Memories of Galina Ustvolskaya

By · Photo © Josée Voormans · Date 11/15/2018

I worked in a music library for some years. One of our regular visitors was an elderly Irish nun whose eyes twinkled with purpose. She was working on her book, she told me, about the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya. Ustvolskaya’s music was little known in the West when Sister Andre Dullaghan had first heard it, sometime in the ‘80s, and she was determined to discover more. The composer lived in a nondescript apartment in St. Petersburg. If one knew anything of her, it was that she’d been a pupil of Shostakovich. He’d even, it was said, proposed marriage. She declined and, later in life, vehemently denied his musical influence and personal friendship.Just a handful of musicians could perform her music to Ustvolskaya’s exacting standards. She admitted no influences, no antecedents. She belonged to no tradition. And she’d withdrawn from the world, to a tiny flat that she shared with her husband. No one saw her. One did not visit Ustvolskaya.In the pounding of Ustvolskaya’s brutally expressive, rhythmically single-minded symphonies and sonatas, Sister Andre had seen God, a raw and blinding image of Him that spoke intensely to her faith. She visited St. Petersburg in 1993, but it was five years before Sister Andre took a risk and phoned Ustvolskaya’s home number, a few days shy of the composer’s 78th birthday. The composer answered. I do not wish to see you,” said Sister Andre, “but at 5:30 I will ring your doorbell and leave you a present.”Immediately: “There’s no need to.”Sister Andre, though, had prepared. “I have already bought your present.” Chocolate-covered prunes—Ustvolskaya’s favorite.There was a long pause.“What time did you say you’d call?”That evening, Sister Andre arrived at the apartment, at the appointed time. She rang the bell, not expecting any response. But the door opened, and there stood Ustvolskaya, dressed beautifully. She offered Sister Andre a warm embrace, and invited her in. They spoke for a while, and the composer asked her, “Why do you love my music so much?”“I love your music,” replied Sister Andre, “because every note touches my soul.”The nun passed away in 2015, her book unfinished. But, as I discovered, there were others who had crossed the threshold of Galina Ustvolskaya’s closely-guarded world.

I. Contact

Josée Voormans (a filmmaker who made a documentary about Ustvolskaya): [In 1987] Elmer Schönberger and I were planning programs for the Holland Festival, and we made a trip to Russia. It was the time of Glasnost, of Gorbachev, so it was easier to get in. A man in Holland told us that he had a cassette that we should hear. He said, “This woman who composed this music is really extraordinary.” We listened to this cassette and it was music we just couldn’t place in history. She lived in St. Petersburg and we were able to get her telephone number. I called her and asked if we could meet to talk about her music and to invite her to Holland.

Elmer Schönberger (a writer and composer): Josée called her and I sat next to her, at our hotel, feeding her questions, and it was immediately clear that Ustvolskaya was not going to see us. I had hoped to have a conversation and find out what the best way to present her work would be, because at that time I was already convinced I would try to program as much of her music as possible. But she was not willing to receive us.

Josée Voormans: On the telephone she immediately began to say “Oh, no, no, no, it’s impossible to meet. I have a sick person at home.” That was the moment the conversation stopped. Then we met Oleg Malov, a pianist, the one who put Ustvolskaya on the musical map. He had played all her piano music and also made recordings and he told us a lot about her. We tried to invite her to Holland but she didn’t want to come.

Reinbert de Leeuw (a pianist and composer, who became closely associated with Ustvolskaya’s music in the 1990s): Elmer Schönberger came back from Russia, and he had a tape with a recording of the Octet by Ustvolskaya. I listened to that and I was kind of in shock. My God! A composer, a woman composer also, living in the time of Stalin and writing a piece that had no connection with any other music around her or in her culture. It was a voice that was so authentic, so completely on its own. I was immediately fascinated by that piece. We decided to perform it. And so I came in contact with her. She heard a recording of mine and apparently she was rather pleased with it.

Alexei Lubimov (a pianist and harpsichordist): From my youth I was very interested in new music, especially music which was unknown or not allowed by the authorities, or even secret and not performed in public in the Soviet Union. I had seen some published scores by Ustvolskaya, but they all seemed to me to be very primitive and not advanced enough, and so I didn’t look further. But around 1991, I met the violinist Josef Rissin, who presented me with recordings of the Violin Sonata and Duet. I was impressed and began to look at the scores, and at the same time I understood that her music had nothing to do with the avant-garde or the tradition of Shostakovich.

