Trio, Sonata for violin and piano, Octet
Performer St Petersburg Soloists, Oleg Malov
CD MDC 7865 20€ / order
About GALINA USTVOLSKAYA
Trio, Sonata for violin and piano, Octet
Galina Ivanovna USTVOLSKAYA was born in Petrograd – today’s Saint-Petersburg – on 17 June 1919. She started her musical studies at the Professional School of Music in Leningrad in 1937 and continued them at the Conservatory in 1939, but they were interrupted by the war. After the war, she took lessons with Shostakovitch and obtained a postgraduate degree. Her first well-known work, a short Piano concerto, dates from 1946. During the 50s she not only composed several orchestral works and suites like Young Pioneers (1950) and Sports (1958). She also wrote symphonic poems like The light of The Steppe (1958) and The Hero’s Achievement (1958). She even wrote some vocal pages (Stenka Razins dream, 1948) and choral pieces (Hello Youth in 1950, Dawn on The Homeland in 1952, The Man From The High Mountains in 1952, Song of Praise in 1961).
A catalogue including twenty-one compositions. The present catalogue of Galina Ustvolskaya’s works, published by Hans Sikorski in Hamburg in 1990, only lists twenty-one numbers, which is all but a lot – less than six hours of music -for a composer who is now in her seventies. Except for her Piano Concerto, all pieces mentioned above have disappeared, and some have been repudiated, as much for their subjects as for their musical language. They were, however, soon published by the state publishers Sovietskii Kompositor. This obviously was not true for the other compositions without title nor subject which Galina Ustvolskaya wrote in the same period. These works would have to wait fifteen years before publication in the most favourable cases (viz. the Sonata for piano and violin of 1952, the Prelude for piano of 1953, the Grand Duet for cello and piano of 1959) and twenty years for the other works (the first three Piano Sonatas, the Trio of 1949 and the Octet of 1950). In this new catalogue of the works of Ustvolskaya the piano plays an essential role, not only where its presence is self-evident, like in the Sonatas, the Preludes and the Duets, but also in the most various instrumental ensembles used in the three so-called Compositions and the first four Symphonies. Except for the First which dates back to 1955, all the Symphonies were written during the last two decades (1970-1990). Those ones did have titles, but this time they were religiously inspired. Finally, the symphonic language has been totally abandoned, the orchestra is never complete and is even limited to a small number of instruments in the last symphonies. Does that mean Ustvolskaya wrote chamber music? The woman composer does not quite agree: “My music is all but chamber music, even when it is a Sonata for only one instrument”. The shadow of Shostakovitch is clearly present in the first acores (in the Piano Concerto, Trio, 1st Sonata, Octet) but this won’t last long. Five years were enough for Ustvolskaya to invert that dependence:”It’s not I who influenced you, but you who influenced me” Shostakovitch wrote her once; moreover, his 5th Quartet and one of the melodies from his MichelAngelo-cycle, op. 145, even contain quotations from Ustvolskaya’s Trio.
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 (1946-1961), 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 Shostakovitch’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 Shostakovitch’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. Shostakovitch and Tishchenko) is not really 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. It was that very Soviet reality that Ustvolskaya had sung in her early work under the title Dawn On The Homeland. To Ustvolskaya, the sixties were a decade of mourning and silence. “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 Hirschhorn, 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.
Unusual Symphonies & symphonies During the first half of the seventies, Ustvolskaya wrote three works which combined unusual instruments. She called these works Compositions, and gave a religiously inspired title to each of them: Donna nobis pacem, Dies Irae, Benedictus qui venit. In those years under Brezhnev, one could certainly think of better ways of naming music. “Despite their titles, these pieces are not religious in the liturgical sense of the word”, Ustvolskaya points out, but “they are full of religious spirit, and they would come out best in a church, without any introduction or scientific analyses.” Her dream was not to come true, as the pieces were actually first performed in concert halls, before live audiences, in 1975 and 1977. In 1976, it was the first time that the VAAP, the institution responsible for the royalties, devoted one of its leaflets to Ustvolskaya, who had then reached the age of fifty. The three Compositions dating from 1979 and 1990 were followed by four symphonies and the two last sonatas for piano. Despite their titles, the Symphonies are actually in line with the Compositions: unusual instrumental ensembles, religious titles, ever-shortening pieces (the last two last hardly more than ten minutes). Three of the Symphonies used texts written by Hermanus Contractus (1013-1054), a German count who later became a monk. Ustvolskaya had found those texts in an anthology of latin medieval literature published in Moscow in 1972. The 5th Symphony called “Amen” contents itself with verses from the Lord’s prayer said one by one by a narrator dressed in black while the five instrumentalists repeat a plaintive litany.
