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Music as a magical force - 100th Birthday of Galina Ustvolskaya

The Russian musicologist Olga Gladkova entitled her account of the oeuvre and personal life of Galina Ustvolskaya, who died in 2006 in St. Petersburg, “Music as a Magical Force“, published in 2001 by the Ernst Kuhn Verlag. And indeed, performances of pieces from the numerically rather slight oeuvre of this composer regularly exude a quite unique, magical effect. Many listeners are surprised by the radical quality and lack of compromise of this music; others admire the frequently harsh, almost woodcut-like character of Ustvolskaya‘s sound world, and still others regard this composer born in 1919 as one of the great innovators of contemporary music.

On 17 June 2019 we shall be commemorating the 100th birthday of this extraordinary composer. Gali-na Ustvolskaya‘s works catalogue is utterly concen-trated, her musical message uncompromising and incomparable. She studied at the college attached to the Leningrad Conservatory in her native city from 1937 to 1939 and, when it was renamed the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, until 1947. She received a research assistantship there and ultimately taught a composition class there. Her composition teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, was enthusiastic over her. He repeatedly stood up for her against the resistance of his colleagues in the Composers’ Union. Ustvolskaya is considered, alongside Sofia Gubaidulina, Russia’s most important woman composer.

One characteristic of Ustvolskaya’s compositions is their “symphonic” design, regardless of their actual scoring or temporal duration. She writes an asce-tic music that is carried by an incredible rhythmic energy. The bar lines are often missing in her scores, which causes astonishing polyphonic constructions to occur. Dynamic developments are almost reduced to terrace dynamics and marked by extreme contrasts. The texts she sets, predominantly Christi-an, are aphoristic and concentrated. Her works bear witness to a strict, independent spirit, an inexorable will and profound faith.

Compositions Nos. 1-3

The Composition No. 1 “Dona nobis pacem” for piccolo flute, tuba and piano belongs to a cycle of three works for chamber ensembles, the titles of which refer to quotations from the Christian liturgy. The directness and sobriety of Ustvolskaya‘s musical statement is unique in contemporary music. In this work cycle there is no reciting voice as for example in the Symphony No. 5 “Amen”, in which the Lord’s Prayer determines the course of the work. Composition No. 1 is prefaced with the final words of the “Agnus Dei“, the last part of the Mass. Thus the dialogue of the solo instruments is to be understood as an alternating and urgent plea for peace. The piano has a mediating function in this between the extre-me ranges of the piccolo flute and the tuba.

When the German premiere of the Composition No. 2 “Dies irae” for 8 double basses, wooden cube and piano by Galina Ustvolskaya was presented as part of a complete performance of this work cycle by the Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw in Witten on 24 April 1993, the audience was very surprised by the idiosyncratic language of the St. Petersburg composer. The unusual instrumental com-binations of the three works and the characteristi-cally rigid, block-like, monolithic repetitions resulted in both enthusiasm and irritation. The combinations of the Compositions No. 1 to 3, taken together, resulted in an almost orchestral shape. The ensembles of Compositions No. 2 and No. 3 are based on complete instrumental groups (four bassoons, four flutes, eight double basses). The piano forms an antipole to these which - as Jutta Rinas and Harry Vogt formu-lated it for the Witten programme booklet at the time – represents a kind of power and energy potential of the whole.

The highly expressive quality of Composition No. 2, its almost brutal musical abstraction of the “Dies irae”, the “Day of Wrath” from the Latin Mass of the Dead, resulting from hard repetitions, is strictly maintained throughout. There are no changing sound events, no melodic language in the usual sense. Ustvolskaya’s language is simultaneously archaic and free of all compromise. Double basses and piano attack the notes penetratingly, piercingly and at the highest level of tension, supported by a wooden cube struck by two hammers that intensifies the effect even more.The Composition No. 3 “Benedictus qui venit” for 4 flutes, 4 bassoons and piano form the last part of this trilogy of works. What is striking here is the extreme treatment of the instruments, especially the piano, for which Ustvolskaya writes almost in-cessant clusters. Playing these clusters requires the use of the palms, sides of the hands and fists. The frequent instructions “espressivo” or even “espres-sivissimo” reveal a penetrating, sometimes almost fanatic search for maximum expression. The choice of a five-fold forte is indicative, and it is frequently strengthened even more by accents, sforzati and crescendi. Such dynamic markings can only be un-derstood symbolically, for they aim towards going beyond the boundaries of what can be expressed.

Remarks on the Symphonies

A consistent concentration on her very own personal statement and unwavering adherence to her principles, despite animosities and repression, are characteristic of Ustvolskaya. Larger symphonic works – with few exception – are not at the centre of her oeuvre; she prefers small, transparent ensembles which make possible a con-centration of the material. For all that, Ustvolskaya does not wish the term “chamber music” to be ap-plied to her work, for she thinks in more or less sym-phonic dimensions even with smaller ensembles.

Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No. 3 “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!” was composed in 1983 and sets words by Hermannus Contractus. Essential to this one-movement work is a strong religiosity, the fervent, even emphatic basic attitude which is often underlined by an orchestral treatment that reaches the limits of sonic brutality. The Symphony was premiered on 1 October 1987 in St. Petersburg.
The Symphony No. 5 “Amen” (1989/90) is Ustvolskaya’s final composition. Christian faith plays a cen-tral role in the oeuvre of this composer. With the exception of the First Symphony which, unlike the other contributions to this genre, is conceived for large orchestra, all the symphonies are superscripted by Biblical quotations or ideas. The musical language of this work is barren; it seems as if the composer had wished to limit her statement to a highly con-centrated form. According to her own statements, she always thinks in symphonic forms, even though the structure, performance duration and scoring provide rather more evidence to the contrary.The Fifth Symphony is also characterised by a nearly sober, clear structure in which homophonic passa-ges in the violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and percussion accompany a solo voice reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The urgency of the musical expressive means is further intensified by the repetition of selected text passages. The reduction of means, taken to the extreme and absolutely unique in the genre of the symphony, leads to a concentration of the Christian-philosophical world of thought of Galina Ustvolskaya,which can also can called archaic in its musical in-terpretation.

Remarks on the Chamber Music

Ustvolskaya’s Octet for two oboes, four violins, tym-pani and piano composed in 1949/50 could hardly be more unconventional. It consists of five alternating slow and fast movements. As so often in her works, the interval of the tritone is significant; it also plays a leading role in both Russian church music and in that of the Russian romantics. With its suggestive power and brute violence, this Octet does not reflect an idyllic world. In the fourth movement, thundering blows of fate are finally caused to descend by the ever-present tympani.
The Grand Duet for violoncello and piano, premiered in the former Leningrad in 1977, provided proof of the frequently ascetic expression of Ustvolskaya’s musical language. As in so many other works of this composer, the bar lines are missing here. There arise asymmetrical polyphonic constructions carried by a penetrating rhythm. The first movement features an energetic quaver motion sustained over long periods, with irregularly inserted motifs of two semiquaver motifs in ascending seconds. The second movement is carried by sound fields that are particularly sub-jected to transformations on the dynamic level. The cellist uses a double bass bow in the third movement. Here, too, no further melodic space is staked out. Tones and motifs act rather as sound blocks shifted against each other.

An energetic, powerful manner of playing is deman-ded of the soloists, as in the first movement. The fourth movement reminds the listener of the first with its predominant quavers, but condenses the motions at the end through syncopated ties over the strong beats in the cello. The fifth and final move-ment begins strongly expressive but reserved, with a restless trill in the piano announcing the later tran-sition to the quaver motions of the first and fourth movements. This reminiscence is also confirmed by the reappearance of the semiquaver motif in ascending seconds, sounding more concentrated this time as demisemiquavers.

Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6

Although the early works of the St. Petersburg com-poser Galina Ustvolskaya contain traces of the influ-ence of her teacher Dmitri Shostakovich, she was able to emancipate herself from this influence early on. Hardly any other series of work complex, in the already highly concentrated oeuvre of this compo-ser, reveals her compositional development more clearly than the series of the Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6, composed between 1947 and 1988. The First Sonata of 1947 still has classical traits. Its character is searching and improvisatory, still un-finished in the sense of the later soberly penetrating Ustvolskaya style. Despite this, it already reveals traits of the ascetic simplicity that Ustvolskaya then allowed to emerge in the Second Piano Sonata two years later. The Third Sonata of 1952 is the first to be cast in a single movement. The composer works in clear sections with three tempi and the terraced dynamics that had by then appeared in parts of her previous works. In contrast to the Third Sonata, the Fourth is again in four movements, using conside-rably more classically pianistic elements that in the preceding sonatas. It is also the softest and most int-roverted of the entire cycle. A long period – nineteen years – lies between the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas. The Fifth Sonata of 1986 has ten movements, breaks with all conventional sonata structures and even re-veals a mystic-religious reference in that it quotes a chorale. Finally, the Sixth Sonata is the most power-ful piece of all with a large number of cluster blocks.

Upcoming performances 2019:

Komposition Nr. 2                               
(Mitglieder der Staatskapelle Berlin
Ltg.: Patricia Kopatchinskaja)

Komposition Nr. 1 / Großes Duett für Violoncello und Klavier / Trio für Klarinette, Klavier und Violine               
(Mitglieder des Ensembles Musikfabrik)

Rosendal (N)               
Trio für Klarinette, Violine und Klavier
(Anthony Mc Gill, Klarinette
Mark Danel, Violine
Marc-André Hamelin, Klavier)

Cernier (CH)               
Komposition Nr. 2                               
(Orchestre des Jardins Musicaux                                   
Ltg.: Valentin Reymond)

Sinfonie Nr. 4 / Klaviersonate Nr. 6 / Komposition Nr. 1
(Inga Jäger, Alt
Ensemble Avantgarde
Ltg. und Klavier: Steffen Schleiermacher)

Sinfonie Nr. 5 „Amen“                               
(Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester
Ltg.: Stefan Solyom)

Sinfonie Nr. 5 „Amen“
(Nadezhda Karyazina, Sprecherin
Mitglieder des Philharmonischen Staatsorchesters Hamburg
Ltg.: Kent Nagano)

Konzert für Klavier, Streicher und Pauken / Oktett
(Alexander Melnikov, Klavier                               
Ensemble Resonanz)

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