About this work
This was Shostakovich's last work, completed about a month before his death. Because of his advanced and painful arthritis, as well as his unsteady hand and bad eyesight, the composer showed an increasing tendency to write sparsely scored orchestral compositions (Symphonies No. 14 and No. 15, for example) and many chamber pieces in his last years, finding their reduced scoring easier to manage. Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975, of heart failure, compounded by advanced cancer of the lungs. He was also aware that he was going blind. For all the suffering he was enduring in his last days, the composer did not invest his Sonata for viola with nearly the morbid and gloomy moods found in most of the late quartets. He himself spoke about the work, calling the first two movements merely a "novella," and "scherzo," respectively. He was a trifle more detailed about the finale, however, describing it as "an adagio in memory of Beethoven." He also summed up the music in general as "bright and clear." This last characterization of the work is misleading, as there is a feeling of resignation throughout, even if it is, to an extent, counterbalanced by a strong sense of serenity. In the end, the work seems to be an expression of the composer coming to terms with his ineluctable and unhappy fate.
The first movement, marked Moderato, is mournful, if serene, featuring sparse textures in the piano writing. The central panel (Allegretto) is actually playful in places, though one also finds a healthy dose of acid, typical of so many of the composer's later chamber pieces. There is a Russian, slightly exotic flavor to the music here, as well. The finale is the longest and most substantive of the three movements. Its Adagio marking was a favorite of the composer at this time -- indeed, his Quartet No. 15 (1974) featured six consecutive Adagios. The mood in the finale is less gloomy than in that dark work, and the composer makes a brief reference to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
While much of the work is subdued and uncomplicated, it does offer considerable challenges to the performers. The sonata was premiered privately on September 26, 1975, and publicly on October 1. A typical performance of the Sonata for viola lasts between 35 and 40 minutes.