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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

The Specifics of the Timbral Embodiment of the Figurative & Emotional Sphere in Dmitri Shostakovich's 'Viola Sonata'

Shevtsova Anastasiya Vladimirovna

PhD in Art History

Senior Lecturer at the Department of Orchestra String Instruments of Saratov State Conservatoire

410012, Russia, Saratov region, Saratov, P.A. Stolypin Ave., 1
Other publications by this author










Abstract: The object of the study is the Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. 147 by Dmitri Shostakovich – a work rightfully considered autobiographical and as a farewell. The subject of the study was the specificity of the timbral embodiment of the composition’s figurative and emotional sphere. In the proposed reading, the first part of the sonata is an image of the world to which the composer sends a farewell glance, the second is a sarcastic sketch of bright collective images of the vices of humanity, and the finale is a penetration beyond reality. The author of the article, in detail, referring to specific musical examples given in the text, examines the specific instrumental techniques used by the composer, which made it possible to embody the mystical concept of the sonata. The novelty of the research lies in the identification of three main figurative lines of the composition: eternity, the voice of the soul, and the world, which correspond to different timbral characteristics of the viola, which received their definitions through the use of specific expressive techniques. Eternity is the dispassionate sound of the viola, which is characterized by some programming, inexorability (an allusion to the "knock of fate”), monotonous figuration, and long double notes in the lower part of the range. The voice of the soul is detached, with the dark, gloomy coloring of the sound: melodica, devoid of "beautiful" intonations, sentimental singing, "Beethoven" trio in new refraction, acting as the personification of the otherworldly. The world is a tearing and sharp sound and sarcastic caricature of colors: glissando with access to the flageolet, short caustic foreshocks, exaggeratedly sharp staccato, ascending parallel quarts in sixteenth, illustrating a hysterical burst of laughter. The main figurative spaces coexist throughout the composition, presenting in the sonata genre a new specific characteristic of the viola for the first time, which interprets the world of unreal images in many ways. Shostakovich's sonata is defined as the starting point of the formation of the leading figurative direction of the viola repertoire of the last third of the twentieth century, which secured the viola the role of a guide to the world of the beyond—a kind of Virgil.


Dmitry Shostakovich, viola performance, viola sonata, timbre characteristic of viola, musical and philosophical concept, Fedor Druzhinin, world of surreal images, figurative-emotional sphere, instrumental techniques, viola repertoire

Next to the violin, which has a sunny, brilliant sound that emits daylight, the viola's voice stands out with a touch of gloomy colors, evoking melancholic moods, plunging into the looking glass of another—unreal, mystical, otherworldly—world of the subconscious and shadows. The exclusive quality of the alto timbre was found in a number of works that laid down a special, mystical meaning and tradition of creating "last" or "farewell" works for the viola, which became the composer's "swan song." These include Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by Béla Bartók (1945), Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by Grażyna Bacewicz (1968), Sonata for Viola and Piano by Dmitri Shostakovich (1975), Sonata-Song for Viola Solo by Aram Khachaturian (1976) and other compositions. Dmitri Shostakovich outlined the viola's specific figurative and emotional sphere most vividly. His Sonata for Viola and Piano is a work completed by the composer shortly before his departure, in which a mystical concept was embodied. It should be noted that work progressed quite quickly—it took Shostakovich only 12 days to complete such a monumental composition. The composer clearly wanted to have time to realize his idea and was aware of his own intentions.

The idea of creating the viola sonata undoubtedly stemmed from Shostakovich's close collaboration with the excellent violists of the Beethoven Quartet—Vadim Borisovsky and Fyodor Druzhinin. A peculiar result of the first friendship was the composer's quartet No. 13, the second—a sonata. Presumably, the impetus for starting work on the viola sonata was listening to similar works by Soviet composers Gerald Fried and Mieczysław Weinberg and the works for viola solo by Druzhinin. It is also impossible to exclude the influence of one important event. A few years earlier (in 1967), Borisovsky made an excellent viola version of the composer's First Cello Concerto, performed and recorded by Mikhail Tolpygo. The author publicly approved this version of the concerto because the viola's timbre was so organic to Shostakovich's music that a new original interpretation of the composition was outlined [12]. All these facts impacted the composer to one degree or another and pushed him to create his latest masterpiece.

This work is rightfully considered autobiographical and a farewell in which Shostakovich's integral world was reflected. The first part represents the image of the world to which the author sends a farewell glance; the second, a sarcastic sketch of bright collective images of the vices of humanity; the finale, penetration beyond the edge of reality, a voice from the other side: "Going into the ‘night’ of life, the composer marks it in his last work (Viola Sonata, 1975) with an allusion to the texture of the 1st parts of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata..." [7, p. 47]. In addition, the sonata contains a compendium of allusions to his compositions, which allows us to discuss reproducing the creative path through his citation review, corresponding to the idea that in the face of death, one’s whole life passes in a person's consciousness. In addition to the obvious autocitates—the Suite for Two Pianos and Symphony No. 14, designated by Manashir Yakubov in the introductory article to the publication of the viola sonata—Ivan Sokolov found all of Shostakovich's symphonies in the third part of the composition, represented by separate themes in an exact chronological sequence [14]. Thus, the viola sonata can rightfully be considered a composition included in the epic sphere [13]. Awareness of the farewell context enhances the sonata's mystical atmosphere and, for the first time, so clearly and unambiguously sets the viola the task of embodying the other world and is a kind of "associative composition" [9].

Three main figurative lines appear in the sonata: eternity, the voice of the soul, and the world, which correspond to different timbral characteristics of the viola.

The presence of a sense of eternity and time flowing endlessly in it permeates the entire sonata, starting from the very beginning of the first movement. To convey this image, the dispassionate sound of the viola is used, which is inherent in some programming, relentlessness.

In the first part, the music of eternity is represented by a cold-blooded pizzicato (beginning, numbers 3, 7, 25, 27, and number 19—piano), reflecting the passage of time. The alto sounds empty, soulless, mechanistic, timbral colorless, indifferent, and unshakable [Example 1].

Example 1. Part I, beginning [15]

Part I, digit 3 [15]

At the end of the movement, there is an obvious allusion to the "knock of fate" (from bar 222) in the viola solo. The interpenetration of Beethoven's motif and the intonations of eternity creates a sense of inevitability, hopelessness, and unanswered questions. The music of eternity, which sounded pizzicato before, is now performed by arco with a short, jerky stroke, which gives its sound greater sharpness and certainty [Example 2].

Example 2. Part I, measure 223 [15]

In the second and third parts, the music of eternity is represented by repetitive, monotonous figures (numbers 42–44, 58–59, number 72 from measure 6). The viola performs them muffled, soulless, and expressionless, creating a feeling of circular endless movement, wandering in a gloomy maze [Example 3].

Example 3. Part II, measure 128 [15]

In the finale of the sonata, there is a particular manifestation of the sphere of the eternal, embodied in the feeling of the presence of God, his love and protection (figure 68). Light and peace, for the first time, penetrate the musical space of the sonata, giving a feeling of warmth and freedom. It lasts for a short six bars, but they fundamentally affect the further development of the material. The viola performs long double notes in the lower part of the range, pure intervals sound: 4, 5, 6b, 4, 4, creating a sense of volume, a wide space filled with light. The viola sounds transparent, light, chaste, and reverent. The smooth, dispassionate timbre reflects constancy, inviolability, and eternity. [Example 4].

Example 4. Part III, 52 bars [15]

The voice of the soul, addressed to humanity, has detachment, volume, dark coloring, wisdom, self-sufficiency, lack of unnecessary sentimentality, and rigor. In this context, the lesser sensuality of the viola, compared to the violin and cello, opens up its specific possibilities. Frequent return to the "pure" alto sound (without piano) allows you to show timbral and dynamic colors more subtly, to reveal the psychological subtleties of the monologue line.

In the first part (numbers 1–2, 4-6), the voice of the soul is quiet, tired, but firm. The melody is devoid of "beautiful" intonations and sentimental singing: a smooth, endlessly developing line, a measured flow of thoughts replacing one another (katabasis, anabasis). The alto sounds muffled, pale, with a restrained vibration or without it at all; the sound is unclear, clouded. [Example 5].

