Galina Ustvolskaya

Shostakovich's 'musical conscience'

Galina Ivanova Ustvolskaya, composer: born Petrograd 17 June 1919; married 1966 Konstantin Makukhin; died St Petersburg 22 December 2006.

"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" - thus Dmitri Shostakovich on the work of his student (and, perhaps, lover) Galina Ustvolskaya, a composer of prickly independence - the late Ian MacDonald called her "abrupt, anxious, explosively eccentric" - and deep spiritual conviction. Ustvolskaya lived out her life with a supreme disregard for public acclaim; her handful of passionate and bizarre works - to call them idiosyncratic would be something of an understatement - similarly do nothing to cultivate the listener. She also tried to keep the musicologists at a distance: "All who really love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it."

Born two years after the October Revolution, in the brief period when St Petersburg was Petrograd, in 1937-39 Ustvolskaya studied at the Professional School of Music, the music college attached to the Conservatoire in what had become Leningrad in the interim. For the next decade - interrupted during the Second World War by a period of service in a military hospital - she studied at the Conservatoire proper under Shostakovich and Maximilian Steinberg (Rimsky-Korsakov's son-in-law), becoming both a postgraduate student and a teacher there herself from 1947. She remained on the staff until 1975, the best-known of her own students being Boris Tishchenko.

The nature of her relationship with Shostakovich has never become clear. He referred to her as his "musical conscience", and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who knew them both, recorded that "she certainly regarded Shostakovich very highly, and indeed there was a very 'tender' relationship between them", adding that Shostakovich's first marriage, by mutual agreement, was "open" and that his liaison with Ustvolskaya was an "open secret". He would show her his scores for comment, and it seems she was one of the few to offer him moral support when his music was condemned in the infamous Zhdanov decree of 1948. And in a rare interview, published in Tempo in 1995, she revealed that he had proposed marriage in the mid-1950s, an advance she seems to have unceremoniously rebuffed:

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.

That attitude is perhaps less illustrative of the relations between them than of the absolutist streak that was now becoming evident in her music. Her early works do indeed show the influence of Shostakovich (as in the neoclassical Piano Concerto of 1946), but she digested it swiftly. Of course, every composer wishing to eat in the Soviet Union had to come to some accommodation with the state, and there are a fair number of works which blithely follow the precepts of socialist realism: chiefly occasional cantatas - Stepan Razin's Dream (1948), Hail, Youth! (1950), Dawn over the Homeland (1952), The Man from the High Mountain (1952), Song of Praise (1961) - and symphonic poems, among them Young Pioneers (1950), Children's Suite (1955), The Hero's Exploit (1957), Sports (1958), and Fire on the Steppes (1958). She also composed a number of film scores and some songs.

But many of these works she rejected, going as far as to destroy the scores. Shostakovich retained his self-esteem by telling the authorities what they wanted to hear but threading secret messages through his music. Ustvolskaya took an altogether more radical path. Her Violin Sonata of 1952 was tolerated as an early example of Soviet modernism; the music she now produced - explicitly religious in intent - would never have reached any kind of currency in the Soviet Union, and only a handful of her socialist realist works were recorded. Since she was never explicitly a member of the avant-garde, she was criticised instead for "narrowness" and "obstinacy". Her true music became, in essence, a form of ritual, one which had little need of the outside world.

Shorn of the compromises she repudiated, Ustvolskaya's catalogue of works is small: five "symphonies" between 1955 and 1990, all with voices singing or reciting religious texts and the later two scored not for orchestra but for unusual chamber combinations; six piano sonatas and twelve preludes between 1947 and 1988; a clarinet trio of 1949 (the work which she said initiated the spiritual dimension in her music, and which Shostakovich quoted in his own Fifth String Quartet and his late Suite on Verses by Michelangelo); and a handful of chamber works (a term she rejected) often simply called Composition. The scoring of these works could be eccentric: Composition No 1 (1970-71), subtitled "Dona nobis pacem", is written for piccolo, tuba and piano, No 2 (1972-73), "Dies irae", for eight double-basses, piano and a wooden box, and No 3 (1974-75), "Benedictus, qui venit", for four flutes, four bassoons and piano.

With these unusual combinations of timbre came extremes of register (her dynamic markings range from ppppp to ffffff), abrupt shifts in texture and mood, from a motionless contemplation focused on a single note or hypnotically rocking semi-tonal oscillation to violent and dense outbursts of rage. Ian MacDonald wrote of the "pounding masculinity" of her music; it was allied with an almost maniacal religious intensity.

Western awareness of Ustvolskaya began to awaken in the early 1990s, and her work began to appear in concert programmes. International fame made no difference to her: she continued to live in the same small St Petersburg apartment and travelled abroad only once, to Amsterdam in 1995. She disliked being pigeonholed as a woman composer ("We should only play music that is genuine and strong. If we are honest about it, a performance in a concert by women composers is a humiliation for the music") and discouraged performances of her works by female musicians.

She recognised that what she was doing was sui generis: "There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead" - but there was no hubris in that remark, just a realisation of the utterly individual path she had trod.

Martin Anderson

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