Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata: A Farewell

The Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147, was Dmitri Shostakovich’s final work. The score was completed on July 5, 1975, a day before the composer entered the hospital where, just over a month later, he would succumb to the effects of terminal heart disease and lung cancer.

Shostakovich seems to have considered the Viola Sonata to be a final farewell. All three of its movements conclude with the instruction, morendo, or “dying away.” The Sonata moves into the mysterious, quietly transcendent territory of Beethoven’s late string quartets. The commentator, Malcolm MacDonald, observed that:

Shostakovich was a pianist, not a string player. Yet he clearly valued above all that vocal quality in string instruments that allowed them to stand as surrogates for the composer’s personal voice in quartet, concerto, or sonata, evoking public debate or private soliloquy.

It was not the violin, with its combination of brilliance and sweetness, or the richly reverberant cello to which Shostakovich turned for this final statement. Instead, it was the soulful, introspective, and sometimes overlooked middle voice of the viola.

Shostakovich described the first movement (Moderato) as “a novella.” It begins with a solitary pizzicato line in the viola which echoes the opening of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. The piano’s entrance brings a haunting chromatic statement which stands in stark contrast with the viola’s open intervals. Entering into a sometimes wrenching dialogue, both voices wander through a gloomy, alien landscape. A fragment of the DSCH motif (without the concluding B natural) emerges in the piano’s bass line (2:19). This is the musical cryptogram, imprinted relentlessly in so much of Shostakovich’s music, which outlines the composer’s initials using the German alphabet. As the movement continues, the intensity builds with ferocious, percussive tones in the piano meeting the viola’s impassioned cries of anguish. A viola cadenza becomes a lamenting and sardonic soliloquy. With a brief return of the opening pizzicato, the final, spine-chilling bars tiptoe into the night.

The second movement (Allegretto) is a sarcastic scherzo. One murmuring passage features bitonality, in which the viola and piano are heard simultaneously in two separate keys. Half march, half folk dance, this music is a transcription of a scene from Shostakovich’s unfinished 1942 opera, The Gamblers. With an inscription in the score, the composer quoted Alexander Pushkin with the words, “The work of long-ago days…”

Shostakovich referred to the final movement, written in just two days, as “an Adagio in memory of Beethoven,” or “Adagio in Memory of a Great Composer.” Quotes of the iconic arpeggios which open Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata emerge, as if in a dream. Again, there is a cadenza in which the viola is heard as a solitary voice. In the middle of the movement, Shostakovich seems to be bidding farewell to his own works. In sequence, quotes emerge from the Second Violin Concerto and all fifteen of Shostakovich’s symphonies. On the final page, there is another self-quotation. It is the main theme of a Suite for two pianos, Op. 6, written by the sixteen-year-old composer and dedicated to the memory of his father. The final moments arrive at the “radiance” of C major.

Shostakovich dedicated the Viola Sonata to Fyodor Druzhinin, the violist of the Beethoven Quartet. Druzhinin and pianist Mikhail Muntyan gave the public premiere at Leningrad’s Glinka Hall on October 1, 1975. As an homage to the recently deceased composer, Druzhinin acknowledged the audience’s standing ovation by holding up the score. A critic for the Soviet newspaper, Izvestia, wrote that the music was “like the catharsis in a tragedy; life, struggle, overcoming, purification by light, exit into immortality.”

This 1985 recording features violist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Sviatoslav Richter: