Music under Soviet rule: Galina Ustvolskaya

Until very recently, the music of reclusive St Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya (born 17th June 1919) had hardly been heard in Russia, let alone in the West. Five years ago, it was impossible to obtain any of it on compact disc; indeed only two of her works had been recorded in the Soviet Union by 1970 and these were known solely to connoisseurs of the nether regions of the Melodiya catalogue. Ironically both of these pieces have since been repudiated by the composer.

Things began to change in 1992-3 with the earliest foreign recordings and the simultaneous appearance of the first Western documentation of her controversial relationship with Shostakovich. To date, Ustvolskaya's compact discography shows her to be an artist of stubborn self-will uniquely unsuited to a career in the Soviet music service. Quite apart from its individual integrity, her work is driven by a spiritual ideal which would have placed her in diametrical opposition to the Communist state.

For one reason or another, the pursuit of her personal vision excluded Ustvolskaya from mainstream musical life in the USSR. Her music was performed at the Warsaw Autumn Festival during the late Fifties but, at home, she tended to be bracketed with Andrei Volkonsky (a cosmopolitan enfant terrible modernist) as largely beyond the pale. Not that this exclusion was total. For example, her Violin Sonata of 1952 seems to have been officially adopted as a token of the acceptable face of Soviet modernism, being played in 1958 to a visiting American delegation (including the composer Roy Harris who found it "kind of ugly") and trotted out again in 1962 to a party headed by Stravinsky, Robert Craft, and Nicolas Slonimsky. Nor was Ustvolskaya otherwise quite as heroically neglected as some Western idealists have fondly hoped.

Here, as in other aspects of foreign acquaintance with Soviet life, misapprehensions abound. For example, Mark Swed's liner note for David Arden's disc on Koch attempts to portray Shostakovich as an evasive "neurotic" scared openly to challenge the Socialist Realist status quo, as compared with the supposedly uncompromising Ustvolskaya, who was allegedly always "direct and boldly dramatic" and whose art "pulls no punches". Taking a similar line in his notes to Reinbert de Leeuw's hatART CD, Art Lange claims "no evidence of Ustvolskaya compromising with the Party line - she never stooped to writing secular cantatas or programmatically accessible music for theatre or films, or to using recognizable folk material in glibly popular ways".

Had Ustvolskaya really maintained such a stand throughout her career, she would have been unique in the world of Soviet music (not to mention uniquely hungry, in that she would have had no income). In fact the truth, like Soviet reality, was harder than most Western pundits are used to imagining. Ustvolskaya, like any other artist in the USSR needed to live, and to live she had to come to an arrangement with the state.

A more informed commentator, Boris Schwarz, observed in 1972 (Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, p. 404) that while Ustvolskaya's Violin Sonata was then regarded as "proof that modernism can survive and coexist with Socialist Realism", the truth was that "her dissonant writing is counterbalanced by some perfectly charming pieces in the best Socialist Realist tradition". Among these "charming" pieces are some occasional cantatas - Stepan Razin's Dream (1948), Hail, Youth! (1950), Dawn Over The Homeland (1952), Man From The High Mountains (1952), Song of Praise (1961) - and several symphonic poems, includingYoung Pioneers (1950), Children's Suite (1955), The Hero's Exploit (1957), Sports (1958), and Fire on the Steppes (1958). There are also a number of songs and even some cinema music.

The existence of these works is no scandal in itself. Every other "Soviet" composer has similar embarrassing necessities to his or her name. True, Ustvolskaya packed an unusual quantity of these monstrosities into the early part of her career - she seems to have offered up more sops to the Soviet state in one decade than Shostakovich did in five - yet the scorching intensity of her personal "for the drawer" composing is more than sufficient to show that she can only have submitted to these compromises because she had to. Moreover in Ustvolskaya's case there remains a special point of interest. The reason why Mark Swed, Art Lange, and other Western commentators have overlooked her many reluctant contributions to Socialist Realism is that, unlike Shostakovich, who kept his forced concessions in his opus list for all to see, Ustvolskaya has chosen to eliminate hers in order to keep her oeuvre ostensibly pure.

Speaking of her Clarinet Trio of 1949, the composer has said that "all my music from this composition onward is 'spiritual' in nature". Whatever else this implies, it means that all but one of the ten manifestly unspiritual works listed above are, by definition, not her music. This is both understandable and fair. No one of creative spirit wishes to dwell on hackwork done under political duress - and nor should they be made to. (The fact that, until recently, the Children's Suite and Fire on the Steppes were the only works of Ustvolskaya which Melodiya deemed worthy of recording must have added insult to injury, notwithstanding the much-needed roubles accruing to her thereby.)

What remains significant is that the composer could so little tolerate sullying her list with these pieces that she took the quasi-Stalinist step of erasing them from her personal history. A reflection of her fierce intensity of spirit, this simultaneously reveals a streak of absolutism which, by all accounts, functions naively in her personal dealings. She nurses ethical standards of an unworldly exaltedness, breaks off relationships at the merest hint of bad faith, and is in general as elusive and unbending as her music suggests. While not conventionally introverted, hers is the work of an artist travelling relentlessly into the heart of a private vision, with no distracted (or forgiving) glances in any other direction - a sort of musical edition of Simone Weil.

It is not difficult to imagine the disgust someone of Ustvolskaya's temperament must have felt at having to filthy her hands with concessions to the Soviet Communist Party. Referring to her slab-like sonorities delivered with piledriving staccato attack, Dutch critic Elmer Schoenberger has called her "the lady with the hammer". Perhaps more accurate would be "the lady with the flail". The puritanical lashing fury of her music often suggests the image of Christ flogging the moneylenders from the temple, while several writers have remarked on the "Old Testament" vengefulness they hear in her work. There is a pounding masculinity in many of Ustvolskaya's scores - few men, let alone women, have written music as violent as this - which bespeaks an affinity more for Jehovah than for Jesus, for the railing prophets of the Exile rather than the Gospel message of love. (Not entirely coincidentally, she dislikes having her music performed by women.)

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Isn't this a photo of Sophia Gubaidulina, rather than Galina Ustvolskaya??
Zdenka Pregelj said…
Thanks. Changed the photo.

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