Until very recently, the music of reclusive St Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya (born 17th June 1919) had hardly been heard in Russia, let alone in the West. Five years ago, it was impossible to obtain any of it on compact disc; indeed only two of her works had been recorded in the Soviet Union by 1970 and these were known solely to connoisseurs of the nether regions of the Melodiya catalogue. Ironically both of these pieces have since been repudiated by the composer.
Things began to change in 1992-3 with the earliest foreign recordings and the simultaneous appearance of the first Western documentation of her controversial relationship with Shostakovich. To date, Ustvolskaya's compact discography shows her to be an artist of stubborn self-will uniquely unsuited to a career in the Soviet music service. Quite apart from its individual integrity, her work is driven by a spiritual ideal which would have placed her in diametrical opposition to the Communist state.
For one reason or another, the pursuit of her personal vision excluded Ustvolskaya from mainstream musical life in the USSR. Her music was performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival during the late Fifties but, at home, she tended to be bracketed with Andrei Volkonsky (a cosmopolitan enfant terrible modernist) as largely beyond the pale. Not that this exclusion was total. For example, her Violin Sonata of 1952 seems to have been officially adopted as a token of the acceptable face of Soviet modernism, being played in 1958 to a visiting American delegation (including the composer Roy Harris who found it "kind of ugly") and trotted out again in 1962 to a party headed by Stravinsky, Robert Craft, and Nicolas Slonimsky. Nor was Ustvolskaya otherwise quite as heroically neglected as some Western idealists have fondly hoped.
Here, as in other aspects of foreign acquaintance with Soviet life, misapprehensions abound. For example, Mark Swed's liner note for David Arden's disc on Koch attempts to portray Shostakovich as an evasive "neurotic" scared openly to challenge the Socialist Realist status quo, as compared with the supposedly uncompromising Ustvolskaya, who was allegedly always "direct and boldly dramatic" and whose art "pulls no punches". Taking a similar line in his notes to Reinbert de Leeuw's hatART CD, Art Lange claims "no evidence of Ustvolskaya compromising with the Party line - she never stooped to writing secular cantatas or programmatically accessible music for theatre or films, or to using recognizable folk material in glibly popular ways".
Had Ustvolskaya really maintained such a stand throughout her career, she would have been unique in the world of Soviet music (not to mention uniquely hungry, in that she would have had no income). In fact the truth, like Soviet reality, was harder than most Western pundits are used to imagining. Ustvolskaya, like any other artist in the USSR needed to live, and to live she had to come to an arrangement with the state.
A more informed commentator, Boris Schwarz, observed in 1972 (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, p. 404) that while Ustvolskaya's Violin Sonata was then regarded as "proof that modernism can survive and coexist with Socialist Realism", the truth was that "her dissonant writing is counterbalanced by some perfectly charming pieces in the best Socialist Realist tradition". Among these "charming" pieces are some occasional cantatas - Stepan Razin's Dream (1948), Hail, Youth! (1950), Dawn Over The Homeland (1952), Man From The High Mountains (1952), Song of Praise (1961) - and several symphonic poems, including Young Pioneers (1950), Children's Suite (1955), The Hero's Exploit (1957), Sports (1958), and Fire on the Steppes (1958). There are also a number of songs and even some cinema music.
Speaking of her Clarinet Trio of 1949, the composer has said that "all my music from this composition onward is 'spiritual' in nature". Whatever else this implies, it means that all but one of the ten manifestly unspiritual works listed above are, by definition, not her music. This is both understandable and fair. No one of creative spirit wishes to dwell on hackwork done under political duress - and nor should they be made to. (The fact that, until recently, the Children's Suite and Fire on the Steppes were the only works of Ustvolskaya which Melodiya deemed worthy of recording must have added insult to injury, notwithstanding the much-needed roubles accruing to her thereby.)
What remains significant is that the composer could so little tolerate sullying her list with these pieces that she took the quasi-Stalinist step of erasing them from her personal history. A reflection of her fierce intensity of spirit, this simultaneously reveals a streak of absolutism which, by all accounts, functions naively in her personal dealings. She nurses ethical standards of an unworldly exaltedness, breaks off relationships at the merest hint of bad faith, and is in general as elusive and unbending as her music suggests. While not conventionally introverted, hers is the work of an artist travelling relentlessly into the heart of a private vision, with no distracted (or forgiving) glances in any other direction - a sort of musical edition of Simone Weil.
