“The score stops here.” Viola martyrs - correlation or causation?

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Thank you so much for all your emails flagellating my beloved instrument. Yes, ha ha, we all think viola jokes are soooo funny. But amid all the undoubtedly well-intentioned knee-slapping, guffaws, and high spirits, there is a serious viola trend we can no longer avoid discussing: has anyone else besides yours truly noticed that a large number of our greatest composers have died soon after writing a work for viola, if not while actually working on such a piece? I find it outrageous – outrageous - that a major inquiry has not been launched.

Bartók, smiling
(The world might be a better place would
that this image had been suppressed)

Forsooth, Bela Bartók (1881-1945) died after completing work on his Viola Concerto. Unfortunately, he had not fully assembled the score and it was later “finished” by Tibor Serly, then Paul Neubauer, then again by Csaba Erdelyi. (All four editions are available and fought over - as if we didn’t have enough problems.)

Berlioz psyching himself up for a night on the town

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote Harold en Italie in the prime of his life but Paganini, for whom it was written, was gravely ill and took his final bow within a few years of the premiere. Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) gave up the ghost before he could finish his Unaccompanied Suite for viola. Johannes Brahms (1833-1887) passed on within two years of transcribing his two clarinet sonatas for viola. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote Lachrymae for viola and piano in 1950, but completely rescored it for viola and orchestra in 1976, meeting his maker before the year was done.

Max Reger’s life-affirming headstone at Waldfriedhof (München)

Max Reger (1873-1916) made his final exit within a year after finishing his Three Suites for unaccompanied viola.

Alfred Schnittke, party animal

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) breathed his last right after finishing his Viola Concerto. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote and finished his Viola Sonata on his deathbed. The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) composed A Bird Came Down the Walk for Nobuko Imai and then checked out the next year.

Takemitsu in a light-hearted moment

Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) never had a chance to see his Viola Sonata published. Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) managed to write out Reverie, his only work for viola, while dying of heart disease at the age of 44. Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) was working on his final opera, ominously titled “Viola,” when he suffered a stroke. He was forbidden to compose because his doctors thought it would be too strenuous for him but he continued anyway and was then committed to Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum where he died soon after of syphilis.

I swear, I’m not making this stuff up.

Shostakovich viola sonata

Some would say that composers are drawn to the melancholy sound of this most introspective of instruments in the autumn stage of their life. Conspiracy theorists might come to more sinister conclusions. Me? I think I’ll hold off on writing anything for the viola for a good long time.

See you at Winter Baroque!

David Yang, Artistic Director

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