A reclusive composer who lived in St. Petersburg, Russia from her birth in 1919 to her death in 2006, Galina Ustvolskaya has developed a reputation for works of unearthly spiritual power and formidable technical demands. “Your fingers are literally bleeding,” violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja said of playing it.
But if Ustvolskaya’s few, stark compositions are works of violent extremes, the brutally loud cluster chords that often break through dissonance are tempered with moments of quiet, compelling tranquility.
It is that praying side of a composer who wrote for God as well as for mortals that appeals to pianist Yefim Bronfman, who will be performing her Sonata No. 4 (1957) alongside Beethoven and Chopin sonatas at Carnegie Hall on Monday.
Ustvolskaya insisted that her music was not subject to ordinary analysis, and she swore there were no influences in it; even without her efforts it would still sound unique. After all, as the historian Simon Morrison has written, Ustvolskaya “questioned not only the conventions of art, but our understanding of art”—not writing “for workers in deference to official aesthetics,” but changing “music at work”.
Yet no music exists entirely outside of history. Asked in an interview to choose a favorite page from the Fourth Sonata, an 11-minute piece in four short, continuous movements, Bronfman discussed how Ustvolskaya’s work expands on traditional forms, as well as its political context. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Ustvolskaya’s music has really come to prominence outside of Russia only since the end of the Cold War. How did you find out?
I never really knew her until seven or eight years ago, when a conductor asked me to perform her “Composition No. 2” for piano, percussion and eight double basses. Somehow the performance never went through, but after studying the score there was something very special about it. I started looking into her other music, which there isn’t much of. I spoke to Markus Hinterhäuser, who recorded all the sonatas. It’s been a fantastic experience, I must say, quite unlike anything I’ve ever played in my life.
I found no connection with anyone, except perhaps Beethoven. Everyone leads to Beethoven in a direct or an abstract way. Hers is an extremely abstract way. As Beethoven grew older, his sonata form became shorter and shorter. Hers has to do with that. No matter how short a movement is, there is always a sonata form in it. Sometimes the development part consists of only a few notes, but then there is a clear indication of the recapitulation in each part.
Music usually has a lifespan. The music begins and ends, and then life begins again. But a piece of Ustvolskaya – you play it, and it lingers for a long time. It’s almost like a meditation. It gives you a very peaceful feeling when you play it.
Do you see it as religious or at least spiritual music in that sense?
Not religious, but very spiritual. She grew up in Soviet times and religion was banned. Many people who gravitated towards religion experienced it in a spiritual way, not in a biblical way. That’s how I feel about Ustvolskaya.
So you can hear her personal introversion in her music too?
Absolutely, I hear total loneliness. She talks to the universe and she doesn’t want to have anything else to do with it. I don’t feel there is any gravity in the music; most music has an epicenter, but hers is out there in slow motion. That’s not to say there aren’t explosions; there are very violent explosions. But they are usually followed by very serene and soft sounds.
I must say that she is also a very Russian composer in the sense that you always hear bells. Bells and choruses, human voices, as in the second movement of this sonata, it begins with bells and there is a chorale. The third part is all the bells.
Some of it sounds very close to chanting†
Right. She may be more connected to medieval music, but with a very modern voice. You know, it’s very hard to talk about this music because you have to hear it and experience it.
She herself said that she didn’t want us to analyze her music, that it just had to be felt.
Right, and she didn’t want to seem influenced by anyone. Even Shostakovich, her teacher, rejected them. She regretted how much he tried to influence her, and she tried to throw it all away. I don’t think there’s even an inch of his music in hers. She is completely unrelated to anything before her or after her, which is quite fascinating.
So much of Shostakovich’s work was shaped by his political context. Do you hear similar struggles in her later work?
Shostakovich suffered greatly from the persecution by the authorities. He wrote a lot of Soviet music to please the authorities, and so did they. But music like the sonatas has nothing to do with politics; it’s totally apolitical music.
It’s interesting that she managed to create that space, given the traditional Western clichés about composers working in Soviet society.
I’m sure she experienced the same as other composers who wanted their voices heard, and not allowed it. Many composers in those days were much more creative with writing between the notes than in the notes. The message was always hidden. A bit like Schumann, in a different time and for different reasons.
Ustvolskaya wrote six piano sonatas in four decades. Why run this?
I chose it because it’s not that violent. Especially the last part, it has those cluster chords, but most of it is very peaceful and has a really nice, meditative quality that I think is needed for this program, after the intensity of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’.
Is there a page of the score that you particularly like or that reveals it?
I like the middle part of the second part, where it’s “pppp”: it’s almost as if human voices come from another world or from outer space, in the middle of this violent piece. I also like the murmur of the thrillers in the last part; you have those long notes to them – to me that is very special.
These trills suggest to my ears the first movement of Schubert’s last sonata.
It certainly has an echo of that. They go through the whole part, those trills, then the cluster chords with sforzandos, then you have a pianissimo progression. It has a fascinating sonority and imagination.
Ustvolskaya was picky about how people performed her music. She reacted strongly to people who were particularly expressive with it. And she asks a huge amount of you. How is it possible to distinguish between a “ppp” and a “pppp”, a “fff” and a “ffff”?
Dynamics are relative, in all music. “Piano” means “piano” only in the context of what comes before and after. Same with her. If it’s “ppp” it’s one sound, but if it’s “pppp” it should be softer; there’s no magic to it. You find an instrument where you can really distinguish between dynamics, that’s all we can do.
Every composer I have worked with is different. Stravinsky said: just play the notes, play what it says and don’t overdo it. I imagine she was in the same school; she wanted you to execute exactly what it says on the page. The music speaks for itself. You don’t have to work hard to make it sound like it should.
Do you play her other sonatas in concert?
I really want. Why not? She’s a good composer, I think a great composer. She has a strong message, as abstract as it is, and rare, but there is something that has an appeal.