He was born to German parents in Engels in the Soviet Union, lived in Vienna for a few years, returned to Moscow and lived part time there and in Hamburg while supporting himself as a composer of film scores. Though jewish, Schnittke converted to Christianity and possesed deeply held mystic beliefs which influenced his music. He died in Hamburg, Germany after health problems which began with a series of strokes in 1985.
In a number of pieces, Schnittke quotes or parodies other composers, and this combined with his "polystylism" (using a mixture of musical styles past and present in close proximity) has resulted in his work being seen as one musical manifestation of postmodernism. Among his better known works are a number of symphonies, several concerti grossi, chamber music including a piano quintet, and several operas including Life With an Idiot.