Whereas Galina Ivanova Ustvolskaya wrote the three Compositions and the last four Symphonies in a relatively short period (1979-1989); the piano pieces (the twelve Preludes and the six Sonatas) extend over her whole creative career, that is to say in two clearly distinct periods between 1947 and 1988. The Preludes and the first four Sonatas were written between 1947 and 1957. The last two Sonatas came into being thirty years later, respectively in 1986 and 1988. However all these compositions constitute a homogeneous entity with a very specific and uncommon language which had already been laid down in the first works: linear style and packs of notes in the 1st Sonata, the giving up of the measure from the 2nd Sonata onwards, and the development of an ever hammering rhythm which becomes merciless in the last two Sonatas, where the ffffff is paradoxically marked espressivissimo. Here too, Ustvolskaya has drastically changed what the centuries have called Sonata. The point is no more to touch and to sound (tocare – sonare) but to confront the piano in a peculiar fight which will bruise the player, the listener and the instrument.
“Chamber music “: a sonata, two duets, a trio and an octet. The five works written in a period of fifteen years, between 1949 and 1964, correspond to what is usually called “chamber music” although Ustvolskaya strongly opposes this denomination, as she wants to stress that her music is written in a totally different spirit. Two periods separate the composition of these five works. The first period (1949-52), with the Trio, the Octet and the Sonata for piano and violin, displays the last traces of Shostakovitch’s influence, but it also contains its reversal, namely the influence of Ustvolskaya on her teacher. Ten years later the Grand Duet for cello and piano (1959) and later the Duet for violin and piano (1964) mark Ustvolskaya’s final reorientation towards a straight refusal of any dependence and her locking up in a singularity which is rather unique in the history of music. The Soviet regime surely did not refrain from making her pay a huge price for it. Most of her compositions would indeed have to wait twenty years before being performed or published, and some forty years before gaining international acknowledgment.
Trio for violin, clarinet and piano (1949) Espressivo – Dolce – Energico As the three movements have no indications concerning tempo, there is a certain confusion on how they should be played. They present important differences in duration, which even sometimes doubles in the extreme movements. (The presence of Oleg Malov guarantees the authenticity of the performance.) The clarinets start with a kind of monologue formed by different groups of notes: 3, 9 + 5, 5 + 7, in which the bass of the piano intervenes progressively and turns the initial serenity into a more metrical determination which is soon shared by the violin. An obstinate rigour and motorism thus erase the espressivo which had been announced at first, but the contrapuntal play soon calms down and again turns into an internalized discourse, while the clarinet closes the movement with a symmetrical monologue.The second movement, Dolce, maintains this atmosphere with a new melancholic song from the clarinet, which converses for a long time with the violin. The violin leads the movement towards the ultimate serenity of a particularly long note of one of the (rare) emotionally intense moments in Ustvolskaya’s music. The finale, energico, starts with a ten note motif which is highly phrased in the obstinate rhythm that is characteristic of Ustvolskaya’s work. The clarinet intervenes with a second theme which has a more folk like origin, maybe even a Jewish one of which the violin emphasizes the painful character. Shostakovitch had introduced a Jewish motif in the finale of his 4th Quartet, op. 83. In the 5th Quartet, op. 92 (1952) he wrote three years later, the coda of the first movement and the most tragic moment of the finale display the theme of Ustvolskaya’s Trio. Even more striking will be a third quote, twenty-two years later, in “Night”, the ninth melody of the Suite after verses by Michelangelo, op. 145, Shostakovitch wrote only a year before his death. The Trio ends with a more serene third motif played separately by each instrument: five ascending notes followed by a rhythmical formula. The piano closes the whole piece with a short coda presenting enigmatic chords. This Trio thus is an exceptional witness of the flourishing talent of Galina Ustvolskaya within the musical and emotional symbiosis she experienced at that time.
