appreciation music viola

shostakovich and his viola sonata


I’m playing the Shostakovich Viola Sonata Op. 147 on Sunday afternoon, and I’ve been searching various printed volumes and the internet for more information about its genesis and about Shostakovich’s life in general.

I stumbled upon the following, a letter written by the then president of the Soviet Composers’ Union, Boris Tischenko. It was found amongst the pages of the manuscript of the Viola Sonata, and I think it’s quite interesting.

It’s also hard to come by on the internet, since the site seemed to be down, but thanks to the miracle of Google’s site caching, I was able to recover it. It was translated by Sergei V. Korschmin, who I believe is on the faculty of the University of Queensland, Australia.

Italicized text is that of the translator.
About Viola Sonata.

December 16, 2007

Boris Tishenko Notes and translation by: Sergei V. Korschmin. I was asked to translate this letter by a music student of the University of Queensland some time ago. I am not a professional translator so I was wondering if you may have any suggestions for improvement. The Russian text of the letter was located in the first couple of pages of the viola sonata. Unfortunately I do not remember nor can I locate the publisher. Maybe you could help with this too?

“Letter from Leningrad”

By: Boris Tishenko [a former student of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich and a head figure of the Composers’ Union in St. Petersburg.]

The task of drawing parallels between the personality of an artist and his work is a difficult but necessary one. Difficult because it is easy to fall victim to vulgar flat assimilations, and necessary because it is evident that a composer’s creation is a humanistic (personal) self portrayal and because understanding an author’s humanism helps to unravel the secrets of his composition. While analysing the “personal” aspects of this music, one relies on the external and visible characteristics, leaving behind the boundaries of what is the material and internal side of a musical work and what is verbally indescribable. Also, it is difficult to discuss this Sonata because it has not yet been performed. [Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975. This letter was written on September 11, 1975. The Viola Sonata, Op. 147 was Shostakovich’s last work. It was dedicated to the violist Fyodor Druzhinin. Work was premiered in Leningrad on October 1, 1975.]

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich – legendary man. A person of immense stature and scale of thought, his vastness of thinking resembling Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Cervantes, great philosophers of antiquity. He never philosophised in abstracts; all was lifelike, concrete. His kindness, his ability to feel people’s pain and his protest against evil had very personal characteristics. A highlight of his vast personality is his modesty. This is what Dmitri Dmitrievich wrote about Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky [Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky (1902 – 1944) was a Russian polymath of the Soviet period. He was an expert in theatre and Romance languages, but is best known for his musical career. He was a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory, as well as artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. In these capacities he was an active promoter of Mahler’s music in the Soviet Union. From 1927 he was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. In the wake of Shostakovich’s first denunciation in 1936, Sollertinsky was called, “the troubadour of formalism” by Pravda. Shostakovich dedicated his Second Piano Trio to Sollertinsky after his death in Novosibirsk on 11 February 1944.]:

“… I thought of him as a man of extraordinary qualities; it is, awkward, for the ordinary and average, and when in 1921 one of my friends introduced me to Sollertinsky, I very quickly became shy, because I found difficulty in keeping friendship with such an extraordinary person.”

This is not a joke: indeed Dmitri Dmitrievich thought of himself as an ordinary man. We see 15 year old teenagers experiencing this feeling while most are usually full of high opinions of themselves. This nature-given quality he preserved through all his life, whilst many of us work very hard to develop it. This is only possible for a devout man – a very rare sacred quality, and Ivan Ivanovich, closest friend of Dmitri Dmitrievich, enjoyed his boundless love. Shostakovich’s love was an important engine of his artistic might; artistic might was also the reason for his being loved. Proof of his love and his remarkable ability to listen and admire music of others is evident in his Viola Sonata. In it exists, thinned to the limits, music-associative series; Shostakovich in his late works used musical quotations. A smart and tactful quotation exists in the finale of the Viola Sonata: the characteristic point from Beethoven’s 1st movement of the “Mondschein” Sonata Op.27., No.2, only transcribed from triple into quadruple metre. This sad and tender mood is central to the (viola) sonata. It also has different beginnings – effectual and remonstrative. In front of us, walking past like shadows, are Shostakovich’s favourite composers: firstly Alban Berg, in his tender fifth pizzicatos in similar fifths, begins his violin concerto dedicated to “Dem Andenken eines Engels” and Louis Krasner. This “intervallic formula of fifth” time to time reappearing in the Shostakovich sonata calls for multi-staged associations. In the second material, in his diminished triads, the effectiveness of tearing triplets is similar to beginning of Mahler’s 5th Symphony (Allegro), and in the end of the section the “breaking-away” triplet with semiquaver unequivocally recalls in our memory the “fate motif” from Beethoven 5th’s motif, that generally journeys through many compositions.

The beginning of Mahler’s 5th Symphony and triplets from the first theme of the 4th Symphony by Tchaikovsky directly relate to this ominous formula. Rachmaninov brought this motif in the romance “Fate” (Sud’ba) Op.21, No.1; it lives in the timpanies in R. Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”; and this ring of association closes with the finale of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony, where he quoted Wagner’s fate motif.

