The Dark Music of Ustvolskaya

USTVOLSKAYA: 24 Preludes. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6 / Natalia Andreeva, pno / Divine Art DDA 25130

I have, indirectly, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja to thank for introducing me to the strange, painful music of Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). She was said to have been a pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, but Shostakovich once said that he was her pupil, and he often sent unfinished works to her to get her feedback. Somewhere along the line, however, their relationship was severed, and Ustvolskaya later said that he caused her great pain.

Whatever the real story, Ustvolskaya’s music is all about pain and suffering. It is the bleakest music I’ve ever heard. Ustvolskaya’s world is a circular trap from which there is no escape. One does not feel sadness or loss when listening to her music; those feelings are too shallow for her. What one feels is a resignation to loneliness, isolation and complete despair. Her official list of published works includes just 21 pieces written between 1946 and 1990: five symphonies, the piano Preludes and six Sonatas, and several pieces for chamber groupings. She once said, “I do not believe in composers who produce hundreds of compositions by the production method.”

Apparently, Ustvolskaya was always a shy and retiring woman and virtually lived the life of a hermit. She spent her entire life in St. Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad during the Soviet era) except for a brief trip to Europe in the late 1990s to take part in a contemporary music festival. Aside from Shostakovich, her only other composition teachers was Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai’s grandson, but her music resembled neither. “My music is not influenced by any other,” she once proclaimed. I should say it wasn’t.

Unlike the exceptionally bleak Violin Sonata and Duo for Violin and Piano that Kopatchinskaja often plays in concert, these piano pieces have more of a forward rhythmic motion. They are not, like those violin works, painfully static blocks of sound evoking the tortures of a lost soul, but they are also clearly not fun music, either. Harmonically speaking, Ustvolskaya is more conventional than many other modern composers. Her works use bitonality and the pentatonic scale, but little else. Her principal style of composition was also relatively simple, clear and uncluttered. She did not write, for the most part, “busy” music, even though several of the Piano Preludes are taken at a relatively brisk clip. And although the piano was her instrument and she left us this body of work for it, I really don’t get the feeling that she felt that she could convey all the bleakness and pain she felt inside with it because, at base, the piano is a percussion instrument and one cannot produce infinite gradations of volume or feeling on it as you can on other instruments.

For Ustvolskaya, writing music was a painful but cathartic experience. She put so much of her raw emotions into it that it was difficult for her to attend public performances, though she did so occasionally. Dutch critic Elmer Schoenberger, according to the liner notes, first encountered her in 1991 at a concert devoted entirely to her music. After the 20-minute-long Violin Sonata, he tells us, she bounded onto the stage and bowed mechanically to the audience. It was expected of her, but she didn’t like it. Afterwards, when he spoke to her through an interpreter and told her that she had a small but rabid following in the Netherlands, she just kept repeating spasibo (thank you) over and over in a mechanical manner. Schoenberger said that he “saw panic in that childlike face with the dyed red hair, as though she wanted to say, ‘do please just go away.’” Another Dutch critic, Thea Derks, interviewed her in 1994 during her first visit to Europe, said that during her interview she found the composer to be “a very simple woman, who fears the world and especially journalists.

Pianist Natalia Andreeva, who wrote the liner notes, tells us that “Any page of Ustvolskaya’s music is as recognizable as a Picasso brushstroke…without hearing a note…The most distinctive features of Ustvolskaya’s notation fall into seven categories:

  1.  Absence of bar lines
    2. Time signatures restricted to 1/4 or 1/8
    3. Preference for flats and double flats rather than sharps
    4. Numerical indication of rests
    5. Cluster notation
    6. Use of accents – Ustvolskaya uses accents in an “extreme” way
    7. Dynamics – Ustvolskaya uses precise (often extreme) dynamic markings, sometimes in conjunction with contextually unusual expression marks, such as “expressivissimo.”

In these specific works, I would add one more thing. Perhaps because, in her mind’s ear, the piano was somewhat limited in expression, Ustvolskaya used repetitious rhythm to (literally) hammer home her points in many of the faster, louder passages. But she wasn’t using minimalism; that was a compositional technique abhorrent to her, the mere repetition of a motif over and over and over. She never resorted to those kind of cheap tricks in her music. Since every note and phrase was wrenched from her psyche, it had to have meaning. She had no patience with any music that seemed to her shallow or entertaining.

One will note that her first sonata actually used bar lines and time signatures other than 1/4 or 1/8, but she quickly abandoned these. One will also note that, in the opening of the fourth sonata, she used tone clusters to give the impression of no key, and even when she moves beyond that point she is resolutely bitonal. By this time, too (1957), her music has become much bleaker than before. Earlier, particularly in those quicker and louder passages, you got the impression of a soul trying to escape imprisonment, but with the fourth sonata she has come to grips with the fact that there is no way out. She is trapped in a prison of her mind just as Soviet Communism has trapped her physically and socially. By the time of her Fifth Sonata (1986, a few years before the break-up of the Soviet Union), the music has become as bleak, bare and nihilistic as her Violin Sonata. In her mind, there was no way out. Her spirit had been completely crushed.

excerpt from Piano Sonata No. 1

excerpt from Piano Sonata No. 4

Excerpt from Sonata No. 6 (manuscript)

Personally, I hear in this music a metaphor for our present-day state, where global governments around the world are forcibly overriding the rights of the individual. This is our new Soviet Communism, a means of completely crushing the spirits of people and forcing on them a rule of law that brooks no resistance. Except for being sent to slaughter or a Gulag, this is not terribly different from the Soviet system that Ustvolskaya suffered under for most of her life. The rights of the individual were always subjugated to the betterment of the collective. And there was no way out.

Interestingly, Ustvolskaya was not a fan of identity politics in music. In 1990, when her Fourth Symphony was performed in Heidelberg, she rejected an invitation to attend because it was part of a Festival organized by the Women’s Composers Institute. She wrote the following in response to their invitation:

With regard to the “Women’s Composers Music Festival,” I would like to say the following: Can a distinction between music written by men and music written by women really be made? If we now have “Music Festivals of women composers,” would not it be right to have “Music Festivals of male composers”? I am of the opinion that such a division should not be allowed to persist. We should only play music that is genuine and strong. If we are honest in that, an interpretation of a concert of women composers is a humiliation for music. I sincerely hope that my comments do not offend anyone, what I say comes from my innermost being.

Her music is clearly idiosyncratic and unrelated to anyone else’s; you can’t even say that it sounds “Russian.” It just sounds – different. Different, and bleak. Our performer, Natalia Andreeva, is unfortunately too young to have known or met the composer, but she has been in contact with her widower, Konstantin Bagrenin, who approves of her approach and encourages her playing his late wife’s music. I would say, particularly judging by the two late sonatas, that she gives her all.

Andreeva’s liner notes indicate a certain relationship between Ustvolskaya’s Preludes and those of Scriabin. There is a faint resemblance, but by 1953, when they were written, Ustvolskaya was already in her own sound-world. They’re just not quite as different from other preludes as the sonatas are different from anyone else’s.

This is clearly an outstanding release, and unique in its own way. If it were a current recording, rather than having been released in 2015, I would certainly give it one of my “What a Performance!” awards.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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