Igor Stravinsky: Elegy for Solo Viola

Context

Composed in 1944 on a commission from Germain Prevost, Igor Stravinsky’s sombre Elegy for Solo Viola was written for the ProArte Quartet. The piece was written in memory of the quartet’s first violinist, Alphonse Onnou, who had died some four years before. The work remained the composer’s only piece for viola. Stravinsky also prepared a version a fifth higher to be played on violin too, perhaps to spread the work’s popularity. 

 

The Music

This short elegiac work is a two-part invention that is sombre in character, but rich in tone. The chant-like first half is intense and sees the viola play a simple flowing melody. The modality of the music creates an open space around the viola, creating a really intriguing atmosphere. Throughout the whole work the viola is playing ‘con sordino’ – which means with a mute. This creates a more muffled sound, however the intensity and richness is still present. The use of the mute also makes the quiet sections deathly quiet and very effective. 

The fugue-like central section is skilfully penned by Stavinsky, who creates a row of different voices from just the one instrument. The sombre character remains throughout, however. As the dynamics begin to rise, the elegy reaches its climax. To answer the climax is a fugal subject that is played ‘in the distance’, like a far away answer. This subject links the music into the recapitulation of the work, which reprises the chant from the opening. The dissonant ending finishes the elegy with an altered cadence in the last few bars. 

 

Final Thoughts

Igor Stravinsky’s Elegy for Solo Viola is the only work of its type in the composer’s oeuvre. The rich writing for the instrument paired with the effective use of the mute, harmonics and tone of the viola makes you wonder why there weren’t more pieces composed for it. 

 

Happy Reading!

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