In ‘92 or ’93, I tried to find partners to perform the Octet, the Clarinet Trio and some sonatas. We made some recordings and I sent them to her. She was very, very critical of them. She wrote to me that it was not the right way to play her music. She didn’t tell me how to perform it, and it was only when I heard Reinbert de Leeuw performing the Fifth Piano Sonata that I began to understand. I worked on another recording, which I sent to her, and this time she was absolutely happy. After that, we spoke a lot by telephone. I met her and tried to perform her music in Moscow and in Europe as much as I could. I can’t say that she explained to me how to play her music, but I think I understood quite well how not to play her music, and from that, and the recordings which she loved, I was able to understand what was necessary.

Josée Voormans: It’s difficult to say why she liked me particularly, but I was one of the few people she felt comfortable with. She started to call me when I was working for Dutch television as an editor. They asked me, “Why don’t you make film about her?” I was a bit shy and I said it wasn’t possible. But then I got very brave. I called her and asked her whether it would be possible to have an interview with her on camera. Her husband encouraged this and told her, “If you want to be famous and have the world know you, you have to do something for it.” She hated the camera, but we sat down to talk at her Leningrad apartment, and we filmed it. It was very funny. The sound man held the boom mic above her, and she looked up in horror and said, “What’s that?!” The microphone, I told her. “Oh.” Then she said, “Can we start?” We’d started already. I don’t know what she’d been expecting, but she said, quite startled, “What? I don’t hear anything!”

Reinbert de Leeuw: We had started with [documentaries on] Messiaen, then we did Ligeti and Gubaidulina. We wanted to make one about Ustvolskaya as well. She had apparently said that it was OK to come to film inside her house, but she wouldn’t be on film. She said she hadn’t even been photographed in 40 or 50 years. We went to Russia not knowing what was going on or how we should proceed. In the film, I perform the Fifth Sonata in the Glinka Hall in St. Petersburg. We hoped that she would be there for it, but she was not.

She invited us to her apartment, and you can see in the film that I climbed all the stairs to her apartment, and at first she only opened the door a little and said “Ich bin zu menschenscheu—I’m so afraid of people.” Then we got permission to film inside her apartment. I talked with her a little bit, but she was not willing to explain anything. She had made a kind of statement that people should never analyze her music.

Thea Derks (a Dutch music journalist): [After a performance of the Third Symphony in 1995, I spotted her and] I just walked up to her. I studied Russian for a year and so I addressed her in Russian and said, “I really enjoyed your music—can I do an interview with you for the radio?” She answered, “I don’t think so.” But then her husband said, “Well, we’re in a hotel nearby, so phone us there and we’ll see.” I phoned her the day after and she said she didn’t want to do it, so I tried to make her feel comfortable—it seemed to me she was somehow wary of people, fearing they might not turn out to be nice. So I told her, in Russian, “my name is Theodora Ivanovna”—my middle name is the same as hers.

Suddenly she was willing to do the interview. We made the appointment for the following day. When I arrived at the hotel, her husband came to pick me up in the lobby and took me to her room, which was really tiny. I remember I was shocked because this great composer was stuck away in this humble room. Then she suddenly refused to speak. I had taken out my recorder, of course, for the radio, and it had frightened her. So I said, “I’ll leave the thing off and I’ll write it down and make it into a written interview.” She still didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to give up. Her husband also wanted her to do the interview—finally we came to a compromise. He phoned her friend, the composer Victor Suslin, who was the representative for her publisher. It was very strange: the four of us, in this tiny room. I asked my questions and Suslin answered, but every time he said, “but Mrs. Ustvolskaya can answer this question much better herself.”

Josée Voormans: I started to ask questions, but it was so difficult to get an answer out of her. I got very frustrated. She only answered with “yes” or “no,” so I decided I had to formulate my questions in a different way, because I had questions about Shostakovich, about her childhood, her studies, her family. Eventually she told me everything.

I asked her what she wanted to be when she was small. “I wanted to be an orchestra,” she said. She had a twin sister who was a mathematician, but who died early. She didn’t like her, and she also didn’t like her mother. Her father was a little deaf, and they always shouted very loudly at home, and she didn’t like that. Her safe space was under the piano.

II. The System

Andrei Bakhmin (Ustvolskaya’s archivist and biographer): Her first success as a composer was the bylina “The Dream of Stepan Razin,” written to reflect the ideas of the infamous Resolution of 1948. She then wrote more socialist-realist works, but most of them were either not accepted by the authorities, or were not popular enough and performed only once or twice. The only exception was the Children’s Suite, praised for many years and performed many times. It received no criticism at all.

As soon as she had graduated from the conservatory, she was expected to write just like all the other composers, to write in a way that she didn’t like, and which I suspect even despised. There were many who welcomed the 1948 Resolution, who were weak or young enough and let the Party reshape their minds. She had to try to be like them, and she succeeded, in a way, but she really was as indestructible as a diamond and her ability to write music true to herself did survive. Shostakovich was able to adapt—he recovered from his disgrace and wrote “The Song of the Forest,” which pleased the authorities and gained him success, rehabilitation and money. He too suffered, but he could do that because he truly believed in Lenin, whereas Ustvolskaya believed in God. Imagine Messiaen being forced to write cantatas dedicated to Stalin, the Red Army, or the Young Pioneers.

