An autumn sonata

Sonata for Viola

September 25 marks the centenary of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth, and the recent resurgence of the Russian master’s music brings with it all the contextual baggage surrounding his politicized legacy. Few composers have been demonized for their art and their politics as has Shostakovich. Was he an artist or merely an apparatchik? In the Soviet Union, he was variably denounced as a formalist or an individualist, out of touch with the proletariat. Shostakovich, though, proved a clever and persistent comeback artist, returning from cultural exile with works like 1941’s Leningrad Symphony, a masterstroke of both orchestration and wartime propaganda. Yet, it was just this willingness to toe the party line, however delicately, that doomed him in the eyes of many Western historians and critics.

Luckily, for those of us who want a clearer picture of the man, his music and his motivations, there are works like the 1981 Russian documentary Sonata for Viola. Filmmakers Semyon Aranovich and Alexander Sokurov pieced together a moving and visually piquant film portrait. Combining original footage with archival films and home movies provided by the composer’s family and friends, Sokurov (responsible for the final edit) was already displaying the blend of technical prowess and artistic wit that would make his later films, like the epic Russian Ark, instant cinematic touchstones.

Sonata for Viola, named for Shostakovich’s final work, lays out the details of the composer’s life quietly and efficiently, through his alternating triumphs and defeats. The film, hidden for years from the KGB, avoids the zero-sum approach that mars so much Shostakovich debate and sticks to verifiable events and first-person records, including some of the composer’s taped phone conversations. As to where his own loyalties lay, Shostakovich explained, “I consider it my duty to fight tasteless music.”