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“True, Eternal Bliss”

The “Ustvolskaya myth” already began to grow during the composer’s lifetime. The musical world will commemorate her 90th birthday on 17 June 2009.

In descriptions of the work and being of the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, who died in December 2006 at the ripe age of 87, one continues to find terms such as magic, myth, border-crossing, or even “uncompromising reality.” The biographer of the composer, Olga Gladkova, entitled her book “Galina Ustvolskaya as a Magical Power;” it has been published by Ernst Kuhn Verlag in Berlin. A whole series of factors have contributed to this mystification, of which the great individuality of Ustvolskaya, her strong concentration on just a few released works, the spiritual-philosophical superstructure and the idiosyncrasies of her personality – Ustvolskaya lived very reclusively in St. Petersburg until the end of her life and only very rarely allowed herself to be photographed – are only very external ones.

The life of Galina Ustvolskaya was restricted to a very limited space and sphere of activity. Born in Petrograd (later Leningrad) on 17 June 1919, she was first educated in her native city at the Music College and until 1947 at the Rimski-Korsakov Conservatory. She then studied as an aspirant and led a composition class at the College. Her composer teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, who rarely found words of praise for his pupils, said the following about her: I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will find worldwide recognition among all those who attribute special importance to truthfulness in music.” He repeatedly spoke in her favour against the resistance of his colleagues at the Composers’ Union. He sent his own works to Ustvolskaya during their initial stage of composition and valued her appraisal highly. In some of these works there are even quotations from the works of his pupil. Thus he used the second finale theme of her Clarinet Trio in his entire 5th String Quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (No. 9).

Ustvolskaya deals with time in a highly individual way. In general she writes an ascetic kind of music; bar-lines are missing on the score, which results in astonishingly asymmetrical polyphonic constructions. Dynamic developments are reduced to almost entirely purely terraced dynamics, whereby crass contrasts between ppppp and fffff appear. Ustovolskaya’s tendency towards extremes not only finds expression in dynamics, but just as much in the choice of unusual ensembles (Compositions 1-3, 3rd and 4th Symphonies).

The series of Symphonies Nos. 1-5 is especially infused with religious meaning. With the exception of the 1st Symphony, conceived for large orchestra, all of her symphonies are inscribed with Biblical quotations or ideas. The musical language is spare and uncompromising; it seems as if the composer wished to limit her statement to a concentrate.

An almost soberly clear stricture characterises the 5th Symphony, during the course of which homophonic passages of the violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and percussion accompany a solo voice reciting “The Lord’s prayer.” The penetrating quality of the means of musical expression is further strengthened by the repetition of selected text passages. The reduction of means, carried to extremes and found nowhere else in the genre of the symphony, leads to a concentration of the composer’s Christian-philosophical world of thought, which can almost be called archaic in her musical interpretation and realisation.

The series of works Compositions 1-3 is notable for the use of Biblical terms or quotations. When the German premiere of the Composition No. 2 “Dies irae” for 8 double basses (locked) wooden crate and piano by Galina Ustvolskaya was given by the Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw in Witten on 24 April 1993, together with the Compositions No. 1 “Dona nobis pacem” and No. 3 “Benedictus qui venit,” the audience was rather surprised by the unusual ensemble combinations of these works and their direct language.

Taken together, the ensemble combinations of Compositions 1 to 3 result in an almost orchestral creation. 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 a counter-pole to this, which – as Jutta Rinas and Harry Vogt once formulated for the Witten programme booklet – represents a kind of power and energy potential of the whole. The high expressiveness of Composition No. 2, its almost brutal musical abstraction of the “Dies irae” (the “day of fury”) of the Latin Mass for the Dead, resulting from hard repetitions, is strictly maintained to the end. There are no changing sound events, no melodies in the conventional sense. Ustvolskaya’s language remains archaic. Pounding double basses and piano set the tone penetratingly, in the highest state of tension, supported by a wooden crate struck with two hammers that increases the effect even more.

Galina Ustvolskaya’s most important works:

Grand Duet for violoncello and piano

Composition No. 1 “Dona nobis pacem” for piccolo, tuba and piano

Composition No. 2 “Dies irae” for eight double basses, wooden crate and piano

Composition No. 3 “Benedictus qui venit” for four flutes, four bassoons and piano

Symphony No. 1 for orchestra ad two boys’ voices

Symphony No. 2 “True, Eternal Bliss” for orchestra and voice to a text by Hermann the Lame

Symphony No. 3 “Jesus Messiah, Save Us” for sprechgesang and orchestra to a text by Hermann the Lame

Symphony No. 4 “The Prayer” for alto, trumpet, tam-tam and piano to a text by Hermann the Lame

Symphony No. 5 “Amen” for speaker, oboe, trumpet, violin and percussion

Concerto for Piano, String orchestra and Tympani


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