Composer Profile: Galina Ustvolskaya

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

This is the opening of Seamus Heaney’s, “Digging,” one of his first published poems and a manifesto of sorts, naming the pen as his tool, his weapon.

A Far Cry’s program Next Generation (Friday, May 18 at Jordan Hall) includes two works that do very much the same thing: Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, ostensibly an homage to his teacher, but also an early creative masterpiece that put Britten’s name and compositional style on the map; and Galina Ustvolskaya’s Concerto for piano, strings, and timpani, the work she selected as her Opus 1 in her highly restricted, self-edited compositional catalog.

[The program’s third work, Ethan Wood’s take on Mozart’s “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” variations is more of a Beethoven-Diabelli story; we asked him for an arrangement of a piano piece, and he came back with a virtuosic, complex, multi-layered thing that defies description. It's awesome.]

If Heaney’s pen was his shovel (his poem ends “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”), then perhaps Ustvolskaya’s was her hammer. Critic Elmer Schoenberger once referred to her as “the lady with the hammer,” in part a reference to the intensity and directness of her music, but also perhaps to “the cube,” an instrument of her own devising, used in her Dies Irae and Symphony No. 5: a wooden box struck with large wooden mallets, normally used for orchestral chimes. [watch a few seconds of this to get an idea]

The cube is emblematic of the arresting quality of Ustvolskaya’s music, achieved not only through sheer sonic power and contrasting quieter moments, but through an intangible x-factor. Dmitri Shostakovich, her teacher, said of her "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance.” That quality of truth-in-music, a deep and brutal directness, is immediate and apparent in all her works, piercing both the performer and the listener.

The Shostakovich connection is a whole other tangent. Ustvolskaya was his student, but in the end, it would be Shostakovich who came to her for advice on his works in progress, and even quoted her music in his String Quartet No. 5 and Michelangelo Suite. There was possibly also a deeper personal connection as well; it is thought they may have been romantically involved, and even that he proposed marriage, but was rebuffed. Then, much later in her life, after Shostakovich’s death, Ustvolskaya fully repudiated him, his music, and any influence he might have had.

Her Piano Concerto, however, does bear some resemblance to Shostakovich’s style, in some ways mirroring his Piano Concerto No. 1 which is also for piano and strings plus one, in its case, a trumpet. But where the Shostakovich veers into romanticism and sardonic fun, the Ustvolskaya Concerto keeps its laser-focused gaze firmly fixed on its target, its truth. In the manner of a manifesto, the concerto also lays the foundation for her later, more avant garde, work; instead of a cube, there is a timpani, but used to much the same effect, commanding the listener’s attention. There is also the obsessive repetition of the concerto’s closing, driving its manifesto message home, as if Ustvolskaya is saying “you will listen to me.”

So that you might get a better sense of Ustvolskaya's work, here’s a brief sampling of her output, spanning her career. Feel free to taste a bit of each, or go down the rabbit hole.

A section of her Grand Duet for cello and piano, written for Mstislav Rostropovich.

Dona Nobis Pacem, written for the brilliantly conceived trio combo of piccolo, tuba, and piano.

And her last published work, the haunting Symphony No. 5, “Amen,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer for violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, cube, and speaker.

If you’d like a sneak peek of the piano concerto, check out this performance by the concerto’s dedicatee, Alexei Lubimov. And for more information on Galina Ustvolskaya, check out the documentary “Scream into Space,” and this very thorough website dedicated to her life and work.

Happy digging.