in the future.

  • Halldor says:

    But the “posthumous dip in reputation” is quite a well-known phenomenon with major composers, especially those who pursued an unfashionable stylistic path…see also Sibelius, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Tippett etc. They’ve all made a comeback after 20-30 years (in the latter’s case, only now gathering steam), and so too will Schnittke.

  • M. Villeger says:

    I recently treated myself to an unlikely concert, anywhere in the world: String Quartet No. 2 (Arditti SQ), Symphony No. 7 (Polyansky) and Viola Concerto (Kashkashian). Beats the regular orchestra fare, doesn’t it? I do start to enjoy the late Schnittke as much as I enjoy the “glorious” period of his musical production.
    I discovered his music thanks to the late Mario Bernardi who programmed Concerto Grosso No. 3 at the Calgary Philharmonic one season. He took some flack for that and the CPO has never played another Schnittke piece since. In 2000, we co-organised a memorial concert with the group Land’s End in Calgary outside the CPO premise and Hans Graf agreed to conduct it.
    Then and now, CBC gatekeepers are busy ignoring this music. As independents, in 2008, for the 10th anniversary of Schnittke’s passing we released an album, recorded at CBC Vancouver. It was our second dedicated Schnittke CD. To this day, it has never been played on CBC Radio 2 although it was sent to their music library and classical program’s hosts.
    Despite having over 30,000 views in YouTube for her performance with Yuri Nikolaevski in 2003, Svetlana was never invited by a Canadian orchestra to perform this piece. And when we tried 10 years ago with Eri Klas, a Khrennikov loving CBC producer “intervened”…
    We keep dear memories of the 2001 Barbican homage “Seeking the Soul” organized by Alexander Ivashkin and the last time we traveled for his music was to NYC when Masur programmed Gutman in the Cello Concerto No. 1… We can only wish our best to Irina Schnittke and hope that Polyansky would record the Ninth symphony.

    P.S.: Ironically, during the opening ceremonies of the Sochi winter Olympics, it was the sports cast announcer on CBC television who mentioned the name of Alfred Schnittke when his music illustrated a tableau… That name has yet to be pronounced by any of the intellectuals filling in blanks at the public broadcaster’s “classical music” blog!

    • Mark Powell says:

      Cappella Romana (http://www.cappellaromana.org) performs Schnittke’s 1988 Stikhi Pokayanniye (Psalms or Verses of Repentance) for a cappella choir this May. The work was written to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the conversion of the Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in 988. We can’t wait to perform this piece, to be conducted by Rev Dr Ivan Moody, the author of the New Grove article on Schnittke as well as other essays on the composer and his work.

  • Daniel Farber says:

    If nothing else, his amazing cadenzas for the Beethoven Violin Concerto should have become the gold standard: way better or at least, by now, more entertaining than either the Kreisler or the Joachim.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Indeed, Schnittke’s time will come. I remember vividly a Salzburg Festival concert conducted by Claudio Abbado in 1977, at which Gidon Kremer performed the Beethoven Concerto with Schnittke’s cadenzas, and equally vividly the evening at the Kammerphilharmonie in Berlin in 1993, when Christoph Eschenbach conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in two of Schnittke’s Violin Concertos No. 2 and 3, with again Gidon Kremer as soloist. The encore was Schnittke’s unique “Stille Nacht” for Violin and Piano. Schnittke was present that evening, and very happy. One work that I cherish very much is his Peer Gynt ballet music, written for John Neumeier and the Hamburg State Opera Ballet. Eri Klas and the Stockholm Royal Orchestra have made the exceptional recording of it. I wish there would be a ballet company here in the US which would take this ballet in their repertoire. If there is a great contemporary ballet, or “story ballet”, Schnittke’s Peer Gynt is certainly it.

  • Brian says:

    How easily the word “great” emerges from the keyboard.

    • wwender says:

      And yet, how difficult to wrestle a recording out of thin air when ensembles generally don’t want to play the music and nobody is stepping forward to pay for it.

  • Gabby Cadaver says:

    I recall the time when the only three Soviet composers known in the West were Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina (which is a lot more than the East Germans had, for example, but that’s another matter for another time). Of that group the one who interested me the most was Denisov, and that is still the case. His symphonies and others works are a source of endless fascination for me. So I join you in commemorating Schnittke’s birthday, but honestly, thinking of 20th century composers who deserve more recordings and performances, he might be on my list, but not very near the top. (On the other hand, I can understand why a generation that likes John Adams’ music will probably pick up on Schnittke at some point.)

  • Richard Dubugnon says:

    AND for those who keep criticizing Russia whenever they can on this blog instead of knowing what’s going on there, as they should perhaps learn to read cyrillic, there were plenty of Schnittke celebrations today, most notably the closing concert of the Vivacello Festival, http://www.vivacello.com at the Moscow Philharmony with Schnittke cello concerto performed by the amazing Boris Andrianov, who is also director of this festival. Watch here from 1.24.00 : http://meloman.ru/concert/tri-veka-violonchelikoncert-zakrytie-vi-mezhdunarodnogobrviolonchelnogo-festivalya-viva-cello/
    Russian Philharmony Orchestra, conductor Dmitri Yurowsky. Enjoy the music and quatruple vision !


    I fully agree that Alfred Schnittke’s music will survive and become notoriuous in due time!
    He is indeed one of the most inventive composers ever.