About the composer
Galina Ustvolskaya’s entire life (17.VI.191922.XII.2006) is tied up with one and the same city. She was born on June 17, 1919 in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). From 1926 to 1936 she studied composition and cello at the Leningrad Capella. Then for two years she was taking composition lessons in the College. In 1939 she entered Dmitri Shostakovich's composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. In August 1941, together with the most of the members of the Conservatory she was evacuated to Tashkent, then went to her mother and sister in Komi ASSR where she was getting combat rations serving as a sentry. In 1944 she returned to Leningrad and continued her studies. Ustvolskaya particularly wanted to study under Shostakovich as she thought him the only composer able to teach her anything. As the years went by, however, and she came to know the man and his music better, her opinions were dramatically revised.
Her composition teacher, who seldom praised his students, valued Ustvolskaya’s work very highly and said of her: "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance". He sent some of his own as yet unfinished works to Ustvolskaya, attaching great value to her comments. Some of these pieces even contain quotations from his pupil's compositions; for example, he employed the second theme of the Finale of her Trio throughout the Fifth String Quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (no. 9).
On graduating from the conservatory Ustvolskaya was at once admitted to the Composers' Union and from 1947 until 1950 honed her skills as a graduate student. In October 1947, Ustvolskaya began teaching composition at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and continued to do so till January 1977. According to the composer, she taught "only to subsist on it", and did not see herself as the creator of any of well-regarded composers: "They were educated at the Conservatory". In general, she expected her students to work to the same high standards she set for herself and, despite reports to the contrary, she never singled out any of her students for special praise.
Ustvolskaya’s first compositions were a considerable success and were performed by leading musicians at the most prestigious concert halls of the city (for example, Stepan Razin's Dream, a composition for bass and a symphony orchestra was deemed fit to open four successive seasons at the Leningrad Philarmonic’s Grand Hall). But already by the 1950s her name had begun to disappear from the concert bills, to be replaced by those of the socially connected and the officially sanctioned; premieres of her music became increasingly rare, and many of her works were published decades after their composition. Ustvolskaya started to become more and more isolated, since she did not want to participate in social and political life, and her music was too far from the Soviet ideals. And although there were occasional performances of her works (about once a year), the state-owned record label "Melodiya" was releasing some of her records, and Leningrad's musical critics praised her talent, the author herself was dissatisfied with the level of performance available at the time.
Ustvolskaya lived in constant poverty. In 1950s she attempted to
improve her financial situation and composed a number of contract
works as well as music for several documentaries, works which much later she
strived to exclude from her Catalog, going to considerable lengths to locate them,
in order to destroy all traces of their existence.
On the few manuscripts which did survive, she later wrote "for money", thus
defining her attitude towards them. From 1961 onwards, despite the catastrophic lack of money,
Ustvolskaya's life was devoted exclusively to "the true, spiritual,
not religious creativity".
Ustvolskaya’s music is unique and does not resemble any other. It is exceedingly expressive, high-spirited, austere and full of tragic pathos attained with modest expressive means. Ustvolskaya's musical thought is distinguished by its intellectual power, while a keen spirituality occupies the core of her work. The choice of instruments for her symphonic and instrumental compositions is always ingenious (she never took formal orchestration lessons). Viktor Suslin, with whom Ustvolskaya maintained friendly relations for many years, once called her "a voice from the "Black Hole" of Leningrad, the epicentre of communist terror, the city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war". Although she was not interested in either history, politics or society, Ustvolskaya liked the scientific metaphor of the black hole, so she started to refer to her music as "Musik aus dem schwarzen Loch". The only thing she was interested in was her own music. And it was more than an interest the constant and intensive process of composing occupied all of her thoughts.
Genuine recognition came to the composer only in the late 80's when a
concert in Leningrad was attended by Jürgen Köchel, the director of the
largest music publishing house "Sikorski" and Elmer Schönberger, the
Dutch musicologist. Mr. Schönberger was so stunned by the music
that he did everything in his power to ensure that this concert was heard in Europe.
