Schnittke's father was born in Frankfurt to a Jewish family of Russian origin. He moved to the USSR early in his life. His mother was a Volga German born in Russia.
Alfred Schnittke was born in Engels in the Volga-German Republic of the RSFSR, Soviet Union. He began his musical education in 1946 in Vienna where his father, a journalist and translator, had been posted. It was in Vienna, Schnittke's biographer Alexander Ivashkin writes, where "he fell in love with music which is part of life, part of history and culture, part of the past which is still alive. I felt every moment there," the composer wrote, "to be a link of the historical chain: all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts, and I was not a barbarian without any connections, but the conscious bearer of the task in my life." Schnittke's experience in Vienna "gave him a certain spiritual experience and discipline for his future professional activities. It was Mozart and Schubert, not Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, whom he kept in mind as a reference point in terms of taste, manner and style. This reference point was essentially Classical ... but never too blatant."
In 1948, the family moved to Moscow. He completed his graduate work in composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1961 and taught there from 1962 to 1972. Evgeny Golubev was one of his composition teachers. Thereafter, he supported himself mainly by composing film scores and composed nearly 70 scores in 30 years. Schnittke converted to Christianity and possessed deeply held mystic beliefs which influenced his music.
Schnittke was often the target of the Soviet bureaucracy. His First Symphony was effectively banned by the Composers' Union, and after he abstained from a Composers' Union vote in 1980, he was banned from travelling outside of the USSR. In 1985, Schnittke suffered a stroke which left him in a coma. He was declared clinically dead on several occasions, but recovered and continued to compose. In 1990, Schnittke left Russia and settled in Hamburg. His health remained poor, however, and he suffered several more strokes before his death on August 3, 1998 in Hamburg. He was buried, with state honors, at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow in which lie many other famous Russian composers, including Shostakovich.
Schnittke's early music shows the strong influence of Dmitri Shostakovich, but after the visit of the Italian composer Luigi Nono to the USSR, he took up the serial technique in works such as Music for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1964). However, Schnittke soon became dissatisfied with what he termed the "puberty rites of serial self-denial" and moved on to a new style which has been called "polystylism", where music of various different styles past and present are juxtaposed (the composer once wrote "The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so"). The first concert work to use the polystylistic technique was the Second Violin Sonata, Quasi una sonata (1967-1968), but the influence of Schnittke's film work on his stylistic development is shown by the fact that much of the music of this work was derived from a score for the animation short The Glass Harmonica. He continued to develop the polystylistic technique in works such as the epic First Symphony (1969-1972) and First Concerto Grosso (1977), but also composed more stylistically unified works such as the Piano Quintet (1972-1976), written in memory of his recently deceased mother.
In the 1980s, Schnittke's music began to become more widely known abroad, thanks in part to the work of émigré Soviet artists such as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Mark Lubotsky. Despite constant illness, he produced a large amount of music, including important works such as the Second (1980) and Third (1983) String Quartets and the String Trio (1985); the Faust Cantata (1983), which he later incorporated in his opera Historia von D. Johann Fausten; the ballet Peer Gynt (1985-1987); the Third (1981), Fourth (1984) and Fifth (1988) Symphonies (the last of which incorporates his Fourth Concerto Grosso) and the Viola (1985) and 1st Cello (1985-1986) Concertos.
As his health further deteriorated, Schnittke's music started to abandon much of the extroversion of his polystylism and retreat into a more withdrawn, bleak style. The Fourth Quartet (1989) and Sixth (1992), Seventh (1993) and Eighth (1994) symphonies are good examples of this, and some Schnittke scholars such as Gerard McBurney have argued that it is the late works which will ultimately be the most influential parts of Schnittke's output. After a further stroke in 1994 left him almost completely paralysed, Schnittke largely ceased to compose, though some short works emerged in 1997 and also a Ninth Symphony whose score was almost unreadable because written with great difficulty with his left hand. This Ninth Symphony was first performed on 19 June 1998 in Moscow in a version deciphered - but also 'arranged' - by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who conducted the premiere. Schnittke heard a tape of this performance before his death and indicated he wanted it withdrawn. After his death the score was again deciphered, first by Nikolai Korndorf, who died before he could complete the task, and then continued and completed by Alexander Raskatov. In Raskatov's version the three orchestral movements of Schnittke's symphony may be followed by a choral fourth, which is Raskatov's own Nunc Dimittis (in memoriam Alfred Schnittke). This version was premiered in Dresden, Germany June 16, 2007. There is a further realization by Andrei Boreyko.