Reinbert de Leeuw: A short time before I discovered her music, I was very much occupied with the late music of Shostakovich. I was fascinated by how grim it was and how there were sometimes so few notes— but the fewer notes there were, the more expression they seemed to have. And when I came for the first time to the music of Ustvolskaya, I found there was a very close affinity with the late Shostakovich.

But, as Shostakovich himself said to Ustvolskaya: “It is not me who has influenced you; you have influenced me.” This late Shostakovich, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, came after Ustvolskaya had already made these pieces. Later, she said she detested Shostakovich. There were all kinds of rumors about what had happened between the two of them, but her attitude was, Don’t say his name in my presence. I don’t want to speak about it. He has killed the best in me.

Josée Voormans: She told me about her dislike of Shostakovich, how she hated him because he was very egoistical. He was the head of the department of composers and he was the person who selected composers for state music commissions. At the time everybody was very poor and needed money, but she said he took most of the commissions for himself. Once, she said, he was very drunk. He came into her house—she was already married—and threw himself on his knees and said, “You know I am the best composer in the world!”

Andrei Bakhmin: The works in her “real” style only emerged in the 1960s. But in 1963, the Party leaders engaged in a new, if short, campaign against formalism and abstraction, and her Sonata was criticized in a major soviet newspaper as one of the examples of deleterious avant-garde influence coming from the West, which undermined the basics of socialist realism.

Things changed, however, when Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev as the country’s leader. He took over in 1964 and was less concerned with demanding that Soviet composers write with the same style. For this reason, Ustvolskaya’s First Symphony was finally given a performance in 1966, but only after several attempts had been made by the composer over a period of 10 years.

Josée Voormans: One of her early partners was a young composer named Yuri Balkashin. He died when he was 36, in 1960. His coffin sat in the House of Composers: she was with it, and she cried and cried. Another composer told me how terrible it was to see that. Later, she met Konstantin Bagrenin. He was a pupil of hers at the music school, and was more than 20 years younger. He did a lot of business for her—she said to me, “He is my assistant.” They lived in a tiny apartment, with a kitchen and two rooms. In one there was a couch, and in the other a bed and a piano.

[The pianist] Oleg Malov was the first to record her pieces. She later began to dislike the way he played, but he was very important in letting the world know that she existed. But she complained, “Reinbert never asks me how to play something. He just plays it and it’s always good. Malov asks me how to play everything, and he never plays well.” She was very unkind to Malov, which is why I have a very great respect for him that he continues to play her music.

Dr. Maria Cizmic (a musicologist at the University of South Florida): There was a real interest in Western Europe in the ‘90s in composers from behind the Iron Curtain, and the reception of her music involved Western tropes about how terrible it was in the Soviet Union, which positioned her as a dissident. This could be somewhat victimizing, as these composers were real people making choices, not just subject to the political circumstances they found themselves in. This also romanticized the way art comes from suffering, and her music did feed into that, because of its stern and physically painful components.

Another aspect of the reception, which is actually quite international, is the way in which it can be gendered. Rostropovich told the story of meeting her for the first time: he describes this polite, demure young woman who sat at the piano and then started doing her unexpectedly aggressive thing.

Alexei Lubimov: The inner dimensions of her music reflect the state of imprisonment in a system which permits no freedom. Her music wasn’t so much a reaction to being in that system; I think that somehow it was a reflection. I have a feeling of this especially in the works of the 1950s: the Violin Sonata, the Grand Duo, and also the Third Sonata. For me, they have this feeling of a human being inside a closed space, from which it is not possible to get out.

III. Indivisible

Alexei Lubimov: She never spoke about how she had composed or about the meaning of her works, and she didn’t make many comments about the performances. She was always very polite to the performers, especially because by that time she knew already our performances from recordings, and she welcomed all of us. She was very happy with us, until she had got the next recording made by Reinbert de Leeuw and liked that recording more—almost every time!

Reinbert de Leeuw: She was very much a person who had one huge message, and that is clear in the early pieces and then dominates her whole output. The later pieces become maybe still more extreme, especially the last two piano sonatas: even more violent and even more espressivisimo. In the end it is almost unbearable and I can understand that she stopped. You are at the end of a road, and how can you develop that more? There is basically no way to go further. So, she stopped composing. That was, for me, understandable.