Soon, a series of international Ustvolskaya's music festivals was
organised (1995, 1996, 2011 Amsterdam, 1998 Vienna, 1999 Bern,
2001 Warsaw, 2004 Båstad), and Mr. Köchel acquired the rights to
publish her works. She unambiguously dismissed subsequent proposals
that she should emigrate from Russia: all her life had been
connected with St. Petersburg, which she left only a few times in order to attend
festivals of her music. Galina Ustvolskaya led a solitary life, thinking
over the new works until her last days. "My music is my life" she
Viktor Suslin "The Music Of Spiritual Independence: Galina Ustvolskaya"
The theme entitled "Ustvolskaya" is extremely difficult as "elevated subjects" are given both a material expression and a wholly concrete expression in music. And one must discuss this concisely, clearly and accurately, without becoming preoccupied with shaman incantations about God, Eternity, the Soul, and other things which nowadays are generally emphasized with capital letters. Once music has been written it means that the embodiment of something has taken place (even if it is something non-material and spiritual).
Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya was born on 17 June 1919 in Petrograd, and studied at the Leningrad Capella from 1934 until 1937, and then at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in Leningrad. She completed her post-graduate study there in 1947 and went on to teach composition at the College of Music.
Her composition teacher was Dmitry Shostakovich. Not every pupil can boast that his teacher uses his themes in his own compositions, gives him his autograph scores, and sends him his newest works to look over, earnestly wishing to hear his opinion. Yet these are indisputable facts from Ustvolskaya's biography. Shostakovich, who was miserly with compliments and often sarcastic, certainly did not describe all of his pupils in this way: "I believe that Ustvolskaya's music will gain world-wide recognition from all who hold real creativity dear". To merit such an evaluation from the maestro and to win such a deep personal faith, one must possess something more than simply devotion to the teacher. Shostakovich's attitude towards his pupil is in some ways reminiscent of Schönberg's attitude towards Webern.
The music of Ustvolskaya is not "avant-garde" in the usual sense of the word. It is perhaps for just this reason that her work was never subjected to the same public condemnation as the music of several of her colleagues in the USSR. However, Ustvolskaya has often been criticized for the "narrowness", "rigidity" and "uncommunicativeness" of her work, and accused of elitism. It is only in recent years that the critics have gradually begun to understand that these "inadequacies" are essentially the individual merits of her music. The composer Boris Tishchenko, a pupil of both Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya, expressed it thus: "this 'narrowness' is the narrowness of a laser beam which is capable of piercing metal".
The influence of Galina Ustvolskaya's music is as magnetic as the personality of the composer herself. Self-will, clarity and a complete absence of any "moulds" forms the essence of her work, without external attributes. The maximum expression using the minimum of resources. One wonders: if you find it difficult in this life and bustle, then what must it be like for her at such a height and in such solitude? "What is it like for you there, in a vacuum, in purity an orphan..."
The music of Ustvolskaya is unique: it does not conform to the usual patterns. Usually it is not difficult to discern points of contact with the music of other composers, both predecessors and contemporaries, in the work of influential masters. But sometimes we meet precious stones which possess such a strength of internal construction that it is difficult to recognize the reflection of the light which falls on them in their sparkle. These are artists who break sharply away from the established norms and build a musical world according to their own laws. Ustvolskaya is one such artist. Her music literally bums with a piercing single-mindedness, with an inhuman intensity and a spiritual strength, as though it his broken away from musical substance and exists independently, like radiation or gravity. The specific gravity of each of her compositions of each note even is so great that we are compelled to recall the distant stars where, according to the supposition of scientists, the density of matter is such that just a thimbleful of it on Earth would weigh several tons. The growing topicality of her work is staggering. Works written 25 or 30 years ago are finding an ever-widening path to the listener or, to be more precise the listener is discovering the path to her music more and more often.
