Musical Times

St Peter’s friend

St Peter’s friend

Bradshaw, Susan

SUSAN BRADSHAW surveys the uncompromising output of a reclusive yet surprisingly communicative composer

GALINA USTVOLSKAYA was born in Petrograd in 1919 and educated in Leningrad, where she has spent most of her professional life; she now lives in St Petersburg. Even as the city changed its name around her, she stayed put, seeming not to have sought promotional contact with professional colleagues either there or elsewhere. And although thirty years as teacher of composition at the Music College attached to the Leningrad Conservatory enabled her to keep in touch with successive generations of young musicians, she herself was evidently content to remain in the background – very much a local composer even as her later, `uncompromising[ly] radical’1 work began to attract an increasingly international audience. Her latter-day reputation as something of a recluse, and her dislike for public occasions – extending even to the refusal of invitations to premieres of her own music – cannot altogether escape blame for the long neglect of her work.

It was not always so. To begin with, the support of Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic must have seemed like something of a miracle when, in 1950, two years after the publication of the infamous `Decree on formalism in music’ a performance of The dream of Stepan Rasin for baritone and large orchestra seemed set to put her on the map; a Suite for orchestra (1955) and the even more extravagantly scored Symphonic poem no.1 (1958) were given by the same orchestra in 1957 and 1958 respectively, this time directed by Arvid Janson. Alas, these performances were the prelude only to a complete shut down in performances of any kind until, in 1966, the same cast gave a single performance of Symphony no. 1 (1955). And it is at this point that the murky distinctions between blacklisted ‘formalist’ and approved ‘socialist’ composers begin to make just a little retrospective sense: for Ustvolskaya was both, effortlessly satisfying the latter camp in the public domain even as her own more ‘formalist’ experiments were being conducted in a parallel realm of near total secrecy. Meanwhile, the half-hour Symphony – the second of whose three movements comprises a cycle of eight songs of a folkish kind for two amplified boys’ voices – manages to appear equally at home in both worlds. Hazarding a hindsight-informed guess, it could be that the evenly-paced crotchets and uncluttered textures of its outer movements were even then paving the way for the much more radical works of the 1970s and thereafter – by which time the need for politico/artistic caution vis-d-vis works for symphonic ensemble was gradually drawing to a close.

More curiously, it was not until the late 1960s that the bulk of her twenty-year output of smaller scale works began to see the light of day; so that it was only with the 1968 premiere of the Duet (1964) for violin and piano that dates of first performances (and of subsequent publication) began to catch up with dates of composition. To begin with, the time lag makes depressing reading – as for instance in the case of the first of her six piano sonatas, which had to wait twenty-seven years for a public hearing, even in her home city, or the nineteen-year gap between completing the Trio (1949) for clarinet, violin and piano (so admired by Shostakovich that he quoted from it in his Fifth Quartet) and its premiere in 1968. Until the appearance of a recently updated brochure it could have been assumed that she was in some way reluctant to submit her more private work to public scrutiny, or else was merely resigned to the fact that times were decidedly inopportune for the presentation of music that signally failed to match up to Soviet expectations of a revolutionary optimism. The Leningrad publishers Musica and Soviet Composer were, by comparison, remarkably quick to print works following or even, occasionally, preceding first performances; and it is these surprisingly coherent publications which have over the last decade or so been ceded to the Hamburg publisher, Hans Sikorski.

THE agreement with Sikorski for the issue of a select list of Ustvolskaya’s concert music was first mooted during the latter part of the 1980s. But their first composer brochure, dated 1990, credits the publication of all works up to and including Symphony no.2 (1979) solely to her Soviet publishers, and it was not until the appearance that same year of Symphony no.3 (1983) that mention could at last be made of a forthcoming Getman edition. It was left to a recent update of the brochure, with a work list again compiled by the composer, belatedly to reveal Sikorski as sole owner of the copyright. While this 1998 list reinstates four lighter orchestral works from the 1950s, it again gives pride of place to the groups of generically-related concert pieces – which together form the core of her output: the six piano sonatas (1947-88) and Twelve Preludes (1953) for piano, the five symphonies (1955-90) and Three compositions (1970-75) for orchestra/ ensemble as well as the Sonata (1952) and Duet (1964), both for violin and piano, the Grand duet (1959) for cello and piano and, from the early years, the Concerto for piano, timpani and string orchestra, the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano and the Octet for two oboes, four violins, timpani and piano (these three last dating from 1946 and from 1949/1950). Not included in the Sikorski catalogue but listed elsewhere are a Sonata and a Sonatina for violin and piano (both 1947), as well as six orchestral suites (1951-58) whose titles boast a distinctly Soviet ring, and six symphonic poems. Of these, two now remain, together with one of the orchestral suites and The dream of Stepan Rasin (1949), settings of Russian folk poetry for baritone and large orchestra; during the three action-packed years 1951-54 she also found time to compose music for four films.