It is possible to find more and more threads of associations, for example in the second movement, written in the spirit of the tender duple scherzo of the 7th Symphony’s second movement and Prelude in fis-moll, from the 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87; in glimpses of Mahler-like ascending quart grace-note and accented mordent; [Mordent – (from It. mordere, to bite) Musical ornament shown by a sign over the note. There are upper and lower mordents. In German Mordent means only the lower mordent. Upper Mordent in German is “Pralltriller”.] and second material with open strings, seventh and fifth in accompaniment sound of slight peasantry – somewhat coarsely-tender. In the middle of the movement after the Violas fast forth, is the piano with very familiar and threatening musical signal in octaves. The intervals of fifths and especially fourths are very important in the viola sonata.

M. I. TsvetaevaIn Shostakovich’s music in general, intervals of fourths are multi-meaningful. It is a fourth of tenderness – tenderness influenced by Tsvetaeva’s [Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (October 9, 1892 – August 31, 1941) was a Russian poet and writer. Dmitri Shostakovich set six of Tsvetaeva’s poems to music.] cycle – and spiky, playful and mischievously moving fourths and other leaps. All of these kind of fourths you can see in the sonata. However, most of all of the fourths of tenderness (at the beginning of the 3rd movement, finale) – tenderness – without sentimentality, are high-principled and Beethoven-like (hence, “Mondschein” Sonata).

In thinking, and I am not over-stretching this thought, that the programme of the viola sonata is in supreme affirmation of love and human warmth. In the soul sterilising sorrows, torture, and sickness after the hell of war, people need tenderness and kindness. That is why this instrument of soft, tender and deep sound – the viola, and this sonata is the conclusion to Shostakovich’s triangular string sonata cycle, following the Cellos and Violins. Shostakovich is in general a very “stringed” composer: 15 string quartets, string quintet and trio, string 14th Symphony. He never selected wind chamber ensembles, like Stravinsky, Hindemith, and even Mozart. With all of his originality, Shostakovich avoided specifics. Without fear I argue that in “stringency”, Dmitri Dmitrievich, classic of classics, shows self-abnegating kindness. The programme of his music, of course, does not screen itself from “absolute” music; quotes and musical allusions have aesthetical character. That is a sign of humble admiration before those whom he in his quotes “gives word”; with all of this he always remained himself. Maybe his affection and love of the music of others made his own music non-comparable to that of others.

Velazquez Las MeninasPicasso Las MeninasAll in all he is not afraid of quotation, like Picasso was not afraid to paint on the subject of Velazquez [Diego Velazquez – (1599-1660) was a Spanish painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain. His work was highly admired in his day, but was most influential many centuries after his death, which it proved a model for the Realist and Impressionist artists, in particular Manet.] “Les Meninas”.Kindness, sincerity, perfection of absolute thought, suspended from the bustle and freedom of apophthegm, are the characteristics of the viola sonata as it is of its author’s character.

Sonata for viola and fortepiano Op.147 is dedicated to Fyodor Seraphimovich Druzhinin and will be premiered very soon. Without a doubt, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s new composition will make the world a better place.

B. Tishenko, 11 September 1975 year.

6 replies on “shostakovich and his viola sonata”

I came across a couple of additional items you might find interesting. The first is from the Soviet music critic Sofia Khentova, who visited Shostakovich in mid-June 1975, just a bit over two weeks before he finished the Viola Sonata, and made note of his physical appearance at that time:

“[Shostakovich] was dressed in a summer outfit: grey pants with suspenders and a white sleeveless shirt that outlined his thinned, wizened arms. His helplessly hanging right hand was supported by his left one. His hair had gotten grayer and thinner, his facial features sharper and longer, his mouth flabbier, and his lower lip more stretched. Yet he did not look old – something impulsive and childishly touching remained in his demeanor…He began talking about his illness: ‘I get treated and treated but with no improvement. They have been treating me since 1958 and trying hard to find the cause, yet I am still unable to play.'”

The second, more directly relevant item comes from Fyodor Druzhnin, violist in the Beethoven Quartet and the artist for to whom the Sonata is dedicated. I apologize for the length of this passage, but this seems to call out for an almost complete quotation:

“On 1 July 1975 the phone rang at nine o’clock in the morning. I heard the familiar, slightly rasping voice, ‘Fedya, this is Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich speaking.’ He always presented himself thus, using his full name, although I immediately recognized his voice. ‘Fedya, you know I have the idea of writing a viola sonata.’

My heart was pounding, because I knew that when Dmitri Dmitriyevich spoke og having ‘an idea’ of writing something, it meant that the concept had ripened and the work was probably complete. He would never speak of something that was only a projected work.

‘I would like to consult you, to ask your advice on some technical points.’ There followed some questions about my family, my health and so on….I assured [him] that I was entirely at his disposal, and if he wanted I was ready there and then to come and see him with my viola.