Example 5. Part I, measure 46 [15]

Later, the voice of the soul begins to sound warmer and more melodious, though severe and restrained (numbers 20–21). It denotes a living compassionate principle. On the contrary, individual replicas express protest, awareness of inevitability, and doom (figure 25) [Example 6].

Example 6. Part I, measure 213 [15]

In the second part, the voice of the soul interrupts the kaleidoscope of portrait images only once (figure 48). The viola sounds bright and audacious, reflecting the hero's challenge to reality, a call for justice. Among the caricatures that replace each other, the voice of the soul sounds hopeless and lonely. His call is drowning in darkness, not finding support [Example 7].

Example 7. Part II, measure 193 [15]

The third part is a monologue of the soul, which is the main core of the finale. It sounds unhurried and gloomy. Beethoven's trio in a new refraction is the personification of the otherworldly. The uniform dual movement of the eighth against the background of a deep bass seems to symbolize the flight of a soul that overcame gravity, which conveys the timbre of the viola—at first disembodied and weightless, but gradually this unearthly sound grows stronger, acquiring clear outlines. This is the voice of a man who has seen and knows more than others. But what he sees and realizes is not easy for him. The soul gradually frees itself from the accumulated negativity and plunges into complete peace and tranquility. The light of eternity envelops him. In this context, the elements of all the author's symphonies found in the finale of the sonata, arranged in chronological order, seem to outline the ritual of farewell, which is crowned with forgiveness and dissolution into eternity. Shostakovich reveals, brings to the surface, and delivers mystical notes in an open, unambiguous form in an alto sound.

The voice of the soul sounds completely different after the appearance of the Divine Light (figure 68) [15]. The soul turns to God timidly and with reverence, hoping for help and salvation, revealing its experiences to him. The viola's timbre is pure, soulful, chaste, and trusting.

As a reaction to the kaleidoscope of life memories that flashed through the mind, the solo viola climax-manifesto (figure 73) sounds—the strongest episode of the Sonata in terms of expressiveness and dynamic brightness of the viola, where protest, pain, accumulated resentment, external impotence, and enormous inner strength are manifested; the struggle within the soul itself is reflected. The viola sounds frenzied, with anguish, on the verge of the dynamic possibilities of the solo instrument. His sound is filled with strength, power, and determination [Example 8].

Example 8. Part III, measure 93 [15]

The result of this struggle and inner suffering is the rebirth of the soul (figures 76–77). Her voice sounds quiet, calm, and peaceful. There are no events, no memories, no actions; there is only peace and Light. The subtle, smooth singing of the viola reflects humility, humility, a sense of gratitude, and forgiveness. At the end of the Sonata (number 79), the soul merges with God, receiving complete peace and freedom from earthly hardships. The absurd sound of the viola gives the music muted softness. In this context, it is characterized by detachment, complete dispassion, and immersion in peace [Example 9].

Example 9. Part III, measure 133 [15]

To characterize the image of the world, Shostakovich uses a new approach in each part. The first is straightforward (numbers 8–19, 22-25), reflecting the call for justice, the voice of indignation and denunciation. This is an unexpected emotional explosion, stunning in its unpredictability. The alto sounds hysterically and sharply in the upper register; its open timbre is associated with fearlessness dictated by a sense of inner pain. The music reflects violence and rudeness. Peculiar instrumental techniques help to paint this picture: a glissando with an exit to the flageolet, like the blows of a whip, wide volumetric chords, like an inexorable offensive movement of soulless force [Example 10].

