The Kennedy Center

Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Robert Markow

There is an almost palpable sense of reverence surrounding the performance of a great composer's last (and, in some cases, incomplete) work: Mozart's Requiem, Schubert's song Die Taubenpost, Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, Mahler's Tenth, Puccini's Turandot, Strauss's Four Last Songs, and Bartók's Viola Concerto, to name some of the most celebrated cases. Shostakovich's Viola Sonata too belongs in this august company.

The composer lived to complete his Viola Sonata, but just barely. He wrote it between April and June of 1975, and continued to make changes and corrections until August 5. Here is Russian scholar Laurel Fay's description of Shostakovich's last days:

Shostakovich "wrote to [Fyodor Druzhinin, 1932-2007, violist and dedicatee of the sonata] on 22 July that the score would not be ready until the beginning of August and that he hoped to check out of the hospital a couple of weeks after that. It appears he actually was released for a day or two at the beginning of the month, but after suffering respiratory seizures that intimated another heart attack, he was readmitted to the hospital on 4 August for tests. By now, the cancer had metastasized to his liver. The condition of his heart and lungs was deteriorating. Druzhinin arranged with Irina [Shostakovich's wife] to pick up the parts of the Viola Sonata at the composer's Moscow apartment on 6 August. Touched at the discovery that Shostakovich had dedicated the score to him, Druzhinin hurried home to rehearse intensively with his accompanist, Mikhail Muntyan, in anticipation of playing for the composer at the earliest possible opportunity. That opportunity never came."

Shostakovich died three days later. The first performance of the sonata was a private affair, a deeply moving ceremony at the composer's home on September 25, the day on which he would have turned 69. The first public performance was given on October 1 by Druzhinin, violist of the renowned Beethoven Quartet, which had given the premieres of all but two of Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets, and pianist Mikhail Muntyan. Druzhinin and Muntyan also made the first recording of the sonata.

Like Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony and his final string quartets, the Viola Sonata is preoccupied with death, written at a time when the composer's failing health forced him to confront his imminent demise. Shostakovich advised Druzhinin that the first movement was a novella, the second a scherzo and the third a radiant adagio in memory of Beethoven. All three movements end with the performance direction morendo (dying away). Throughout the thirty-minute work both viola and piano remain almost constantly in the lower range. The writing is unfailingly spare in texture and austere in tone. Critic Andrew Porter, reviewing the New York premiere in December of 1976, described the music as "musical discourse pared down to the essential notes; some pages of the score resemble those schematic representations of say, a Beethoven sonata reduced to its structural elements."

The sonata opens with an enigmatic pizzicato figure for the viola, played across the instrument's four open strings. This rocking figure reappears periodically throughout the movement, sometimes in the viola, sometimes in the piano. In the fifth bar the piano introduces a legato idea that contains most of the movement's melodic cells, and in the tenth bar there appears for the first time Shostakovich's favorite rhythmic figure, short-long. Both instruments develop these melodic and rhythmic fragments, continuously intertwining without ever seeming to meet.

In contrast to the dark musings of the opening movement, the second is dancelike in spirit. Yet the mood is far from gay, suggesting rather a dance of death or the cavorting of diabolical creatures. Strong articulations, rhythmic intensity and aggressive double stops (playing on two strings at once) give the music a powerful momentum. The short-short-long rhythmic pattern is much exploited, becoming almost an obsession by the end until the music comes to an abrupt halt, as if the diabolical dance were suddenly frozen in midtableau.

The introspective final movement is equal in length to the previous two. Its most striking feature is the obvious reference to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Five times the Moonlight's opening material is heard, acting somewhat like a rondo reprise. This obviously is Shostakovich's homage to his great predecessor. There are also veiled allusions to the same composer's Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Fourth, Rachmaninoff's song "Fate," and some of Shostakovich's own works. Also of interest in this long movement is the leisurely yet continuous momentum that unfurls across its fifteen-minute span, with no more than two or three very brief pauses. Aside from the opening viola passage and its substantial cadenza in the middle, both instruments play continuously, yet never concurrently, the same material. Their mournful, meditative dialogue unfolds as two independent yet complementary strands.

It is surely symbolic that for a composer who lived through a century racked by horrendous political turmoil and artistic upheavals, the last notes he ever wrote consist of simply a quiet, long-sustained C major chord -"like a gentle sigh, neither sad nor ironic, but welcoming of peace," in Porter's words. Boris Schwartz, who wrote the annotations for the first recording of this sonata, summed up Shostakovich's final creative effort as follows: "It represents Shostakovich's farewell-an intense philosophical meditation, emotion without sentimentality, resignation without bitterness, a closing worthy of a great artist."