Octet for two oboes, four violins, kettledrum and piano (1950). The Octet maintains and amplifies Ustvolskaya’s personal search which started in the Trio. This composition is actually a trio rather than an Octet, as the eight instruments in fact constitute three homogeneous sound groups (or four, if the discursive and percussive roles of the piano are taken into account). It confirms Ustvolskaya’s refusal to follow the traditional path of “chamber music”. There is only one title that really applies to the works of Ustvolskaya: Music, or the one she sometimes used herself: Composition. The Octet indeed is the composition in which Ustvolskaya breaks with the rules and with history, the composition in which she starts to deny every link with other composers, including Shostakovitch.
The Octet has five movements which lack any musical indication – except for changes in tempo. The first three and the last two parts are played without interruption. It is more of a suite in two parts in which contrasting discursive episodes follow each other in relatively undiversified registers. Ustvolskaya’s music has been characterized by austerity ever since. The acidity of both oboes adds to the four violins, which generally perform in the high register. This is opposed by the monolithic bass of the kettledrums and the lower octaves of the piano. This harsh hieratism reminds us of the first movement of the Octet, some pieces of Stravinsky’s Psalm Symphony (which Shostakovitch particularly admired and which he transcribed for four-handed piano), as the plaintive sevenths make one think of Scriabine. Although it is hard to rid oneself of such a past, this is what nevertheless happened in three of the following movements in which the composer grabs the hammer she will use to forge the greater part of her later work.
Sonata for violin and piano (1952) After an obstinate start – a staccato violin and a marcato piano – the violin plays a legato song, whereas the piano divides itself between dialogue and accompaniment. It’s not merely a coincidence if the two ulterior works are not called sonatas but duets. They display an essentially discursive shape, in which alternated dialogues follow one another, now mechanical, now lyrical. The violin plays only one note in many of the parts. This note, as it is often repeated with varying duration and intonation, is the axis around which the other notes, played on the piano, wind like satellites. This obsession with a unique although inexhaustible note covers the complete works of Galina Ustvolskaya. The coda is punctuated by a metronome’s “tick-tock” obtained by striking the violin. This pulse is indifferent to time and acts as another constant of a music reminding us that everything starts and ends within eternity. Between these two, the work is a short confrontation of emotional alternations.
Late Recognition 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 until 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.” Even in Leningrad, the performances remained rare, and came mainly into being thanks to her musician friends. Galina Ustvolskaya only knew the consecration of a so-called “Author’s Concert” in april 1991, when the pianist Oleg Malov organized it in the small concert hall of the Philharmonic Orchestra. Soon after, she wrote a letter of thanks to two of the interpreters, Olga and Jozef Rissin: “I regret not being almighty, otherwise I would have offered you an island, an old castle or a windmill.” Is it a coincidence that all these images of isolation and solitude are associated with the genuine pleasure she aims to offer them ? Finally, two concerts were devoted to her by the Saint-Petersburg Ensemble, directed by Oleg Malov, who has been the most faithful of her interpreters during the last two decades. These concerts were performed a second time during the Holland Festival in June 1992. In that same month, the Institute of Women Composers in Heidelberg awarded its 1992 Prize to Ustvolskaya on the occasion of its Festival. She was most grateful but again refused to leave Leningrad.
Another music, another world, different from all imaginable worlds. That kind of music escapes from all traditional criteria pertaining to analysis and interpretation. Ustvolskaya herself claimed it: ”I urge everyone who loves my music not to analyze it theoretically.” The usual criteria cannot be applied to a music which denies the history of music: “My work, Ustvolskaya said, can in no way be linked to whatever composer.” Those who tried to talk about it anyway, like Boris Tishchenko, who had been a student of Ustvolskaya’s, often use a terminology which does not pertain to musicology but rather to cosmology and physics: “The sounds and lines cross the music like the laser beams who cut out the hardest metals.” But these beams pound through one’s head, and the merciless rhythmic obstinacy evoces the hammer of origins that moulded a universe of sounds even before men had been created. And this makes us think of what Goethe said about J.S. Bach: “Conversation between God and himself before the Creation.” A voice never heard before thus emerges from what Victor Suslin called the “black hole” of Leningrad, from that epicentre of communist terrorism, from the city that was bruised most from the war, from the city that money and egoism might well swallow up in all the mediocrities of freedom. But the black hole also is this place, light-years away from our galaxy where matter is of such density that it imprisons its own light. That is the very singularity of the music which existed before the history of music and of the black hole which existed before the history of light. The old lady from Saint-Petersburg reminds us of the fact that, like the universe, music will never say its final word.
Frans C. Lemaire