THE Concerto for piano, string orchestra and timpani seems a reasonable place to begin tentatively to investigate the nature of Ustvolskaya’s music as a whole, first and foremost the means that make it, so to speak, `tick. And it is indeed the subliminal ticking of a metronomic pulse that ensures both the unity and the ultimate coherence of each of her later ametric structures. But this is to jump way ahead of events. Aged twenty-seven, she was just beginning her final year as a student of Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. And if this suggests an unduly prolonged undergraduate studentship, it has to be remembered that not only was her childhood spent in the `Black Hole’ of Leningrad, in what Victor Suslin goes on to describe as the `epicentre of communist terror’ 2 but that her early college studies were disrupted by four years of war and by military service as a hospital orderly throughout the horrendous siege of her home city. Small wonder perhaps that she later refused point blank to contribute memories of her student years – and of Shostakovich in particular – to Elizabeth Wilson’s 1994 book, in which she appears only by default; nevertheless, Rostropovich clearly recalls ‘a very tender relationship’ between Ustvolskaya and her one-time teacher, even as Wilson lays the blame for so long a neglect of her work not on the music itself but on the `retiring, impractical’3 nature of the composer’s singularly uncompromising personality.

As always with Ustvolskaya, the only chronological certainties are those of dates of works, with the 1945 String Quartet (withdrawn from the latest worklist), the C minor/major Piano Concerto and the atonal first Sonata for piano all composed during the remaining years of her undergraduate course (1945-47). So it is against the background of those lost years that the broad harmonic competence of the Concerto – even if hampered here and there by the constraints of a somewhat overworked contrapuntal filling to its A-B-C-B-A sandwich – must be judged. Both this slow 6/8 episode and two brief allegro sections respectively adopt the lingua franca contrasts of a quasi-diatonic espressivo and a jaunty virtuosity (, b and c) not too far removed from much middle-ofthe-road 1940s music (shades of Alan Rawsthorne, even?), whereas the majestic outer sections reflect an unashamedly Beethovenian grandeur. Even at this stage, there are signs of a penchant for dynamic exaggeration, particularly at the top end of the scale, and often when neither texture nor instrumental register can readily support extremes that are even now heard to plague performances of the middle-period works (despite frequent exhortations to `take care of the sound balance’).

Dynamic and notational eccentricities aside, the four-movement (and not six, as the printer would have us believe) Sonata no.1 (1947) reveals a searching modernity somewhat in the vein of the twenty-year-old Shostakovich’s Ten aphorisms op.13. Loosely held together by recurring motifs whose rhythmic accentuation shifts in obedience to metre (see exx.2a and b), Ustvolskaya’s mostly two-part linearity readily absorbs both octaves and the occasional group of semitonal clusters later destined to play a more functionally harmonic role. Devoid of key signatures, diatonic scales begin freely to develop motivic shapes along with the snap of a dotted-rhythmic figuration rather stiffly featured in the Concerto but which here takes on a purposeful and more angular emphasis (exx.2c and d). A couple of years on finds the two-movement Sonata no.2 (1949) notated throughout as a metrically free flowing 1/4. With its rests and melodic durations counted numerically, unrelated to the now non-existent barlines and with rhythm reduced to the background pulse of the ongoing crotchet, its melodic profile points to a wholly original use of canonic procedures (melody) which frequently lop off or add to beginnings or ends of phrases (ex.3)both so as to increase momentum through a series of overlaps or to coalesce into a harmony– producing ostinato tolling. On the other hand, it is the three tempo characters of Sonata no.3 (1952) which serve loosely to link the three subject areas of its single-movement form (exx.4a, b and c). While scarcely ruffling the surface of an elaborate and full-textured motivic build (that readmits octaves as well as an occasional halving of the crotchet beat), this tempo-structuring device evidently prepares much of the ground for the fiercely monolithic instrumental forms of the 1970s and 80s.

