The Chamber Music Network

A Musician's Puzzle

Who are these composers, and what do they have in common?

Do you know what Bela Bartok, Ernest Bloch, Johannes Brahms, Benjamin Britten, Hector Berlioz, Max Reger, Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, Toru Takemitsu, Henri Vieuxtemps, Henryk Wieniawski, have in common? 

Has anyone else noticed that a large number of composers have passed away pretty soon after writing a work for viola, if not while actually working on the piece? As if we violists didn’t have enough problems? 

• Bela Bartok (1881-1945) died after finishing his Viola Concerto but had not assembled his notes. (It was later finished by Tibor Serly, then Paul Neubauer, then again most recently by Csaba Erdelyi.) 

• 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 (later finished by David Sills). 

• Of course, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) passed on within two years of transcribing his Op.120 Clarinet Sonatas

• Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote Lachrymae for viola and piano in 1950, but completely rescored it for viola and orchestra in 1976 and met his maker before the year was done. 

• Max Reger (1873-1916) made his final exit within a year after finishing his Three Suites, Op. 131d for unaccompanied viola. 

• Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) breathed his last just after finishing his Viola Concerto

• Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote and finished his Viola Sonata, Op.147 on his deathbed. 

• Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) composed A Bird Came Down the Walk for Nobuko Imai and then checked out the next year. 

• 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. (The piece was finished by his friend Hieronymus Weickmann.) 

Are they viola martyrs? Some would say that composers are drawn to the melancholy sound of this most introspective of instruments. Conspiracy theorists might come to other, more sinister conclusions. 

David Yang, a violist himself, is Director of Chamber Music at the University of Pennsylvania (and a member of ACMP's North American Outreach Council).

First published in the ACMP Winter Newsletter 2013- #1