‘That would be wonderful, but I am not allowed to see anyone. I am at my dacha, but I am going into hospital very soon; as soon as I am discharged, then we will meet. I will ring you to inform you of the progress of the work, and I will write you from the hospital.’

In two hours’ time, [he] rang me again: ‘I wanted to ask you this: can you play parallel fourths on the viola? I know that double stopping is traditionally in thirds, sixths, and octaves. But here I want fourths, and at quite a quick speed.’ Here he sang me what he had in mind. I encouraged [him] to write whatever he liked – viola players would stretch their technique and learn to play scales in fourths. For several days we had conversations like this on the phone. [He] was touching in his punctiliousness, and kept me informed of the progress of his work. He complained about his hand: ‘You know it is very difficult for me to write, or rather to write down the notes. I spend an awful lot of time at it as my hand shakes, and won’t obey me.’

On 5 July, [he] rang me and said, ‘Fedya, you would probably like to know at least in outline the programme of the sonata?’ He had never before talked, at least to me, of the inner content of his works….

‘The first movement is a novella, the second a scherzo, and the Finale is an adagio in memory of Beethoven, but don’t let that inhibit you. The music is bright, bright and clear.’ Evidently, [he] wanted to emphasize that the music was not morbid and should not be regarded as a funeral march….

That same day in the evening [Shostakovich’s wife] rang to say that he wished to speak to me.

‘Fedya, I have buckled down to it, and managed to complete the Finale. I am having the score sent to the Union of Composers to be copied, as no one could possibly read from my manuscript. as soon as the copying is done, I’ll let you have the music. I have to go into hospital now, but I’ll have a telephone there by my bed, so we can talk….’

[In] a few days time I received a letter from [Shostakovich] in hospital, which calmed my fears. He gave me his telephone number in hospital. But when I tried to ring, there was no answer. I tried ringing his wife […] but discovered that she was with him in the hospital. Eventually I discovered that [his] condition had deteriorated, and he had been transferred to a special ward where there was no telephone. I immediately rushed up to Moscow so as to be nearer him.

The preparation of the score was dragging on, and this upset and irritated Shostakovich, although he was used to these kinds of delay. But he regarded them as a discourtesy. Eventually I got through to [his wife], and I calmed down a little, as she said [he] felt somewhat better, and the music was now ready, so I would receive the score probably on 6 August. It was arranged that I would pick it up from their flat on Nezhdanova Street. When I arrived I was handed the score. On opening it I stood rooted to the spot as I read the inscription on the title-page: ‘Dedicated to Fyodor Serafimovich Druzhinin.’

I rushed home and immediately rang [my pianist]. He came flying over to my place and we thereupon started playing the sonata and continued playing it till late at night. Immediately afterwards I sat down to write a long letter to [Shostakovich] to express my profound gratitude to him and my immense admiration for the sonata, which sounded marvelous, and to reassure him that there wasn’t a note in it that could not be played. I promised to be ready as soon as possible to perform it to him, and at latest, if he approved of our interpretation, to schedule it for a concert on his birthday, 25 September.

This letter was written during the night of 6 and 7 August. On 9 August Dmitri Dmitriyevich died in hospital.”

The source for the first item is Sofia Moshevich’s book, “Dmitri Shostakovich, Pianist,” and Druzhinin’s recollection is reprinted in Elizabeth Wilson’s “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.”

I hope these help shed some new light on this truly remarkable piece.

Bob – thanks so much for this! I remember having seen a part of the second passage you’ve written above (lots of work!) quite some time ago, but not knowing where, so that is a great help to me!

I’m currently looking at two books on Shostakovich which are new to me:

The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald, and
Shostakovich Reconsidered by Allan B. Ho & Dmitry Feofanov

If you haven’t read either of these, I can give a cautious recommendation based only upon preliminary searches of their contents, but they seem quite solid.

Thanks, again!


If you haven’t looked at it you might want to find a copy of Vol. 16 no. 1 of The Journal of the American Viola Society. It has an article by Donald Maurice entitled “Schostakovich’s Swansong” (Note the interesting spelling of Shostakovich). There are a few dissertations that may also be of interest, notably “The Shostakovich Viola Sonata: An analytical performer’s guide,” from 1991 by Leslie Faye Johnson at University of Washington.

Thanks, David – I’ll check out those sources. I’m thinking about doing a play and talk feature about the Shostakovich, and these resources would be terrific!

I suppose it is well known that Shostakovich’s failing health made the sonata one of the composers sparsest works of music. Yet, I have always thought the piece reminds me of some of Webern’s chamber compositions…I posed the following question to a violist up here in Seattle:

“The sonata seems almost like its crosswise with itself. On the one hand Shostakovich describes it as “clear” and “brilliant,” yet on the other it does have a mournful air around it. The piece’s resignation is almost to be expected since it was his last work. Similarly, the sonata is incredibly sparse, with what seem like allusions to Berg and Webern, but also incredibly complicated and dense in parts. Is it possible to reconcile all of these differences?”

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