With all its startling novelty, the visual delights of Ustvolskaya’s invertible counterpoint decrease aurally only in proportion to the instrumental inadequacies of timbre, register and sustaining power. Nevertheless, her early piano music is concerned with linear ideas of the purest, quasiBachian kind; but, unlike Bach’s vocal-register keyboard fugues, her textures frequently explode towards the outer limits. This is music whose primarily horizontal disposition takes scant account of particular vertical coincidence or of the registral blend of thinly supported dissonance – particularly if persistent consonance (as with the string of major thirds at the end of Sonata no.3 – ex.4d) accords neither with its ‘own’ bass a seventh or ninth below nor with the octave dominance of a fundamental bass too far distant to exert any harmonic pull. To suppose that the octave doublings indicate a primarily harmonic function is evidently to misunderstand an always contributory linearity.

The first two of the piano sonatas date from 1947 and 1949, the next two from 1952 and 1957; in between come Twelve Preludes (1953) for piano, as much little essays in counterpoint as studies in musical concentration and piano playing. Two years on, Symphony no.1 (1955) was effortlessly, and with apparently equal conviction, mining quite another vein of inspiration – one whose diatonic outlines are generally shadowed by semitones employed not as harmonic dissonances but as semitonally-enhanced unisons. Each of the eight songs that comprise the central vocal movement has recourse to its own discreetly-scored chamber orchestral colour, using small ensembles drawn from the large orchestra to maximum effect. The mostly unison, crotchet-against-crotchet pulse of the outer movements takes up where the Preludes had left off, albeit in less elaborately progressive guise. Despite the difference in harmonic language, a simplified motivic working (exemplified by the recurring use of a brief motto theme and a touch here and there of inversion, or of a metric dislocation that just occasionally dares to throw the weight of a phrase across the barline) hints at an increasingly rareified future. Composed two years later still, Sonata no.4 (1957), the last of these early pieces, has moved on considerably; gone are the octave doublings which had previously figured so persistently if uneasily in the newly atonal context, to be replaced by passages of an unashamedly homophonic chording (ex.5a). And since the linear aspect has already relinquished some of its contrapuntal severity it is left to relax into melody or even to switch into Alberti mode in support of a sharply dotted ostinato (ex.5b).

The oddly conventional five-movement format of the Grand duet (1959) for cello and piano marks the end of what turns out to have been a singularly productive period. Yet with no further premieres (or performances of any kind?) in sight, it is scarcely surprising to find that output would seem to have slowed almost to a halt, with only the 1968 premiere of the finely concentrated Duet (1964) for violin and piano dropping into the long silence from 1959 to 1975. It was then that the start of a new decade witnessed the gradual emergence (1970-71, 1972-73 and 1974-75) of three extraordinary works which, inoffensively titled Three compositions, might at another time, in another place, have admitted to an accompanying subtext that effectively turns them into hymns-without-words (Dona nobis pacem, Dies irae and Benedictus, qui venit). These Compositions were in any case to mark the start of a whole new creative period, leading with unbroken momentum through Symphonies nos.2-4, 1987) to end with the brief ‘Amen’ of Symphony no.5 (1989– 90). Symphonies nos.2-4 were inspired by and are centred upon the words of Hermanus Contractus, the mediaeval monk whose work featured in a collection of Monuments of mediaeval Latin literature from the tenth to the twelfth centuries which, unlikely as it may now seem, was published in Moscow in 1972.

Sonatas nos.5 and 6 belong to the late 1980s when, following the explosive weight of compositional outpouring from the previous decade, there is evidence of a much freer interplay between less obsessively contrapuntal elements. With its ten slowish sections, the tenth a recapitulatory expansion of the first, Sonata no.5 hinges throughout upon the same central Db, while a foreground emphasis on short-term rhythmic patterning confirms its format as that of a clear-cut theme and variations. The brisk ostinato of the ‘espressivissimo’ one-movement Sonata no.6 is outlined entirely in cluster chords stretching from a few notes to a large hand’s span to a whole arm, some pitch– defined, others not; using her own idiosyncratic notation and set at a dynamic level that ranges from ffff to fffff throughout, the penultimate harmonisation of an increasingly persistent refrain alone serves as pianissimo upbeat to the recapitulatory coda. But evidence of recapitulation striving to become an important ingredient of structural design was already to the fore considerably earlier. Each of two instrumental duos – the fastish five movements of the Grand duet for cello and piano and the equally ‘grand’ (though not so designated) one-movement Duet for violin and piano (1964) matches the motivic material of its opening with that of its culminatory close. The persistently motor-rhythmic element and increasingly chromatic pitch material (heard both as melody and in cluster form) of the violin and piano piece was eventually to signal the end of a struggle to combine relatively conventional gesture with motivic working of a more original kind.