Ustvolskaya's art is not entertaining. It contains only the most important essential ingredients. Ustvolskaya does not use symmetrical constructions. The rhythm is rectified. There are no experiments or caprices. The long chains of identical durations (crotchets as a rule) are grouped into polyphonic structures. The idea and not the bar controls the accentuation. Thus Ustvolskaya often renounces bar lines. This system of temporal organization, which seems so simple at first glance, is so convincing and natural that it allows her to achieve an unlikely rhythmic tension using the minimum of resources. Thus the harmonic and timbral aspects of Ustvolskaya's music are logical and non-standard.
It is impossible to describe Ustvolskaya's compositions for one, two or three performers as "chamber" music in any sense since they are so charged with meaning and harness such emotional power. The structure of her music is coarse-grained: it is masculine, strong-willed and controlled. There is no sentimentality, mellowness or bombast. The depths of the most extreme conditions arc exposed severely and concisely. The precisely outlined individuality, internal strength and external restraint allow us to regard all of Ustvolskaya's creative work as a single whole, as a single lump of human spirit, as a monolith or a beautiful and laconic sculpture. Galina Ustvolskaya is demanding of herself, uncompromising and honourable in the highest degree. The pure innocence of the artist is apparent in everything she does. And each of her compositions confirms this.
(Music in the USSR. Moscow, 1990, AprilJune, pp. 2221)
...In recent years Ustvolskaya's music has undergone a surprising renaissance. Suddenly it has been discovered that the compositions written in the 40s and 50s sound as if they were written today. And this is in spite of the revolutionary changes which occurred in music in the 50s 70s; changes which affected the creative work of composers of almost all generations. Or perhaps it is precisely because of these. Ustvolskaya's small number of compositions tower above the sea of avant-garde or pseudo avant-garde music like a gloomy rocky island which has not yielded to the temptations of "progress" but has preferred to remain itself.
In order to remain oneself, however, one must first be oneself. In one of his books Schopenhauer advises that one must test one's own significance through solitude: if it is interesting for you to be atone you have personality. And it is just this quality to be herself that Ustvolskaya has in abundance. Such personal self-sufficiency, aesthetic and stylistic exclusiveness is a unique phenomenon in music of our time. The music of Ustvolskaya is not "introduced" into the general landscape of Western concert life so much as into the landscape of "socialist realism".
It cannot be denied that a specific idealism, maximalism and even fanaticism is inherent in the compositions of Ustvolskaya. But (his maximalism is genuine and not a theatrical avant-garde element designed to shock a pre-requisite for comfortable popularity in the future. This maximalism is a purely Russian phenomenon, even a purely Petersburg, "Dostoevskian" trait. Ustvolskaya undoubtedly has several characteristics in common with Shostakovich: a meditative quality, an unusual ponderability in her treatment of intervals, and a polyphonic way of thinking. But here the similarity ends. Ustvolskaya takes the above-mentioned elements so far that any allusions to "classicism", often that of Shostakovich, completely disappear.
Theatrical and dramatic devices and quotations do not interest her. Other people may quote her, but she quotes no one.
Everything that Ustvolskaya does is significant and is done on a large scale, irrespective of whether we are talking about a symphony or about a small composition for a solo instrument She herself says, characteristically: "... my compositions are not chamber music, not even the solo sonatas". She has a strange relationship with time which sometimes gives rise to ideas about her kinship with composers of "minimal music". But this is quite wrong for the essence of her music lies in an incredible "high-voltage" tendency and a density which is superior to virtually all the musical substances known to me. Her pauses can rival those of Webern in their intensity. As a rule, this music is ascetic and is devoid of bar lines. However, this by no means makes it inert or anaemic but, on the contrary, allows her to create surprisingly intense asymmetrical polyphonic constructions and to achieve incredible rhythmic pressure. The dynamic is reduced almost to Baroque gradation, although she is equally capable of the greatest extremes by no means Baroque but entirely contemporary! with the most abrupt fffff and ppppp contrasts. Ustvolskaya's predisposition for extremes is not only expressed in the dynamics but also in the choice of unique performing forces (as in Compositions nos. 13 and the Third and Fourth Symphonies). The texts which she sets are both aphoristic and concentrated.