It is not difficult to imagine the disgust someone of Ustvolskaya's temperament must have felt at having to filthy her hands with concessions to the Soviet Communist Party. Referring to her slab-like sonorities delivered with piledriving staccato attack, Dutch critic Elmer Schoenberger has called her "the lady with the hammer". Perhaps more accurate would be "the lady with the flail". The puritanical lashing fury of her music often suggests the image of Christ flogging the moneylenders from the temple, while several writers have remarked on the "Old Testament" vengefulness they hear in her work. There is a pounding masculinity in many of Ustvolskaya's scores - few men, let alone women, have written music as violent as this - which bespeaks an affinity more for Jehovah than for Jesus, for the railing prophets of the Exile rather than the Gospel message of love. (Not entirely coincidentally, she dislikes having her music performed by women.)
Critics have strained for parallels between Ustvolskaya's music and that of her nominal teacher Shostakovich - but, aside from a predilection for bleakly oscillating semitones and brief, rhythmically emphatic mottos, few similarities have been found. One close resemblance does, however, exist. If Ustvolskaya's experience of spiritual repression under Communism cultivated an inner kinship with the moral anger of the Old Testament, then Shostakovich, particularly in his later music, expresses something very similar - and in similar language. In The New Shostakovich (1990), the present writer noted a motto link between Shostakovich's music for the 1964 film of Hamlet and his cantata The Execution of Stepan Razin, written in the same year:
"These scores share a militant simplicity, almost puritanical in its distrust of anything colourful or soft-edged. Inherited from the Thirteenth Symphony is an edge of irascible Old Testament violence, crashing down in vengeful blows from an enlarged percussion section. Both Stepan Razin and Hamlet feature these flagellating chords, cracked out with the help of the whip and woodblock introduced in the Thirteenth's third movement.
"That Shostakovich had a need for sackcloth and ashes after the Twelfth Symphony is possible - but it squares neither with his usually forceful creativity nor his, by now, extreme toughness of mind. More probable is that after the failure of the third thaw (and more particularly, the banning of one of his most personal and outspoken works) he was simply furious with the Soviet mediocracy and the morally rotten art it brandished as exemplary. Solzhenitsyn's description of the Writers' Union as 'a rabble of hucksters and moneychangers' voices the same vituperative disgust as Shostakovich's Hamlet and Stepan Razin.
"It is as if the composer has seen too much evil, suffered too much duplicity. Like Britten, he ponders in old age a kind of Noh theatre of moral parable, chiselling away the superfluous to expose the essential human beneath, bereft of its camouflage of vanity and pretence. The further into the late period this theme is pursued, the more extreme it becomes. Lashing 'infamy and crime', 'those who jabber lies', and 'the malevolent crowd' in his Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, Shostakovich prowls the verge of misanthropy like some latterday Ecclesiastes, the whipcrack chords of Hamlet and Stepan Razin raining down in the eighth movement as though the scars of calumny were as livid to him in 1974 as they had been in 1936, 1948, and 1962."
The parallels between Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya in the former's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo are specially interesting in that this work also contains, in its ninth movement, a folk-like theme from the finale of one of Ustvolskaya's early pieces: the Clarinet Trio of 1949. (Conceivably Shostakovich's Stepan Razin of 1964 may likewise be connected in some way with Ustvolskaya's Stepan Razin of 1948.) What, though, apart from a shared mood and method, does this link indicate?
"Then, as now, I determinedly rejected his music, and unfortunately his personality only intensified this negative attitude... One thing remains as clear as day: a seemingly eminent figure such as Shostakovich, to me, is not eminent at all, on the contrary he burdened my life and killed my best feelings."
The true story of this affair may never be known. Ustvolskaya refuses to say more. Yet, during the Forties, their involvement seems to have been intense. Mstislav Rostropovich knew both of them around 1948 and records of Ustvolskaya that "she certainly regarded Shostakovich very highly, and indeed there was a very 'tender' relationship between them." Rostropovich further notes that Ustvolskaya was one of the close friends who gave Shostakovich emotional support during the aftermath of the Zhdanov Decree. Elizabeth Wilson (whose book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is the source of Rostropovich's observations) reveals that Shostakovich's marriage to Nina Varzar was, by mutual agreement, "open" and that his liaison with Ustvolskaya was an "open secret".
For his part, Shostakovich was obviously deeply struck by Ustvolskaya, calling her his "musical conscience" and submitting his scores for her approval. He supposedly defended her music against official attack, declaring: "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve world fame, and be valued by all who hold truth to be the essential element of music." In a letter to her he acknowledged that she had influenced him - adding, perhaps cryptically, that he'd failed to influence her.
