Alfred Schnittke (1934 - 1998) was a composer of Soviet Russia. His first private study of composition occurred in Vienna during the years 1946-48. This early exposure to Austrian/German style would influence his own compositions. After returning to Russia, he studied in the Choirmasters' Department at the October Revolution Music College in Moscow and later at the Moscow Conservatory. Upon his graduation, Schnittke worked mostly as a freelancer and composed film scores.
Living under the Soviet Union, Schnittke would come to have a very unstable relationship with his own government. The Composer's Union eventually came to disapprove of his works after his oratorio Nagasaki and the opera African Ballad. Despite this, Schnittke and other composers had access to works of their previously restricted Western neighbors under the more liberal Khruschev regime. He studied the works of Berg, Webern, Nono, and Ligeti among others.
Schnittke's early works show the influence of Shostakovich and other composers. He formed a way of writing which he called polystylistic. This can be heard in his Concerto Grosso No. 1, as bursts of jazz, serial, and other types of music interrupt one another throughout the work. The pieces that put him in the international spotlight came from his works from the 80s, including this string quartet, symphonies 3-5, and the first cello concerto. His later works become simpler in style, likely in part of his ailing health.
Schnittke's third string quartet is a very interesting piece. The theme first presented by the violin is interrupted by increasingly more agitated ensemble. There is a sense that he draws some of his very dissonant sounds from Berg. He uses themes from Orlando de Lassus's Stabat Mater (later 1500's), then from Beethoven's Grosse Fuge for String Quartet, Op. 133 (1825), and finally from Dmitri Shostakovich's famous DSCH theme (D-E flat-C-B). Schnittke makes use of various secondary techniques such as glissando and trilled notes to create unique timbres.
ComparisonEditIn Greece, Iannis Xenakis was doing some composing while he worked as an architect. This quartet, Tetras, was written in the same year as Schnittke's third quartet and shows a drastically different style of string writing. Listening to this piece, I'm sure that like other works of his, it is written in notation resembling graphs than standard notation. Unlike Schnittke's work which has a more accessible sound, Xenakis makes extensive use of secondary techniques including scratch tones and instrument taps.
This sounds like a very difficult work. It is apparently one of the more performed modern quartets, and I can hear why. Many pieces are just devilishly difficult and that deters many groups, as well as the audiences who would likely want to hear something more ear-pleasing. I have looked at the score to Xenakis' Nomos Alpha and can attest to its difficulty.
Ivan Moody and Alexander Ivashkin. "Schnittke, Alfred." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/51128 .
Peter Hoffmann. "Xenakis, Iannis." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 2, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/30654 .
Xenakis Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OAAJvaKx5c