Six years on, the start of a new decade marked the beginning of a stylistic move away from quasiimitative (permutational) writing towards an ostinato development whose contrasts were eventually to depend less on motif than on instrumental texture, register, dynamics and, for the first and last time, a recognisably `avant-garde’ fragmentation of motivic rhythm and pitch. Despite the religious implications of its subtitle (Dona nobis pacem), Composition no.1, for piccolo, tuba and piano, contrives to suggest the pagan violence of a screaming intensity, subsiding into a slowness verging on the void. But to delve beneath the surface is to discover that, however different the texture at any one moment, everything emanates from a six-note chromatic figure whose last two pitches not only change direction but double the speed – so giving it a motivic life that remains recognisably its own, however fragmented or protracted the context (ex.6). Without barlines and with scarcely any overlap between piccolo and tuba, this is certainly not chamber music in the accredited sense of conversational give and take between equal participants; indeed, the composer herself is quoted as having frequently insisted that `my music is never chamber music, not even in the case of a solo sonata’. (Are the connotations not quite the same in Russian, then?)

The block layout and generally unison attack of Composition no.2 (Dies irae, for eight double basses, home-made plywood cube and piano) takes it still further into the realm of the orchestral tutti – perhaps even of a wildly improbable marching band whose throbbing tread scarcely varies in pace throughout; again without barlines, the mean pulse hovers around mm.69-72, briefly slowing to mm.58-60 before quickening to mm.76-80 – at which point the unison (basses/ piano) dynamic climax reaches the extreme of an unimaginable ffffff. Each of its ten sections is a set of permutating repeats of material which adds in or excises portions of itself so as to suggest a generally rhythmicised spacing (except where cutoffs are lengthened to ensure silence). Most significantly, this is the work in which keyboard clusters are for the first time made to function as unmistakably melodic: that is to say, pitch span (from three to eight notes) is crucial in that it relates specifically to the ongoing development of a chorale-like espressivo (exx.7a and b) – no matter how short the actual durations involved.

Again in a single movement paced at an unchanging mm.63, the monothematic Composition no.3 (Benedictus qui venit, for four flutes, four bassoons and piano) is of a generally gentler aspect, marked sempre espressivo even when designed as a sharply accented fff. Again with a chorale-like tread, it is both more contrapuntal and more chromatic in relation to a vertical disposition whose semitonal closeness is the outcome of patientlycircling repetitions of two- or three-note groups; the whole is at the same time harmonically anchored to a three-note pedal (a middle range E-F-G) passed from low flutes to high bassoons to piano, unchanging in register until climactically doubled an octave below on the keyboard. From the outset attached to an intermittent and apparently soloistic F# (ex.8), this is a melodic promise soon dismissed in favour of the tutti blocks that develop between wind and piano and the idee fixe of the movable F#; gradually introducing the remainder of the total chromatic, these cluster blocks act both to underline and to support the distinctness of each of three harmonic areas as the overall focus moves from one to another.

LIKE the Three compositions of 1970-75, the single-movement Hermannus Contractus Symphonies nos.2-4 were written consecutively over the years 1979-87.

But Symphonies nos.2 and 3 are not symphonies in the classical sense, since the ‘orchestras’ employed here have more in common with the instrumental choirs of Compositions nos.2 and 3 than with the balanced timbral mix of a symphony orchestra. The barlines which return here relate more to the cautionary (1/4) placed at the outset than to any suggestion of metrical phrasing, which the mostly regular four beats to the bar might otherwise imply: 4 x 1 equal beats is evidently not at all the same thing as a bar of 4 directional ones, and the superposition of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 makes way for all kinds of rhythmic possibilities arising from a staggering of metrical emphases overall. Meanwhile the choirs of instrumental ensembles range from the extravagant layout of six each of flutes, oboes and trumpets, plus trombone, tuba, percussion and reciter of Symphony no.2, to the five each of oboes, trumpets and double basses, plus trombone, three tubas and speaker of Symphony no.3 to the solo quartet of trumpet, tam tam, piano and alto voice of no.4 and the violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, plywood cube and speaking voice of no.5.