Example 10. I part, measure 69 [15]

In the second part, Shostakovich uses sarcastic caricature colors (from the beginning to numbers 41, 44-47, 49–57, 60-61). "The craving for humor is one of the organic and profound properties of Shostakovich as a man and a composer, which over the years has contained irony, grotesque, caustic sarcasm, and outright nonsense" [13]. He ridicules human vices, presenting a deliberately sharpened picture of bright collective images: clumsy, sharp, angular, with constant grimaces and implausible smiles, helpful faces with a friendly, disgusting compassion that hides disgust and fear. They show the duplicitous nature of their being: on the one hand, timidity and meekness in front of "those in power"; on the other hand, cruelty and violence toward the defenseless. The viola characterizes them with short caustic foreshocks, rapid passages mainly in the upper register, exaggeratedly sharp staccato, syncopations, accents, and bizarre dynamics. The non-square construction of the clock structure and intricate rhythmic turns enhance the effect [Example 11].

Example 11. Part II, beginning [15]

In addition, Shostakovich paints the image of a commanding force controlling the universal process of violence: a domineering, powerful character claiming to be exceptional (figures 44–45, 47). The viola characterizes it with four-tone pizzicato chords that sound voluminous and wide, four-octave and three-octave ascending passages topped with flageolets, as well as progressive large movement with harmonic fifths (bright open strings) and wide steps of halves and quarters. All this emphasizes self-sufficiency, the scale of the personality. But the image is not presented seriously. Despite all the significance of the image described by musical means, there is a feeling of its excessive arrogance and importance.

Outright ridicule of these characters is written out using descending harmonic thirds of the viola eighth (bars 31, 224) and ascending parallel quarts sixteenth (bars 111, 115, 228). Shostakovich illustrates a hysterical burst of laughter thanks to the viola's imaginative sound abilities. These techniques, performed on the viola in a sharp upper register, sound exceptionally plausible [Example 12].

Example 12. Part II, bars 31 and 224 [15]

In the third part, the picture of the world is presented as an experience of memories (figures 70–73). It appears in a person's consciousness, or rather in their soul’s memory, experiencing the past events of their life. The viola's voice is filled with bitterness. The sound persists for a long time within the zone of the riapo, and the music is performed with a small amount of bow, avoiding the use of the A string with its open timbre, creating tension, stiffness, and isolation. The autocitates of Shostakovich's symphonies appear in the form of vague memories that manifest themselves in consciousness and gradually gain clarity [Example 13].

Example 13. Part II, measure 64 [15]

When studying the European literature of the twentieth century, the researcher P. A. Novikova introduces a special concept of "the space of death," which considers death not in a temporal context but in a spatial one, assigning it a certain territory where time does not rule (Novikova, P. A. "The space of death" in the European literature of the twentieth century [I. Shmelev, B. Vian, V. Shalamov, A. Solzhenitsyn, F. Xenakis]). This concept is applicable to concert compositions that reveal the mystical component of the alto timbre. Starting with Shostakovich's sonata, in which the spatial category assigned to each of the three figurative spheres is clearly drawn: the world, eternity, and soul. The space of death encompasses the world as a place of vice and the power of sin. To get into eternity, the soul that has said goodbye to this world must be cleansed.

The mystical concept of the Sonata, the main conductor of which is the viola, has an ambiguous effect on the performers. This is confirmed by violist Yuri Bashmet with his story about how during one performance with this work, he was so imbued with the spirit of music that he clearly saw Shostakovich himself in front of him. After that, it was difficult for the musician to return to a "normal" state [1].

Shostakovich's Sonata for Viola and Piano is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the chamber viola repertoire of the second half of the twentieth century, where the world of unreal images is crystallized. Druzhinin, the hero of the dedication, gave the following definition to the work: "Shostakovich's sonata, with its grandeur and monumentality, rises like Everest among a small mountain range of Hindemith's viola sonatas, Millau, a number of Soviet sonatas" [12, p. 52]. And he emphasized the importance of spiritual maturity for the performer of this composition. [12].

A new specific characteristic of the alto timbre Shostakovich manifests in the sonata indicates the direction in which the imagination of composers who wrote for the viola in the last third of the twentieth century rushed. If Shostakovich (and before him) had the poetics and philosophy of death concentrated in his later compositions, now the solo emancipation of the viola serves as an occasion for a broad multidimensional study of the unreal, penetration beyond the possible. If, in the late period of an artist's work, the theme of death, as a rule, arises in the mode of deeply personal existential experiences, now it acquires an ontological mode and philosophical understanding. In the objective context of musical and philosophical concepts, the viola acquires the role of a guide to the world of the beyond—a kind of Virgil. This trend was most clearly outlined in the concert compositions for viola by Mikhail Georgiyevich Kollontay, Alfred Garrievich Schnittke, Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina, and Giya Kancheli.

