SHOSTAKOVICH Dmitri, Viola Sonata Op.147


Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was his last work, composed in June–July 1975, a few weeks before his death. As in the famous 8th String Quartet, there is a complex network of quotations, including from his own works, and also from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Composer Ivan Sokolov reports on Shostakovich’s phone calls from his hospital bed to the viola player Fyodor Druzhinin to whom he was to dedicate the work: ‘In one conversation, noted down immediately afterwards by Druzhinin, Shostakovich suggested titles for each of the three movements: Novella, Scherzo and Adagio in memory of Beethoven.’ Druzhinin gave the first performance on 25 September 1975, on what would have been the composer’s sixty-ninth birthday, and the work was heard in public for the first time a few days later, in the small hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic on 1 October 1975. 


The loosely programmatic titles given by the composer to Druzhinin are helpful. The first movement, ‘Novella’, begins with the open strings of the viola and it is a free-flowing structure in which tension is created by the contrast between the austere open sound of fifths (later fourths) and the use of the twelve-note theme heard in the first entry by the piano. The ‘Scherzo’, marked Allegretto, takes as its starting point music from a much earlier operatic project based on Gogol’s The Gamblers that Shostakovich abandoned in 1942. The character is close to that of a march apart from the eerie and mysterious Trio section. After an introductory viola solo, the finale introduces a quotation from the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, but this long movement also explores Shostakovich’s own works. 


Biographer David Fanning has pointed out that the later part of the movement includes ‘note for note quotations, mainly found in the piano left-hand part, from Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto and all fifteen of his symphonies in sequence.’ Fanning concludes from this that ‘there could scarcely be a clearer indication that Shostakovich knew – or at least suspected – that this would be his last work’ 

© Nigel Simeone


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