There is nothing eternally feminine in this music. It is a clot of masculinity, free will and severity of spirit, which relentlessly cuts away everything extraneous. Cutting away that which is superfluous is one of the main virtues of a sculptor. And, indeed, if we are talking about associations, then Ustvolskaya's music is not at all pictorial but is sculptural in the highest degree....
The Second Piano Sonata was written in 1949. This year was not like any other in the USSR: Stalin celebrated his 70th birthday, and the country was struck by a wave of arrests and fear; cultural terror achieved a peak previously unseen in human history.
At a time when composers of world-wide significance were humiliated in the Soviet press, at a time when they acknowledged their errors in relation to the Party and socialist realism and were ready to repent and ask forgiveness, a shy, modest, barely-known 30-year-old woman composed this music, which is so full of immense despair and furious protest, in her poverty-stricken Leningrad flat. It is not surprising that the composition was performed for the first time only in 1967. Beyond any doubt the Sonata could only have arisen in that place and at that time.
The two movements of the composition arc only slightly differentiated by theme: there is a tragic, meditative, agonized element in the first movement; while the second movement is based on similar material it gives rise to a dynamic intensification of vast strength. Notated without bar lines, the music is subordinate to a hypnotic metric and rhythmic influence and a grandiose linear quality. In spite of the relatively early date, the Sonata already shows the true Ustvolskaya; with this composition she made herself known as a worthy pupil of Shostakovich for by this time the teacher no longer had anything to do with her music.
I unexpectedly heard a compact-disc with a recording of my Sonata no. 2 performed by Anatoly Ivanovtch Vedernikov. It was unexpected because Vedernikov first began to play my Sonata a quarter of a century ago; it has only now been recorded and the composer Viktor Suslin sent me this recording. Vedernikov played the Sonata at a time when I was persecuted: people did not buy my music, did not publish it and did not play it, but Vedernikov included the Sonata in his concert programmes. He played it so perfectly that, having heard it, I wanted to listen to it again. Surprisingly, Vedernikov did not ask me a single question when he was working on the Sonata, but himself found all the keys necessary in order to give a sufficiently strong and worthy performance. I will be eternally grateful to Anatoly Ivanovich for this heroic deed and for his worthy treatment of my composition.
(from a letter dated 10 June 1994).
Dona nobis pacem (Composition no. 1) is the first movement of Triad, composed by Ustvolskaya between 1971 and 1975. The second movement is Dies irae for eight double basses, percussion (a box of thick veneer which one strikes with wooden mallets) and piano, and the third Benedictus, qui venit for four flutes, four bassoons and piano. It is already clear from the instrumental forces used that the concept of Triad is rather extraordinary. According to the composer, "it is desirable that these compositions be performed in the given order, but if this is not possible then each of them may be performed by itself.
The instrumentation of Dona nobis pacem piccolo, tuba and piano alone confirms that Ustvolskaya is right when she says "my compositions arc not chamber music". The piccolo and tuba are typically orchestral instruments which, as a rule, have very little to do with chamber music. The piccolo's "mousey squeak" which is devoid of overtones in the high register and its puny sound in the low register does little to embellish the chamber sound. And the fortissimo tuba produces such a wave of sound that you follow it with misgiving, expecting the piano to be blown off the stage into the audience. Apart from that, the very title Dona nobis pacem for piccolo, tuba and piano provokes spontaneous mirth: this is more like the circus! Is it a joke? Or a blasphemy by the composer?
However, the composition very quickly compels us to forget that the instrumental forces have an element of the circus. There is no escape from the instrumentation, of course, and the circus remains the circus. But already this circus is very sinister. It is comfortless and absurd. The first movement is incredibly aggressive. It consists of polyphonic variations on a short, easily recognised motif. But the absurdity penetrates literally into every pore of this movement. Strict motivic work with such instrumentation is absurd, the '"strict" linear quality in the piano part, in which the lines are by no means pure but abound in every "sin", is absurd: clusters arc frequently substituted for the notes of the motif. And often the whole polyphonic line consists solely of clusters (how else are you supposed to contend with the tuba?). But, thanks to the rhythmic brilliance, we recognize the motif all the same.