How, when, and for what duration their relationship exceeded that of teacher and pupil is, for now, unknown. The early Fifties were, by all accounts, a desperately isolated period in Shostakovich's life and his need for close companionship, evidently unsatisfied by his marriage, may then have caused him to lean too heavily on Ustvolskaya with disastrous results. (It may be significant that the same quotation from her Clarinet Trio which appears in Shostakovich's Suite on Verses by Michelangelo first turns up in his work at a pivotal point in his stressful Fifth Quartet of 1952.)
A similarly intense, though chiefly epistolatory, relationship developed between Shostakovich and another of his students, Elmira Nazhirova between 1953 and 1956. (This, too, led to a musical reference in one of his key works: the horn call in the third movement of the Tenth Symphony.) Possibly the Nazhirova affair began after the break with Ustvolskaya, the former filling the absence left by the latter. There again, Marina Sabinina records that Ustvolskaya was still part of Shostakovich's intimate entourage in late October 1955 (at the Moscow première of his First Violin Concerto). This suggests that the break with Ustvolskaya happened near to, if not consequent upon, Shostakovich's sudden unexpected marriage to Margarita Kainova in July 1956. In this case, Ustvolskaya, rather than Shostakovich, may have been the rejected party.
Whatever the truth, Ustvolskaya's subsequent bitter repudiation of a man she had been close to for nearly twenty years indicates that the break-up was painful and final - so much so that the absolutist streak which drove to her to purge her opus list of all "compromised" material may likewise have prompted a retrospective revision of her relationship with Shostakovich. In his foreword to Ustvolskaya's Sikorski catalogue of 1990, her friend and protector the composer Viktor Suslin (b. 1942) insists that "on several occasions Shostakovich supported her in the Union of Soviet Composers against opposition from his colleagues". Yet, five years later, talking to Thea Derks, he relays a different version of the past - one clearly emanating from Ustvolskaya herself:
"Madame Ustvolskaya is always represented as a pupil of Shostakovich, and time and again she is forced to read that he defended her music when she graduated from the conservatory. This information stems from one single letter Shostakovich wrote to Edison Denisov. At the time, however, Galina was astounded and deeply disappointed by his conspicuous silence. It was not Shostakovich, but Mikhail Gnessin, who defended her."
If Ustvolskaya was so deeply disillusioned by Shostakovich at the time of her graduation in 1947, why did she remain in such close proximity to him for a further eight years? Has the absolutism intrinsic to her music - one hesitates, if only out of politeness, to call it "fanaticism" - led to a wholesale rewriting of her personal history? This would not be at odds with the personality conveyed in Derks' account of her bizarre "interview" with Ustvolskaya (conducted through Viktor Suslin, despite the fact that journalist and composer were alike fluent in both Russian and German). The abrupt, anxious, explosively eccentric old woman Ustvolskaya has become may bear only a partial resemblance to the 37-year-old who broke with Shostakovich in 1956.
Shostakovich dedicated no works to Ustvolskaya and there is no mention of her in Testimony. Several quite different conclusions might be drawn from this and there is too little evidence at present to choose between them. All we can be sure of is that the quotation from Ustvolskaya's Clarinet Trio in the ninth movement of Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo shows that he did not blot her completely out of his mind after she rejected him. Louis Blois's thoughtful observations on the textual context of this latter quotation (Tempo 182, September 1992) - in particular his hint that the music, as well as the poem, may be taken as "an elegy of unrequited love" - suggest that, so far as Shostakovich was concerned, the fire had not quite gone out twenty years later. If this is so, the dual motifs of ascetic incorruptibility and eroticism in the Michelangelo cycle perhaps ultimately converge on thoughts of Ustvolskaya; indeed, she may also be present in the stark Symbolist shadows of Shostakovich's austere Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok.
The Shostakovich-Ustvolskaya connection is full of interest for Shostakovich fans. Was his Piano Quintet (whose Bachian prelude is described by the present writer in The New Shostakovich as "the jeremiad of a modern yurodivy, foretelling weeping and gnashing of teeth") an early by-product of their relationship? Did she introduce him to the Psalms, which he claims in Testimony constitute a sub-text to his Seventh Symphony? - Or was all of this independently suggested by his studies of Bach's Preludes and Fugues and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms during the late Thirties?
