Discover This! 5 Pieces by Galina Ustvolskaya

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Galina Ustvolskaya

June 17, 1919 – Saint Petersburg, Russia
December 22, 2006 – Saint Petersburg, Russia

Galina Ustvolskaya’s entire life (17.VI.1919—22.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 September 1947, Ustvolskaya began teaching composition at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and continued to do so till February 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, 2005, 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 said.” –


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