In short, the polyphonic motivic work by means of refined rhythm and maximum thematic concentration is very subtle. Throughout this the pianist thrashes with his fists or palms, the trumpet croaks and the piccolo emits piercing screams. All this recalls the parody on the legal process which is performed by criminals in prison, as if to say "eternal and noble truths on impure lips."
... As Gogol' said, "one cannot blame the mirror if the face is crooked". It is difficult to imagine a more fluent expression of disharmony than this movement. Evil and chaos reign in the world and the composer finds adequate musical and linguistic resources to express them. It is remarkable how quickly one forgets the gaiety which was produced by the performers coming out onto the stage when listening to this composition!
In the second and third movements Ustvolskaya goes still further. Through her use of the musical resources she compels the listener to forget about the disharmony of the instrumental forces. It turns out that this disharmony is more imaginary than real. In the second movement the short nervous motifs disappear and broader melodic phrases appear (thus the thematic link with the first movement is preserved). The tuba, with its mighty crescendi, plays a central role in this movement.
A final metamorphosis occurs in the third movement (all the movements are performed attacca). An atmosphere of prayer about the gift of peace truly pervades this movement. The composer creates this atmosphere with minimal resources: just three intervals in the piano part, a single f sharp on the tuba and a mournful litany on five notes for the piccolo are sufficient for her purpose. Ustvolskaya remains true to herself: in the third movement there is not a single note which is not strictly derived from the theme of the first movement. The ominous circus of the first movement is recalled only briefly. In the crystal-clear, prayerful pianissimo harmony reigns even between the trumpet and the piccolo. Before God all are equal...
About the Third Symphony Jesus, Messiah, save us! (1983). Half a century separates Ustvolskaya's Third Symphony and the Fourth Symphony by Shostakovich and not just any century, but the 20th century. Vast shocks occurred in the world during this time. One of the most important of these occurred in the spiritual sphere: what in the 30s seemed to many (and certainly not just in the USSR) to be a "bright future" by the 80s had become an inglorious and shameful past. So shameful that one can only hope timidly that the payment for the blindness and sins of the 20th century will not be too severe and pray to God for salvation. This is what Galina Ustvolskaya does in her Third Symphony. The composition is entitled Jesus, Messiah, save us! we are not talking about personal salvation. Ustvolskaya is praying for us all.
The text recited in the symphony (translated from Latin) is that of an astonishing man a German monk from Reichenau Hermannus Contractus (10131054). His life was short, he was almost completely paralysed and unable to speak, but in his time he managed to write outstanding treatises on mathematics, astronomy and music, and also prayers and hymns to the Virgin Mary. The fact that three of Ustvolskaya's five symphonies (the Second, Third and Fourth) are based on texts by this author and, moreover, were written in the city which until very recently bore the name of Lenin, is eloquent in itself.
The Symphony is in a one-movement form and its concept is simple: it is a prayer about salvation. The prayer demands concentration and spiritual strength: the greater this strength, the greater the efficacy of the prayer. Ustvolskaya is first and foremost a musician and these qualities are achieved by purely musical means.
First: concentration. In contrast to the symphonic adventure novel a diversity of colour is appropriate in the symphonic prayer. Concentration is achieved through the colossal economy of resources and the rejection of everything superfluous: there are only four motifs which possess thematic meaning in the Third Symphony. They possess not only a melodic but also a rhythmic individuality, and are easily recognized even when played by the percussion alone.
