Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ustvolskaya - Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani

Galina Ustvolskaya composed two types of works: officially sanctioned works for the state, and as Shostakovich called them works for the drawer, compositions written for no other reason but the inner drive of the composer to write them.

Ustvolskaya was a student of Dmitri Shostakovich for a few years at the Leningrad Conservatory. There were rumors about the relationship being more than teacher/pupil and these rumors, much to her chagrin, followed her throughout her life. In the 1990's she had enough of speculation about her relationship with Shostakovich and wrote the following:
I am writing these notes to finally assert the TRUTH about my relations with Dmitri Shostakovich. To state the TRUTH about Shostakovich himself as a composer and a person. I am not writing anything in detail. Details could have far-reaching consequences. It is high time to move on from the steadfast, stupid point of view on Shostakovich. On my part I would like to say the following: never once during the years, even during my studies at the Conservatory which I spent in his class, was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality. I would be even more candid: I bluntly refused to accept his music, as in the following years. Unfortunately, Shostakovich’s personality only deepened my negative attitude towards him. I do not feel it necessary to further dwell on the subject. One thing remains clear: it would seem that such an outstanding figure as Shostakovich was not outstanding to me. On the contrary, it was painful and killed my best feelings. I begged God to give me strength to create and now too I ask God the same.
Galina Ustvolskaya St. Petersburg, 1 January 1994 (this and more information can be found at ustvolskaya.org)
Whatever their relationship, Ustvolskya resented the persistence of the rumors for the simple fact that it tended to make critics and scholars focus on matters other than her music.

Ustvolskaya's list of works that she considered valid (meaning no official state-sanctioned music is included) is short, only 25 works. But she was a highly principled artist and finally decided to be true to her art and herself and only compose works when and how she wanted to, or rather when the spirit of God moved her to. She wrote a letter to a publisher in response to a request to write a composition for publication;
...I would gladly write something for your publishing house, but this depends on God — not on me. If God gives me the opportunity to compose something, then I will do it without fail. My method of finishing a work is essentially very different from that of other composers. I write whenever I am in a favourable mood. Then the composition is left to rest for some time, and when its time comes I give it its freedom. If its time does not come, then I destroy it. I do not accept commissions. The whole process of composition is accomplished in my head and in my soul. Only I myself can determine the path of my composition. "Lord, give me the strength to compose! — I beseech Thee" (04.02.1990 ustvolskaya.org).
 Ustvolskaya taught for a number of years at the Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory and seems to have been well liked by most of her students. Like her life and her music, her teaching methods were unorthodox but valued by her students. After the premiere of the Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani (which caused somewhat of a scandal), the administration of the conservatory threatened to remove her but her students staged a protest and she was retained.

The Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani was written in 1946 when she was 27 years old, and is considered her first work as a composer.  It is in one continuous movement and is one of her most accessible works:

The work begins with the soloist playing a rhythmic figure that is heard sporadically throughout the composition.  The music is still divided by bar lines with shifting of time signatures from 4/4, 6/8, and 3/4. Although in later years Ustvolskaya denied that Shostakovich was any influence on her music, this concerto shows that not to be the case as there are examples that hearken back to Shostakovich's style. There are basically two themes in the work that weave in and out in sections that are at times strong and rugged and other times lyrical and melodic. This concerto doesn't do away with major-minor key relationships altogether. There is an organic quality of growth in the work that comes full circle with the finale that returns again to the opening rhythmic motive that is brutally repeated by the piano until the closing chord, a stylistic trait that she repeated in other works to the extent that a critic labeled her The Lady With The Hammer.

Ustvolskaya's music became more and more avant garde through the years, and she became incredibly particular about performances of her music, which probably didn't help in getting them performed.  A spiritual (but not religious) element also entered into her later works.  Opinions from her contemporaries about Ustvolskaya's music range from those who love it to those who detest it, and the same goes for Ustvolskaya the person.  She remains somewhat of an enigma as well as a paradox; shy but yet brutally aggressive in her music, solitary in the extreme but an able and innovative teacher. She was born in the city of Petrograd in 1919, spent most of her life in the city of Leningrad, and died in the city of St. Petersburg in 2006, all of which are changes to the same city's name during her lifetime - a reflection of the great social and artistic upheaval she lived through. She seemed to weather the storm with no regrets as she remained true to her unique artistic vision.  Her music will most likely never be very popular, but she probably understood that better than anyone.

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