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The Violin Concerto No. 4 was commissioned by the 34th Berlin Festival. Composed in 1984, it received its much-acclaimed first performance in Berlin on September 11 of the same year (the soloist was the work’s dedicatee, Gidon Kremer; Christoph von Dohnányi conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra). The composer’s commentary on the concerto focuses on its musical material which – as a gesture of Schnittke’s admiration and friendship for Kremer – “derives from monograms of Gidon Kremer, of myself and, in the last movement, of three other kindred spirits: Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaydulina and Arvo Pärt”. It also derives from his attempt “to set up a melodic tension between one note and another and between notes and rests, making free use of ‘new’ and ‘old’ techniques; and also from two quotations which have left a distinct mark on the work: “The Two Beautiful Plush Melodies (the one recurring throughout the concerto as ‘fatum banalis’ and the other appearing in the third movement as ‘illusory salvation’) are no more than corpses with rouged faces.” In the end the progressive intensification of the music’s expressive qualities leads him to the visually effective point at which he enters the sphere of non-music: when the soloist moves his bow to and fro over the violin without touching the strings. “On a number of occasions (for instance in the Cadenza visuale in the second movement) we venture a glimpse behind the curtain into the hypnotic, silent world of the musical Beyond, the world of the unsounding sound (otherwise known as a rest). Yet these are mere moments, brief attempts to fly, doomed to failure, to relapsing into sound. Or are they not?”
Clearly Schnittke is not prepared to exclude forays into as yet uncharted territory; yet it would appear that his need for constant confrontation rarely if ever involves him in exploring the extremities. His central concern is to experiment again and again with one of the underlying principles of music: “Progress and a historical memory, being two sides of one coin, go hand in hand.” Schnittke has a pronounced and multifarious “historical memory”; yet at the same time he knows that any given musical expression, once it has been formulated, can never be reiterated, which makes the urge for autonomous adaptation both legitimate and indispensable.
The realisation that a composition is bound to be the outcome of a confrontation between spontaneity and convention, between originality and tradition, gives rise to this concerto’s substance and technique.