The close on quarter of a century separating first and second symphonies had of course seen many changes. Yet the underlying compositorial voice remains largely unaltered, projecting recognisably similar musical images even as they developed and expanded their ‘espressivo’ or even, at moments of exhortatory (and dynamic) extreme, ‘espressivissimo’. Just as the semitonallydistorted unisons that coloured the outer movements of Symphony no. had in no way diluted the impression of a well-founded tonality, so the ostinato tread of the keyboard-led bass in Symphony no.2 (`True, eternal bliss’) is harmonised rather than obscured by clusters that focus on the prevailing tonality of a recurring minor third (exx.9a and b). The four-note threnody of a second subject is later resumed intact by the voice – long after its first sprechgesang entry had projected a dotted-rhythmic hiatus that eventually becomes the burden of an instrumental coda (ex.9c).

With plenty of sostenuto support (three tubas and five double basses) for the harmonic bass, the piano plays much less of a continuo role in Symphony no.3 ( ‘Jesus, Messiah, save us’); rather the reverse, for it appears only in the central portion of the work in a developmental, sometimes fragmented, resume of events heard earlier – eventually building towards a heavily accented tutti climax before giving way to a slightly curtailed recapitulation of the opening. Divisions of the ongoing crotchet beat (superposed quavers and triplets) twice intervene to give a throbbing, quasi Schubertian undertow to the separately intoned words of a spoken prayer: not since the fractured textures and ametric rhythm of Composition no.1, the stuttering demisemiquaver after beats (akin to the mindless repetitions of a manic Scotch snap) of Composition no.2 (see ex.7b), and the sharply anticipatory stuttering (the dotted-rhythmic stop/start hiatus shown in ex.9c) of Symphony no.2 has pulsation been marked other than in terms of undivided crotchet units. Moreover, the barring here reflects metrical shape, and is not just the measured-out succession of equal down beats observed earlier – perhaps promoting a more relaxed attitude to form as the outcome of a clearly recapitulatory A-B-A. Even so, each of the two remaining symphonies is again prefaced by a cautionary (1/4) as a reminder that the ‘phrased’ effect of metrical time signatures should in no way be allowed to disguise or to interfere with the unitary equality of pulse.

Separated by the last two sonatas, the two chamber-sized symphonies of the mid-to-late 1980s (‘Prayer’ and ‘Amen’) show a marked change in scale – not only a reduction in forces but a considerably pared-down musical subject matter. With just two melodic threads (trumpet and piano, or vice versa), harmonised by a bass dyad (a tolling E, three octaves apart), a tam tam stroke, and three chords thrice repeated as accompaniment to the singing (as opposed to speaking) alto voice, the strophic design of this little song, masquerading as Symphony no.4 (1985-87), is never in doubt. Five years on, the conclusion of Symphony no.5 (1987-90) reveals the bracketed (1/4) as more symbolic than real, since it is now the metrical placing of its ongoing crotchets which alerts the ear to classical alterations in rhythmic emphasis caused by shifting the start of an identical melodic sequence in relation to the otherwise non-existent downbeat (ex. 10a). The musical design (two identical verses and a third which quickly disintegrates into recapitulatory fragments to become the coda to the whole) unfolds alongside but independently of the Lord’s Prayer, freely recited without regard for either pulse or metre as portrayed by the oddly balanced quintet of violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and (once again) wood cube. In the rare absence of any sustaining instrument, it is left to the tuba to pin successive verse openings to a quasi diatonic, bottom-of-the-range C that fixes the registral limits between itself and a violin ostinato whose three-note chromatic descent from the C five octaves above acts as a complementary and intermittently recurring tonic (ex.lOb). This tonic sucession occurs three times, serving to mark the outline verse structure as well as to support the recapitulatory remnants that follow the curtailed verse three into a more extended coda.

Quite unlike the ametrical experiments with a heavily clustered and increasingly outlandish voice-leading in Sonatas nos.5 and 6, Symphonies nos.4 and 5 employ a noticeably more classical rhetoric; tempered by a short-breathed restraint, these are works whose gestural refinement would seem at last to evoke some kind of journey’s end in the quasi minimalist espressivo of a music content to rotate around its own communicative axis.

Susan Bradshaw is a pianist and writer on music.


1. Elizabeth Wilson: Shostakovich: a life remembered

(London: Faber & Faber, 1994).

2. V.Suslin: Sikorski brochure (1990).

3. Wilson: ibid., p.217.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Summer 2000

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