Second: form and rhythm. The formal construction of the Symphony is very clear and logical (it is a specific sonata form with a development section and even a "literal" recapitulation). However, the development is fulfilled not by tonal means, but by means of the rhythm, timbre and articulation. With regard to pitch, the composition is static and motifs remain linked with the same pitches for a long time (thus any change of pitch is regarded as a serious event). The rhythmic essence of this music is unique: the most extensive rhythmic and polyphonic variation more than compensates for the "spatial" immobility. The thematically-important motifs possess different time durations and continually displace one another, "changing colour" and changing meaning, crossing from one instrumental group to another (the most important of these is heard at the beginning of the composition on the trombone and passes through the whole symphony as an "ostinato" like a red thread). Melodically they have a "common denominator" a diatonicism which calls to mind distant associations with the Gregorian chorale, but this remains in the background since the rhythm is the main "motor" of the composition. In this respect the "development" of the symphony makes a very strong impression, containing rhythmic polyphony in the percussion section, a big piano solo, and a powerful growth, with the repetition of the two concluding notes of the principal motif d flat and e flat in all the groups of the orchestra, producing an impression of colossal group strength and incantation.
Ustvolskaya demands an unusual "instrumentation" for an equally unusual artistic task: her orchestra in the Third Symphony (5 oboes, 5 trumpets, 1 trombone, 3 tubas, 2 bass drums, 1 tenor drum, piano and 5 double basses) in no way resembles that which is generally understood by the word "orchestra". This "multi-choral" force is ideally suited to impart a multi-faceted character to the composition both in terms of rhythm and timbre.
In her own composition Ustvolskaya is as far removed as possible from abstract theorizing and the "construction of systems", but it must be said that her musical texture possesses a staggering unity. To give just one example: the very first "chord" of the Symphony (on the oboes) contains all the notes of the "principal motif (one could provide a great many similar examples).
Through her music Ustvolskaya lets us clearly understand that prayer demands a much greater volitional strength and energy of man in the 20th century than it did "in the good old days" when it was enough to clothe an appeal to God in the usual liturgical form.
There is a Jewish anecdote or parable in which a Jew asks the Rabbi: "Why is it, Rabbi, that the Lord once appeared to us in the desert, once spoke to us and led our people, but does so no longer?" The Rabbi answers: "Because there is no longer anyone who can bow down low enough before Him..."
This article has been compiled from materials (in Russian and German) kindly provided by Viktor Suslin. A part of it was published in the 80s90s in Germany (by the publisher Hans Sikorski) and in Russia (Music in the USSR, Moscow. 1990, AprilJune, pp. 2223).
Published in the book "Ex oriente...". Ten composers from the Former USSR.
Verlag Ernst Kuhn Berlin, 2002
Transalted from Russian by Carolyn Dunlop
Extracts from letters by Galina Ustvolskaya to Viktor Suslin (publishing house Hans Sikorski, Hamburg)
...I would gladly write something for your publishing house, but this depends on God not on me. If God gives me the opportunity to compose something, then I will do it without fail.
My method of finishing a work is essentially very different from that of other composers. I write whenever I am in a favourable mood. Then the composition is left to rest for some time, and when its time comes I give it its freedom. If its time does not come, then I destroy it. I do not accept commissions. The whole process of composition is accomplished in my head and in my soul. Only I myself can determine the path of my composition. "Lord, give me the strength to compose! I beseech Thee" (04.02.1990).
...I received your letter with the enclosed plan for a catalogue of my compositions... A series of compositions are cited under the rubric "Chamber music", even though that kind of classification has no place in an index of my work. This is not a formality but a question of principle, and I would ask you to take this into consideration. The content of my work completely excludes the term "chamber". I have no "chamber music" the category "instrumental music" should be substituted in its place. I repeat: this is a creative question of principle.
Your plan contains a series of compositions which are absent from my list. These are works, which I had to write for material reasons, in order to help my family which had to struggle very hard at that time. These compositions can immediately be distinguished from the real ones, and therefore they must not be included in the index...
Perhaps some people consider this list too short, but I am convinced that an artist who puts his whole soul into every individual piece can never be compared to a hack in the quantity of his works. If a composer's value was determined by the quantity of compositions that he has written, then pencil-pushers would be the most celebrated composers. Unfortunately this does sometimes happen. It is very hard for me to explain to you the scale of my inaptitude for clerical work... (22.10.1989).