Yet, for all this, Ustvolskaya's music bears only a distant relationship to Shostakovich's. Her often radically skeletal polyphony has been plausibly cited as influential on Shostakovich's late style. More obviously, the two composers share a penchant for the semitone and an abiding reliance on the passacaglia form - though here the influence, if there was any, must surely have been from Shostakovich to Ustvolskaya. (The second "theme" of the first movement of her Clarinet Trio recalls - albeit only in the most basic rhythmic-harmonic sense - the passacaglia in the second movement of Shostakovich's First Quartet of 1938.) Apart from that, similarities between the two composers are thin on the ground; indeed precedents for Ustvolskaya's style in general are difficult to discern.
Aside from a Scelsi-like absorption in single notes and overtone harmonics, however, Ustvolskaya is nearest in style and concept to middle-period Messiaen. This is suggested by similarities between her Fifth Prelude and "Par lui tout a été fait" from Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus, and (partly through the instrumentation) between her Clarinet Trio and the Quatuor pour le fin du temps. It is also apparent in the first and last movements of her Fifth Piano Sonata and virtually explicit in the Duet for violin and piano (1964), which, in parts, bears a resemblance to Cantéjodaya. Her mood, though, is dark and apocalyptic compared to the Frenchman's dazzling acid colours, and always deeply obsessional. (Whether Ustvolskaya knew Messiaen's music is presently unknown. As the work of a Catholic modernist, his scores were excoriated as degenerate by Khrennikov at the 1948 Composers' Union Congress, and are unlikely to have circulated in Soviet conservatories during the Fifties.)
Much of how we eventually come to pigeonhole Ustvolskaya will depend on what we think her music is saying. Doubtless there are clues to be found in musicological details, but since the composer severely discourages us from examining her methods too closely ("I implore all those who really love my music to refrain from theoretical analysis of it"), it seems appropriate to judge it from a respectful distance by trying to understand it as a whole. This, though, is no easy task. While Ustvolskaya herself is convinced that her meaning will be transparent to anyone who approaches her work in the right spirit, very little music is as enigmatically personal as hers, and it is often difficult to decide what this right spirit might be. For example, in attempting to summarise Ustvolskaya's art, Frans C. Lemaire (Music in 20th Century Russia, Fayard, 1994) waxes cosmological, likening it to a distant star on which gravity has collapsed the universe into the density of an orange:
"This state of density prior to the birth of the universe without doubt corresponds to a spiritual condition... one before all religion, before the Cross... In this cosmic, non-terrestrial dimension, nature has no place... Man himself, that incorrigible romantic, has no role here."
This might make more sense had Ustvolskaya not composed symphonies imploring the mercy of Christ and addressing God in conventional Christian terms via The Lord's Prayer. Hers is certainly not impersonal music of the sort Lemaire suggests; if anything, the opposite. Such is its stylisation, however, that it can easily be mistaken for something inhumanly supramundane. For example, the cover of Reinbert de Leeuw's disc for hatART features an abstract by Konstantin Malevich, a link underlined in the sleeve note by Art Lange, who claims that "Ustvolskaya is writing Suprematist music". Yet if by this, Lange means that Ustvolskaya's music is purely abstract, there are several reasons to doubt it. Much of the otherwise stark and uningratiating Violin Sonata (1952) sounds like "music-speech", its repetitive motto units suggesting verbal phrases (indeed, at times, words of endearment). Again, in the Octet, there is a strong sense of emotional-pictorial images abstracted to the limit of "representation" - but not beyond it. Unlike Malevich's Red Square, in which his "peasant woman" has completely disappeared into planar abstraction, Ustvolskaya's "peasants" in her Octet (if such they are) remain vestigially identifiable. If there is a parallel to her music in the 20th century Russian visual arts, it would seem more accurate to nominate the abstract expressionism of Vasily Kandinsky.
The composer herself is of little help in elucidating this. We have it on her assurance that her art is spiritual without possessing specifically religious associations - yet, in her work of the last quarter century, she has regularly used Catholic liturgical titles and concepts, and insists that the best place to perform and hear it is in church. That her concept of God is both vividly apprehended and thoroughly idiosyncratic is clear from the absence of tenderness and redemption in her music, which seems predominantly apocalyptic in tone and outlook. The texts she sets in her Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies are by Hermannus Contractus, a German monk of the 11th century who was almost completely paralysed and could hardly speak.Pre sumably the extremity of Hermannus' predicament appeals to a corresponding extremity - perhaps even a martyr-complex - in Ustvolskaya. (This suggests a parallel with Lili Boulanger's setting of the work of a comparably disabled woman poet in her final song Dans l'immense Tristesse.) Whatever the ultimate nature of Ustvolskaya's vision, there is no avoiding the fact that the absolutism of its hair-shirt integrity is unlikely to endear it to more than a small audience of devotees.
