Works Instrumental Sonatas

Impromptu for Viola and Piano

Opus SO Opus 32

Opus SO
1931 year

Impromptu for Viola and Piano
Sonata for Viola and Piano. Op. 147. Impromptu for Viola and Piano. Sans op.


DSCH Publishers Concert Hall. Yuri Tkanov (viola), Olga Digonskaya (narrator)

first publication:

DSCH Publishers. Moscow. 2019


The author’s manuscript is kept at the Moscow Central State Archives in the fund of Vadim Borisovsky.

An Unknown Piece by Dmitri Shostakovich:
Impromptu for Viola and Piano

     The hundredth anniversary of Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth was marked by so many remarkable findings in his manuscript heritage (particular mention should go to the author’s manuscript of the unknown unfinished opera Orango) that it was unlikely we would experience anything like it in the near future.
     One year after Shostakovich’s 110th anniversary, the music world has become privy to another of his unknown works—a piece called “Impromptu”, Op. 33, for viola and piano (1931), which has survived as an author’s manuscript.
     The author’s manuscript is kept at the Moscow Central State Archives in the fund of Vadim Borisovsky, a famous viola player and teacher, member of the Beethoven Quartet.
     The content of Shostakovich’s manuscript from Vadim Borisovsky’s fund left me with no doubt that it was one of the composer’s unknown compositions—a miniature for viola and piano. The author did not indicate the instruments to be used, but the viola clef in the solo instrument part and the spiccato and pizzicato articulation marks excluded any other interpretation.
     The author’s manuscript consists of the piece itself and the viola part written in green ink on two separate sheets (or to be more exact, fragments of sheets) of different formats: 22.5×25 (the viola part) and 31.7 (32)×25 (the piece itself). The author has also given some small directions in the manuscript of the piece in pencil. The sheet featuring the part consists of eight staves, while the sheet featuring the piece has eleven staves, but the paper of both sheets is torn off along the bottom edge and there is no way of knowing how they looked in the original. Incidentally, Shostakovich did not notate the piece at home and did not use paper from his desk, so the paper does not help to establish how the viola miniature relates to the composer’s other works of that time.
     The author wrote both the piece and the part in the same way: the title ‘Impromptu’ is given in the centre of the top margin, with the inscription ‘DShostakovich / Op. 33 / 2 V / 1931 / Leningrad’ in the upper right-hand corners. The viola part is accompanied by a dedicatory inscription done after the notation: To dear Aleksandr Mikhaylovich in memory of our acquaintance. DShostakovich / 2 V 1931 / Leningrad. The title of the piece, the precise date, the dedicatory inscription and the nature of the author’s hasty notation all indicate that the piece came about spontaneously, by happenstance, and was done at one sitting.
     When composing the piece, he filled the music paper quickly, without paying particular attention to precision or the correct spelling of the few Italian terms used (‘spiccato’ and ‘espressivo’ are spelled incorrectly). Rather he tried to write down the notation without thinking about how straight the bar-lines were, or about the dynamic and, particularly, agogic designations, leaving accidental slips of the pen and other minor errors uncorrected, and using the repetition signs customary for him in the piano part. Furthermore, Shostakovich was faced with an almost impossible task—fitting the notation into the blank space of one page, which furthermore consisted of only eleven staves instead of at least twelve necessary for four systems of three staves each. So he had to condense the last (fourth) system to two staves and sacrifice accompaniment details, placing the viola part on the upper stave and the entire piano part on the lower one reducing it to the harmonic minimum. However, despite all his skill, the composer did not quite get everything right. When making an insert in the accompaniment, he had to extend the stave lines into the right margin of the sheet, while at the end of the piece, because of a shortage of paper, he was unable to write in the last bars and place the final double bar-line, due to which the piece in the author’s manuscript looks incomplete. The notation appears to break off in the last system, although upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that, having run out of staves, the author placed hardly perceptible repetition signs in the right-hand margin, whereby only in the piano accompaniment (he only took the viola part as far as the tonic).
    ‘Op. 33’ could lead a non-musician astray, since the reference literature on Shostakovich shows this as being the number for the music to the film The Counterplan, written in 1932, a little over a year after he became acquainted with Aleksandr Mikhaylovich. Furthermore, long before The Counterplan (evidently in the summer or the early autumn of 1931, that is, soon after the ‘Impromptu’ was written), the composer assigned number ‘33”’ to an entirely different film composition in his ‘working’ opus list, which he made active use of at that time—music for the documentary film The Concrete is Hardening. He never wrote it, but this does not exclude the fact that there were other two pieces with the number ‘33’. While drafting the piece for viola and piano, the composer certainly knew nothing about that accidental order (otherwise he would probably have given the new piece sequential number ‘34’).
     The assignment of ‘op. 33’ to the ‘Impromptu’ may also cause surprise because some of Shostakovich’s works that have earlier numbers than the ‘Impromptu’ simply did not exist at that time. Such were the composer’s life and work circumstances at the beginning of the 1930s: overwhelmed with orders and offers, he concluded contracts, but was in no hurry to perform them, acting as necessary. Furthermore, he had embarked on something that could take several years of work. In these circumstances, in order to assign the ‘Impromptu’ a right number, Shostakovich had to see his future works as written and complete and make an effort to number them correctly. This was not easy, but he managed (if, of course, he did not number the new piece ‘op. 33’ at random, which in general was not at all characteristic of him). It is likely that the author, soberly evaluating his creative plans and obligations, presumed that number ‘33’ was indeed available.
     The ‘Impromptu’ did not join the ranks of his opuses; as already indicated, the sequential number ‘33’ would soon go to The Concrete is Hardening, to then finally be assigned to the music for the film The Counterplan. But Shostakovich nevertheless gave it a number, albeit not for long, and this shows that he thought sufficiently highly of it.
     Throughout his life Shostakovich wrote several ‘impromptus’. These include the arrangement of Vincent Youmans’ foxtrot Tahiti Trot (1927), ‘Two Pieces’ for string quartet (1931), and ‘Madrigal (Impromptu)’ (1933); most likely the ‘Madrigal’ on the occasion of Vladimir Fere’s 60th birth- day on the theme F-e-r(e)-e (1962), of which, alas, only two versions of the cover have survived, can also be related to these. However, Shostakovich assigned a permanent opus number only to the arrangement of Tahiti Trot, which immediately became famous (Op. 16), and a temporary number to Two Pieces for string quartet (Op. 36) based on his own music from the ballet The Golden Age and from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
     Presumably, it was no accident that the viola ‘Impromptu’ was also assigned an opus number. The miniature, which consists, according to the principle of ‘large’ concert works, of slow and fast sections (Adagio, Allegro), is an original piece slightly reminiscent of some of Shostakovich’s ballet music due to the combination of lyricism and somewhat grotesque scherzo-like lightness. It is possible that Shostakovich’s first, almost accidental personal contact with the timbre of the solo viola helped him gain a special feel for and understand anew this instrument’s immense potential and its vital place in the deeply lyrical and inherently fantastical-scherzo-grotesque sphere; he would then apply this knowledge in full to his own chamber and instrumental music.