...What is a "festival of women's music"? Is there really a difference between "men's" and "women's" music! If they organize a festival of WOMEN'S music then it follows that they should also organize a festival of MEN'S music. However, I believe that no such division exists. Only music which is genuine and strong should be performed. Strictly speaking, performing the proposed music within the context of WOMEN'S music is a humiliation. Anton Chekhov expressed this in a reasonable way: 'if the cat writes something remarkable then I will respect her". I hope that no one is offended by my opinions I am really speaking from the depths of my soul... (29.09.1988).
...It is very difficult to talk about my own music. ...Unfortunately my ability to compose does not coincide with an ability to write about my music. In general there is a belief that the one even precludes the other...
All my compositions are spiritually independent; my work is not linked in any way with that of any other composer. Unfortunately, musicologists generally think stereotypically and immediately begin to seek out kinships (who the father and forefathers are and so on). Originality is essential in creative work. Every talent, even the most modest, is only interesting when it finds its own path. And it immediately becomes uninteresting if it cannot produce anything original.
Those who are in a position to judge and analyse my compositions from a theoretical point of view must do so in a monologue with themselves. Those who cannot do this must simply listen to my compositions this is the very best way. Although my compositions are not religious in the strictly liturgical sense, they are filled with religious spirit, and I feel that they sound best of all when performed within a church environment, without musicological prefaces and analyses. In the concert hall, i. e. in "secular" surroundings, they sound completely different... (17.05.1988).
...I do not believe composers who produce hundreds of compositions by the production method... Sophocles once said that three of his verses represent three days' work. "Three days!", cried a mediocre poet. "I could write hundreds in that time!". "Yes", answered Sophocles, "but they would only exist for three days!" (02.08.1989).
...I am sending you the Symphony no. 5 (Amen). It is difficult for me to say anything about this composition; I agree with the words of Schumann: "The best method of talking about music is to be silent about it".
The symphony is difficult for performers. It is evident that, although only six musicians in all take part in the performance, they need a leader. I visualize this leader not as a conductor but as a musician who has entered into the flow of my music and has studied my other compositions, including the Three Compositions, even just a little. Why not a conductor? The minimum of external attributes gestures and so and the maximum of internal attributes, i.e. understanding, is demanded of whoever leads the performance of the Fifth Symphony. The less he draws the listener's attention to himself the better. Apart from that, practice shows that even the best musicians sometimes demonstrate a lack of understanding when performing my music. It is possible to play the written notes faithfully but "ruin" a composition (16.04.1990).
Frans C. Lemaire "A singular and uncommon fate"
Galina Ustvolskaya's fate was to be as rude, ascetic and obstinate as her music. During the first fifteen years of her creative life (19461961), she wrote conventional works of socialist inspiration as well as more personal partitions, which were condemned to the silence of the drawers because their language was too innovative. Even works that were relatively close to Shostakovich's style would have to wait twenty years before being performed in public. Not unambiguously, the only work that seems to have enjoyed a preferential treatment was Ustvolskaya's Piano and Violin Sonata from 1952. It is that very piece of music that had to convince visitors in the USSR, that there were artists who wrote music that was at least modern enough to scare them. The first delegation of American composers going to the USSR, in the autumn of 1958, surely experienced it and one of them, Roy Harris, spoke about the Sonata as "a dreadful kind of thing, dissonant from the beginning to the end". In 1962, it was Stravinsky's and Robert Craft's turn, but the reactions varied a lot, as Craft wrote in his personal diary: "She's only one more of Shostakovich's students", and after listening to her music, Stravinsky declared that he understood what the Iron Curtain actually meant. Such statements may be quite surprising. This applies even to the greatest musicians: None so deaf as those who will not hear.