Viktor Suslin has spoken of Ustvolskaya's Third Symphony as "a form of exorcism". This description might easily be applied to almost everything in her opus-list, the consistency of whose style is rigid from the start. Suslin has further offered that Ustvolskaya's work is at once spiritual and temporal, and that its temporal face has been definitively conditioned by her life in Soviet society:
"Music such as hers could only develop in that place, at that time. In this century, St Petersburg witnessed numerous horrors, of which the siege in the Second World War is only one."If the fate of Galina Ustvolskaya is, finally, to be seen as a late 20th century echo of Heinrich Schütz in his capacity as the musical voice of catastrophe-wracked 17th century Protestant Europe, that will be an honourable, if intrinsically unpopular, role. Humour - indeed any form of relieving contrast - is scarcely to be found in her work, and, though doubtless ruthlessly true both to its times and its composer's inner voice, it remains difficult to penetrate and, for much of its extent, difficult to listen to, let alone to love.
Calling an eight-minute, one movement piece for four performers a "symphony" (her Fourth) may seem like the gesture of a provocateuse, but the composer is serious and her description plays a functional role in defining the music's cosmic scope. Very probably her preference for small groups stems from an early recognition that private performances by friends would be the only way she would get to hear her scores during her lifetime. Yet, as she forcefully insists, her pieces, whether for soloist or anything up to ten players, are never "merely" chamber music. (When her Grand Duet was programmed at the 65th Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Switzerland in 1991, she made the organisers change the classification of the recital from Chamber Music to Concert.) Imaginatively, Ustvolskaya's music is built on a cosmic scale with a ritualistic dimension she prefers realised in a church setting. While often only a few musicians may be at work in her pieces, it is up to us to hear the orchestra and choir within her striving sonorities and frantic dynamics. (Her Fifth Piano Sonata contains the marking ffffff.)
So far, half a dozen discs have featured works by Ustvolskaya, providing an incomplete view of her art. In the last year, however, the Belgium company Megadisc has begun to issue a complete edition in six volumes, recorded in St Petersburg by Oleg Malov and the St Petersburg Soloists. The first four volumes of this series are already available; the remaining two, devoted to the symphonies, will be issued around the beginning of 1996.
Malov, Professor of Piano at the St Petersburg Conservatory, has been associated with Ustvolskaya's music for the last twenty years. He has given most of her premières and her Third Piano Sonata is dedicated to him. Though less well recorded than, say, the discs by Reinbert de Leeuw's group, Malov and his St Petersburg Soloists are by and large far more purposeful and energetic than their recorded Western rivals. (The London Musici's version of the Octet, for example, is lifeless by comparison.) This, of course, stems from the Russians' proximity to the composer, whose sometimes obscure wishes - no bar-lines, only maximum permissible speeds given - have evidently been communicated to them with an inspiring forcefulness. No one seriously interested in Ustvolskaya can be without the Megadisc series as a whole, which must inevitably serve as a template and standard by which all other recordings will be judged. That said, Ustvolskaya has recently withdrawn her support for Malov and transferred it to de Leeuw - although this appears to be solely the consequence of Malov's desire to play the music of other composers as well as hers.
For Shostakovich devotees, the main work of interest will, of course, be the Clarinet Trio, which may well come to be regarded as Ustvolskaya's best work. Of the three versions available in her current discography, the Barton Workshop's on Etcetera is ruled out by an excessively precipitate reading of the opening Espressivo, reducing a fifteen-minute work to eleven minutes. Reinbert de Leeuw, on the other hand, stretches this movement out too far. Exactly bifurcating the time-differences between Barton and de Leeuw, Malov's group brings in the most convincing performance, albeit that his clarinet player is closely recorded to the point of occasional distortion. Honours are even in the quiet, motionless Dolce, but the Russians win again in the closing Energico, projecting the main theme (reminiscent of the climactic second section of the Second Piano Sonata) in a deliberate, pesante manner which allows the secondary "folk" tune (the one quoted by Shostakovich) to sound naturally, rather than being hastily garbled, as in the rival versions. In the St Petersburg recording, the effect is of an upsurge of rebellious popular feeling, such as is suggested by the variation finale of Shostakovich's Second Quartet.
If the Megadisc issues are generally first choices in this repertoire, it should be borne in mind that some of the Western discs are more varied in content and sometimes constitute valid alternative views. (De Leeuw's recitals are foremost in this category.) Furthermore, the Megadisc series suffers from sparse banding - which makes it impossible to sample individual movements - and, on the piano sonata disc, inadequate gaps between works. On the other hand, Megadisc do very well with their sleeve designs and full liner notes.