Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphonic Poem
Notes by TŌN bassoonist Matthew Gregoire
Galina Ustvolskaya was once hailed by her teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, as a unique talent, one that would “achieve world fame” with her unprecedented compositional style. However, that sentiment would never reach fruition during Shostakovich’s lifetime. In fact, Ustvolskaya’s works were scarcely premiered outside of Russia until she was nearly 50 years old. Ustvolskaya, perhaps boldly, claimed that her musical catalogue of fewer than 30 published works did not resemble any musical style of her predecessors or contemporaries, saying “there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any composer, living or dead.” Her style is characterized by surprising instrumental combinations (such as her Symphony No. 1 for orchestra and two boys’ voices, or her Benedictus, Qui Venet for four flutes, four bassoons, and piano), use of tone clusters, transparent texture, and excessively repeated “blocks” of sound, a technique that prompted Dutch music critic Elmer Shonberger to name her “the lady with the hammer.”
Ustvolskaya’s relationship with her teacher was about as complicated as her music. Shostakovich respected Ustvolskaya’s works and often sought her criticisms for his own unfinished compositions. Shostakovich also harbored romantic feelings for his student, affections that were ultimately rejected. Shostakovich’s Fifth String Quartet even reflects his heartache, quoting Ustvolskaya’s Trio from 1949. Following their separation in 1947, Ustvolskaya rejected any musical or personal connection she had with her mentor of eight years, even stating later in life that she dismissed Shostakovich’s perceived genius as a composer, and considered his works too “depressing” and lacking innovation. In 1995, she said, “At no time, not even when I was still a student, did I feel any affinity whatsoever with either his music or his personality. This supposedly exceptional man is far from exceptional to me. On the contrary, he has ruined my life and has utterly destroyed my most heartfelt feelings.”
The pieces she wrote in the decade following her tutelage with Shostakovich are described as meeting the Russian aesthetic standards, but perhaps do not reflect her unique style, which at the time had not earned a place in the concert hall. Her Symphonic Poem No. 1 is considered among these less radical works, and shows significant evidence that Ustvolskaya was indeed capable of appealing to a wider audience with more comprehensible scores. The Poem even sported a programmatic title, The Light of the Steppes, before being renamed by the composer in its addition to the official catalogue. Ustvolskaya, however, largely rejected the aesthetics of the USSR and chose to remain true to her own unique artistic voice, a decision that ultimately would prove to be a detriment to her financial success as an artist. Despite its relative accessibility, the First Symphonic Poem was declared a failure at its premiere in Leningrad, an event at which Shostakovich only half-heartedly defended her, possibly fueling Ustvolskaya’s hostile feelings toward him in the later half of her life. Today, her compositions have achieved increasing appreciation, especially in the West, as they represent a composer that struggled against all odds and influences to foster an inimitable artistic vision.