While keeping well away from people in a minuscule flat, Galina Ustvolskaya refused all interviewers and photographers and declined every invitation, even for works performed abroad. She seemed to belong to another world. Little is known about her, and the information that reached us from indirect sources, like the accounts of other composers (e.g. Shostakovich and Tishchenko) is not realty useful. In the 288 letters Shostakovitch wrote between 1941 and 1974 to a friend of his', Isaak Glickman, who was a musicologist in Leningrad, Ustvolskaya's name was mentioned only three times, which is not very much for a relation underlined by most commentators. One of these letters, dating from 26 February 1960, throws an interesting light on the personality of the woman composer. Shostakovitch was worried about and irritated at her being too modest to accept writing the score for a film called Krotkaya (The sweet lady) after Dostoevsky. Ustvolskaya was actually living in extremely difficult material conditions at that time. "It's the end of everything" Shostakovitch wrote indignantly and in bitter irony: "Modesty is a great Bolshevist virtue Stalin taught us! At this rate we should try and find excuses for Beethoven for having had the immodesty to write his symphonies!" Six months later, on 3 November 1960, the third letter still unfolds another aspect of Ustvolskaya's life. She then lived with a composer called Yuri Balkashin, who died suddenly of an epileptic fit at the age of thirty-seven. Ustvolskaya and Balkashin had known each other for a long time but never got married. Shostakovitch commented that fact by quoting Desdemona in Othello: "It's not you I am in love with but your suffering", and he adds: "That Dostoevsky-like aspect of her character dominates her entire existence and I fear for what the future will bring". That future brought, among other things, the Soviet reality which Shostakovitch knew through and through: being alone, Ustvolskaya lost the housing surface which she and Balkashin were entitled to.1 [...]
To Ustvolskaya, the sixties were a decade of mourning and silence2. "I only write when I am in a state of grace. Then I let my work rest for a long time. When the time comes, I reveal the composition. And if the time does not come, I simply destroy it. I never accept commissions to order." The only work retained in ten years' time was the Duet for Violin and Piano of 1964. It was created in 1968 by Philippe Hirschhorn3, who had won the Belgian Queen Elizabeth Contest the year before.
1966, however, had seen the first production of her 1st Symphony, written in 1955 and based on social poems by Gianni Rodari, an Italian communist poet. Those poems describe the sadness of the capitalist world, with its unemployed, its rag-and-bone men, its people who cannot afford going to the fair, its chimneys,... Although that imagery was entrusted to two children's voices, the work was all but a tremendous success, and would not be played until thirty-six years later.
It's only in 1976 that the VAAP, the institution that was responsible for the royalties, devoted one of its leaflets to Ustvolskaya, who had then reached the age of fifty. Her compositions, however, although few, were to be published sparingly.
It would last untill the end of the 80s until the Western World discovered Galina Ustvolskaya's music. The 1986 Wiener Festwochen probably were the first occasion on which the Grand Duet was performed before a large international live audience. A completely new composition, the so-called 4th "Prayer" Symphony, was first produced outside Leningrad on 24 June 1988, thanks to Roswitha Sperber and the activities of her Institute in Heidelberg operating in favour of woman composers and their work. It was played at the Hamburg Festival of Women Composers in the same year. But Ustvolskaya protested against this feminist distinction and even suggested quite ironically to organize a Festival of Men Composers. "The only thing that matters", she said when refusing the invitation to Hamburg, "is that the music played is at once authentic and strong."
Konstantin Bagrenin's commentary:
1. It was not "lost": she simply moved in 1968 to another flat on Prospect Gagarina where she lived with her husband, Konstantin Bagrenin until 2006.
2. It was in fact a productive period in her life: she worked intensively. Yes, there was mourning and silence but it did not last that long and did not dramatically affect her ability to compose. She was working on something and in the mid 60s, she destroyed her Quartet, Sinfonietta, Sonata for cello and several small pieces. She was highly self-critical and demanding with regards to her music. Two pieces survived this purge they were saved by Mr. Bagrenin her Octet and Trio. These two were shown to Ustvolskaya a few years later to her great surprise and she admitted that, in fact, they were good.
3. Philippe Hirschhorn studied at the Leningrad Conservatory in the class of Mikhail Vaiman (violin) and performed the Duet during his studies, before he left the USSR.