Alfred Schnittke was born of Russian-German origins on 24 November 1934 in Engels, located in the Volga-German Republic in the USSR. In 1946, Schnittke began his musical education in Vienna, where his father had been posted as a journalist. By 1948, his father moved the family to Moscow where Schnittke would begin to study piano and choral conducting; from 1953 to 1958 he studied counterpoint, composition, and instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory, and by 1962, Schnittke was appointed instructor in instrumentation.
Noted for his hallmark "polystylistic" idiom, where music of different styles past and present are juxtaposed in close proximity, Schnittke composed in a wide range of genres and styles. His Concerto Grosso No.1 (1977) was one of the first works to bring his name to prominence, popularized by the emigré Soviet violinist Gidon Kremer.
In 1994, Schnittke traveled to the United States for the American premiere of his Symphony No. 6, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra. This symphonic work marked a distinct change from his use of polystylism, signaling a retreat into a more withdrawn and bleak style.
From the 1980s, Schnittke's music gained increasing exposure and international acclaim. He received numerous awards including: Austrian State Prize (1991); Japan's Imperial Prize (1992); and the Slava-Gloria-Prize in Moscow (1998).
In 1985, Schnittke suffered the first of a series of serious strokes. However, despite his frailty, Schnittke suffered no loss of creative imagination or productivity. Beginning in 1990, Schnittke resided in Hamburg, maintaining dual German-Russian citizenship. He died, after suffering another stroke, on August 3, 1998 in Hamburg.