Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Sonata for Viola

Fyodor Serafimovich Druzhinin
Fyodor Serafimovich Druzhinin (1932-2007); Shostakovich’s wife, Irina, sits listening in the upper right

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a lot of chamber music, including fifteen string quartets.  From almost the beginning of Shostakovich’s career as a composer of chamber music, the viola, the tenor voice of the string quartet – with its full, warm, restrained, and yet masculine tone – had been his instrumental alter ego: his own, personal musical voice.  With Beethoven, it had been the more outgoing and boisterous bass/baritone voice of the ‘cello.  But for the more introspective Shostakovich, it was the viola.  When Shostakovich had something profound and lyric to say, as often as not, it is the viola that says it.  With this in mind, there is something both right and poetic that the last work Shostakovich ever composed was a sonata for viola and piano. 

(It’s no surprise that Beethoven identified with the sound of the cello, as his speaking voice was a baritone.  As opposed to Shostakovich, whose scratchy, tobacco-ravaged voice was a tenor.  The video linked below is an interview with Shostakovich filmed in 1975, just months before his death on August 9 of that year.  Shostakovich is expressing his opinion that opera should be sung in the language of the country in which it is being performed: “In Berlin in German, in London in English, in Paris in French.”  He acknowledges that in the United States, the prevailing belief is that operas should be sung in the language for which they were written.  However, there’s a problem with this American model, says Shostakovich.  He cites as an example a performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina he heard performed in London in Russian.  While it was sung beautifully, he says that the singers’ Russian was stilted and unnatural and that they sang with an English accent!

Take a look and listen, and be alert to Shostakovich’s tenor, viola-like voice!)

Today’s post is “about” Shostakovich and the viola in more ways than one, as we will hear extensively from the violist Fyodor Druzhinin.  Druzhinin joined the Beethoven String Quartet – the group for which Shostakovich composed the great majority of his string quartets – in 1964, when he was 32 years old.  Shostakovich dedicated his Viola Sonata to Fyodor Druzhinin, and Druzhinin’s reminiscences of Shostakovich during the last decade of his life remain among the most important in the literature.… continue reading on Patreon!

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