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To the journal "PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal" the author presented his article "The specifics of the timbral embodiment of the figurative and emotional sphere of Dmitry Shostakovich's viola sonata", in which a study of the peculiarities of the composer's use of the viola to embody a mystical concept was conducted. The author proceeds from the study of this issue from the fact that the quality of the alto timbre laid down in a number of works a special, full of mystical meaning, tradition of creating "last" or "farewell" works, which became the composer's "swan song". These include the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by B. Bartok (1945), Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by G. Bacevich (1968), Sonata for Viola and Piano by D. Shostakovich (1975), Sonata-Song for Viola Solo by A. Khachaturian (1976) and other compositions. According to the author, the Sonata for viola and Piano by D. Shostakovich is the pinnacle of the chamber viola repertoire of the second half of the twentieth century, where the world of unreal images is definitely crystallized. The relevance of the research is due to the fact that Dmitry Shostakovich's work occupies a special place in Russian music of the XX century, his creative legacy influenced Russian and foreign compositional art. The scientific novelty was the art criticism analysis of the composer's sonata from the point of view of his use of the alto timbre. The theoretical basis of the research was the works of such art historians as Petrov V.O., Sokolov I.G., Demchenko A.I. and others. The empirical basis of the research was the Sonata for Viola and Piano by D. Shostakovich (1975). The methodological basis of the work is an integrated approach, including philosophical, compositional, biographical and art criticism analysis. The purpose of the study is to determine the expressive musical means and compositional features of the sonata used by D.S. Shostakovich to embody the mystical concept. Analyzing the facts that influenced the composer and pushed him to create his latest masterpiece, the author notes Shostakovich's close collaboration with the violists of the Beethoven Quartet, listening to similar works by Soviet composers G. Fried and M. Weinberg, works for viola solo by F. Druzhinina. The author pays special attention to explaining the uniqueness of the Sonata. The author defines this work as an autobiographical and farewell work, which reflects the holistic world of Shostakovich. The first part presents an image of the world, to which the author sends a parting glance, the second — a sarcastic sketch of bright collective images of the vices of mankind, the finale — penetration beyond reality. The sonata contains allusions to the composer's early works, which allows us to talk about reproducing the creative path through his citation review, corresponding to the idea that in the face of death, his whole life passes in the mind of a person. In the article, the author presents a detailed artistic and musicological analysis of Shostakovich's sonata. In the sonata, the author identifies three main figurative lines: eternity, the voice of the soul and the world, which correspond to different timbral characteristics of the viola. The author gives a detailed description of the composer's disclosure of each line in each part of the work, characteristic instrumental techniques from the point of view of using the viola and its specific capabilities. In conclusion, the author presents conclusions on the studied material, noting that the new specific characteristic of the alto timbre, manifested by D.D. Shostakovich in the sonata, indicated the direction in which the imagination of composers who wrote for viola in the last third of the twentieth century rushed. It seems that the author in his material touched upon relevant and interesting issues for modern socio-humanitarian knowledge, choosing a topic for analysis, consideration of which in scientific research discourse will entail certain changes in the established approaches and directions of analysis of the problem addressed in the presented article. The results obtained allow us to assert that the study of samples of compositional art, implying both innovative and traditional musical techniques, is of undoubted scientific and practical cultural and art criticism significance. The obtained material can serve as a basis for further research within the framework of this issue. The material presented in the work has a clear, logically structured structure that contributes to a more complete assimilation of the material. This is also facilitated by an adequate choice of an appropriate methodological framework. The bibliographic list of the study consists of 15 sources, which seems sufficient for the generalization and analysis of scientific discourse on the subject under study. The author fulfilled his goal, received certain scientific results that allowed him to summarize the material. It should be noted that the article may be of interest to readers and deserves to be published in a reputable scientific publication.