Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Galina Ustvolskaya

I am surprised at how very large Russia looms in the history of music over the last hundred years or so. It is particularly striking to me as a Canadian, the other very large northern nation, because Russia leapt ahead and developed a deep musical culture while Canada still seems to be struggling. Very different places, of course. Russia was importing European composers and culture for a long time, dating from the 18th century at least, while Canada had to make to with the thin gruel of 19th century British musical culture. Early classical music in Canada tended to come from composers in Quebec, with a French musical influence, but the British conquest of Quebec in 1759 severed that connection.

Throughout the 19th century Russian music grew enormously starting with Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857) whose overture to the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila is justly celebrated. This is the Orchestra Of Mariinsky Theatre - Director Valery Gergiev (who looks like he is conducting with a toothpick):

Then came the "Mighty Handful" of five brilliant and original Russian composers:  Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. All lived in Saint Petersburg, and collaborated from 1856 to 1870. I have put up a lot of posts on Russian music since then, most recently my series of posts on Stravinsky.

So today I want to fill in a gap. I have just recently become aware of Galina Ustvolskaya (1919 - 2006) a student of Shostakovich and yet another native of St. Petersburg. Just last month a large scale festival and symposium on the music of Ustvolskaya was held in Chicago. Among the scholars giving papers was Richard Taruskin. Ustvolskaya's music was largely ignored during the Soviet period as it was too "modernist." Indeed, it is only recently that she has begun to be recognized as an important contemporary composer. Here is a piece written in 1959, the Grand Duet for Cello and Piano. The performers are Cello - Mstislav Rostropovich and Piano - Alexei Lubimov:

That is certainly uncompromising music. Shostakovich said about 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."

Ustvolskaya typically used very unusual instrumental combinations. Her Composition No. 3 (1975), for example, is for four flutes, four bassoons and piano:

Wikipedia says:
Her specific idealism is informed by an almost fanatical determination; this should be construed not only as a typically Russian trait, but also – in terms of Dostoyevsky – as a 'St. Petersburgian' one.
Let's listen to another piece. This is her Symphony No. 3 from 1983, subtitled "Jesus Messiah, Save Us." The performers are Valery Gergiev conducting the Munich Philharmonic. At least one commentator claims that this is not a good performance.

Here is the only other one on YouTube so you can compare:

Well, yeah, that seems far superior!

The only composer that this even vaguely reminds me of is Olivier Messiaen, whose dates are not too distant--if he were Russian, not French.


Steven Watson said...

I find the symphony compelling but the other two pieces I'm not so sure. As well as Messiaen, I'm reminded of Sofia Gubaidulina who also occupies that spare, dark, spiritual soundworld.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I agree. Very unusual music. I suspect it grows on you. Gubaidulina is another one I am not so familiar with. I have heard the viola concerto and something else only.