Sonata for Viola
Directed by Semyon Aranovich and Aleksandr Sokurov. 80 minutes. Russia; originally released in 1988. Includes DVD-ROM with editor’s notes and director biography and filmography.
Available from Facets Video.
I discovered the music of Dmitri Shostakovich at the age of twelve in 1975, the year of his death. In part due to my absolute love of cinema, I obsessed on film music. If a movie had a bad score, I didn’t respond to whatever else it offered. While in my father’s study, I began perusing through his vast collection of LP’s. Sifting through piles of huge cardboard covers sporting the likes of Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey, I had noticed an expressionistic painting of a man’s face with a name I didn’t dare to pronounce. I put it on the turntable for a spin and, like some sort of hypnotic spell, I was transported into another dimension. I had never heard anything like this in my twelve long years. It penetrated into my deepest inner emotions like some kind of euphoric mind-altering drug or a monumental sexual experience. I laid back and listened to the entire album, devouring, assimilating each and every musical note. It was Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. No drug, no sex, no external stimulant could hope to reach the levels I had experienced with Shostakovich. Could I ever dare to fathom there would be more? Oh, so much more.
The haunting and somber documentary, Sonata for Viola
(named after the composer’s final work) by director Alexander Sokurov from 1981, fills us in on many details in the life of Shostakovich. He was a shy, private man and little was ever known much about his personal life. Sonata for Viola
unveils a Shostakovich unknown to many.
The film informs us that Shostakovich played the piano in cinemas where he improvised his own music. Alexander Glazenov first discovered Shostokovich’s Mozart-like talent. Glazenov was at the premier of the First Symphony. Let me jump ahead a bit in time.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
, an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, and far from a masterpiece, opened in Moscow during January of 1934 at age 27. Although a huge success, there was official Soviet displeasure over his modernist tendencies. In 1936, Josef Stalin attended a performance. Pravda
later described it as “deliberate dissonance,” a confused stream of sounds. Melodies that appear and disappear in a grinding, squealing roar. The Stalinists defined the music as counterrevolutionary, and Lady Macbeth
was banned from Soviet Russia. Shostakovich was labeled an enemy of the people. And he became an enemy of the people.
Dmitri Shostakovich (click to enlarge)
This incident was a prime example of how the Soviet Union treated its artists. It is also one of the great universal points in any discussion of Shostakovich—the extent to which politics effected his life and music.
Throughout his life, Shostakovich would compose operas, ballets, chamber music, songs, film scores, and fifteen symphonies. So would the brilliant Sergie Prokofiev, and both of them were denounced as “imitators of decadent, Western bourgeois art.” But there was never any doubt that Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers produced by Soviet Russia. It led me to a personal epiphany in regard to how an artist can be affected and driven away from his personal convictions, creating art for the approval and acceptance of his country’s leaders. Shostakovish’s First Symphony was composed as his graduation thesis. He was only nineteen and had suffered greatly, and upon the Symphonies premiere, it was evident that it was not simply the work of a gifted student. It was in no sense a “pupil’s” work. It was instantly clear that this First Symphony was the vibrant, individual and striking work of a wholly original composer. This was Shostakovich set free; it was “pure’ music. The symphony was neutral, devoid of the confounding taint of political design.
But Shostakovich was battling internal demons. He didn’t write music for a year, and then finally he concluded music had to express diverse ideas or sentiments. He applied Socialist principles to music but was, in my opinion, unsuccessful. The Second and Third Symphonies are superficially weighted with the Marxist message. The Second, “The October Revolution,” is dedicated to Lenin; and the Third being what the composer defined as a proletarian tract in sound. To these ears, they are uninspired and emotionally empty.
I believe these works fail because they weren’t natural to Shostakovich. While in his youth the composer excelled in wit and satire, but, as he grew older, harbored a preoccupation with suffering and death. His brilliant Fifth Symphony offers the theme of stabilization within the man. The finale transforms the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living. And his intensely personal Tenth Symphony comes to mind, with passages of gloom worthy of Mussorgsky. Shostakovich greatly admired Gustav Mahler, and he was obviously influenced by the “bourgeois” modernists: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemeth, Berg and early Prokofiev. He loved J.S. Bach and despised tasteless music. And finally obscure composers like Gavral Popov and Boris Lyatoshinsky would burst forth mirroring Shostakovich in technique and emotional intensity.
Film music brought me to Shostakovich’s music. He had written many scores for Russian movies. Ironically, Shostakovich hated writing film music and preferred to get down to the business of his true compositions.
Shostakovich was heralded in his homeland for his Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad
, which was an epic, scaled work designed as a musical flag against fascist Germany during the war. It brought him worldwide fame. Only now it is plain to see that The Leningrad
was simply bloated convention that feels interminable. Nevertheless the Seventh was praised. They even said Shostakovich’s mistakes could be forgiven!
Shostakovich followed the bombastic Leningrad
with the Eighth Symphony, going back to his personal style and pulling deep from his own tortured psyche. The Eighth was condemned as a grotesque work and criticized the composer for resorting to individualism—more torment for Dmitri. The Eighth again defined the alteration of the public and the private Shostakovich. Gone are the inflated heroics of the Leningrad
. The colors of tragedy, dissonance and bitterness would replace it.
Shortly thereafter, the ax fell once again. The dreaded Central Committee denounced Prokofiev, Khatchaturian, and virtually all other Russian composers that achieved fame abroad. Bourgeois decadence would no longer be tolerated.
In 1962, Shostakovich married his third wife, Irina Supinskaya, who remained devoted to him and took care of the ailing master to the end. He visited the United States for the last time to receive his doctorate from Northwestern University. During the summer of 1975, his illness made his suffering unbearable, though he continued to write what would be his final work, Sonata For Viola
. He wouldn’t live to hear it performed.
Shostakovich hated death. As the years progressed, all his friends were slowly disappearing. He developed an unnatural obsession with death and his final compositions display this in works of pure beauty. It’s difficult to imagine that somebody who could create a piece as mesmerizing and inspiring as the Fifth Symphony could be taken away from us. Yet Shostakovich remains alive in his music.
Copyright © 2006 by Nathan Schiff