Born in Engels, Schnittke had his first piano lessons in Vienna at the age of 12. He attended the Moscow Conservatoire from 1953 until 1958, and in 1961 was appointed a faculty member. Softening attitudes of the Soviet authorities made him among the first to be able to explore modernist Western techniques with comparatively little hinderance. Serialism and electronic resources soon became integral parts of his armoury, and a method of constructing themes from different dynamic levels bore a resemblance to the ‘total serialism’ of Messiaen and Boulez.
Schnittke also explored much of the past; a deeply spiritual man (possibly due to his own physical frailty, evidenced by a history of heart problems) his religious works display influences dating back to Medieval times, sometimes juxtaposed scant minutes later by driving atonality. This approach stretches into his chamber and orchestral works, and has been labelled by commentators as postmodern or ‘polystylist’. However Schnittke displays little of the desire to commentate on culture one expects from Western postmodernists; indeed, in the Soviet Union it would have been unwise to take such an attitude. His wild anachronisms seem to stem from an all-encompassing love of music, and while the different styles rarely blend there is little which seems out of place. In the best senses of the words, his works are humourless and sincere, frequently reaching emotive depths foreign to many contemporary composers.