Alexei Lubimov: At first, I played her music with a kind of freedom of tempo or expression, which really does not belong to her music. Maybe these were relics from my expressionistic way of playing. When I began to play her music, I loved the Third Sonata, and I brought into the music my personal shiftings of tempi and some slightly unnecessary crescendi and marks of expression to bring out the voices and the polyphony. She criticized exactly this. She wanted to have more unity of the whole, from the beginning to the end, and not details which destroyed the main idea. So I tried to avoid any kind of psychological or personal expression and to instead bring a picture of some kind of inner mountain or something big which cannot be divided into parts.

Elmer Schönberger: I think I used the phrase “the lady with the hammer” [for Ustvolskaya] for the first time after the concert in St. Petersburg at which the Fifth Symphony was premiered. Of course, the hammer is inspired by “Composition No. 2,” the Dies Irae, in which a wooden cube is struck with a hammer. Characterizing a composer in one phrase is always tricky, and it’s always only part of the truth, I’m aware of that. But hammering is what the music does. It also resonates with a Dutch phrase—“The man with the hammer”—which is often used in sport. You’re in, say, the Tour de France, and you’re halfway through a race, and all of a sudden you’re completely exhausted: that’s the man with the hammer. It’s this sudden awareness of exhaustion. And that happens musically with Ustvolskaya, because the effect is so complete.

Alexei Lubimov: In her mature music, there are some distinctive features. Repetitions of the same closed formula, as in the last two movements of the Octet: a pattern or sequence of bars that are repeated without any changes. It’s a kind of montage of non-developed segments, which are glued together but have no development. She uses melodic lines with parallel dissonant intervals of sevenths or combinations of chords based on sevenths, tritones and ninths. Also, she uses a same tempo which does not change throughout the movement. All these unchanging permanent elements in harmony and time are, I think, most important for her.

Reinbert de Leeuw: Her music is so concentrated on one thing. The Fifth Piano Sonata is basically doing one note, D-flat. You have these obsessive things. I am fond of the Violin Sonata, a very early piece. Every time we play that piece it seems there is something haunting there. What is she doing? There is this one motif that repeats and these two people—the violin player and the piano player—who speak different languages in the beginning come together. It is so compelling and every time we play the piece, we are amazed. But it is very difficult to explain why, because the means are so simple. There are only quarter-notes in the whole piece. It is obsessive.

Maria Cizmic: As one of Ustvolskaya’s students put it: “The winds of politics swirl around her, but she stays solid and true to herself.”

IV. Endurance  

Josée Voormans: I think she was a very religious person, but what exactly that meant, for her, I don’t know. I asked her and she said she wasn’t religious; she was spiritual. She said that spirituality was what remained of a human being if nothing else was there.

Maria Cizmic: Her music is not a performance of religion, but of a kind of ritual experience. The concert hall itself is ritualistic, and so is religion, and she’s bringing this together with the repetitive quality of her music. She’s trying to walk a line that a number of people of her generation were trying to walk. They wanted to stake out a space for being spiritual, in which religion and spirituality informed their music and art, but they didn’t want to be connected to the institutions of the Church, especially the Orthodox Church, because there was always some complicity [with the Soviet government] there.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (a violinist): There was an Ustvolskaya festival in Bern, in 2000, while I was studying there. Reinbert de Leeuw and his people played all her works in the Old Dominican Church, a very fitting space for this overwhelming experience. It was music so unlike anything else: wholly original, primordial and compelling.

Reinbert de Leeuw: Ustvolskaya was there, so that was already very special.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Although she was reserved, she obviously enjoyed the applause. Each time, she walked slowly all the way through the long church, and bowed as if she was doing it for the last time in her life. When she walked I thought: it really is her music.

Because I speak Russian, I had to act as her interpreter. Once, she asked me, through her husband, to buy her a very particular set of pajamas, made from dark blue soft flannel. Amazingly, I was able to find just the thing she wanted, and she was very happy. They stayed at the most luxurious hotel in the center of the town. I lived somewhere in the outskirts, and I was asked one day to rush urgently to the hotel to translate. When I arrived, Ustvolskaya’s husband asked me to tell the waiter that she liked her soup without salt.

Josée Voormans: There were some special places which she liked very much in Leningrad, but also in the country, where she liked to sit down and to compose in her head. When it came to making the last documentary, I asked if we could go to such a place. We went to the lake with the trees. It was autumn and the leaves were yellow and lying all over the ground. She said she wrote the Second Symphony there. Well, she didn’t write the symphonies right there, but in she did it in her head, and then she wrote the music out when she came home. She had very bad handwriting, because she had trembling hands, and it became worse and worse. Then she gave the pages to her husband and in the kitchen he rewrote her handwriting so other people could read it. One of the reasons why she didn’t compose anymore, I think, was because writing became more and more difficult and nobody could read what she was writing.

She had such strong ideas about how the Second Symphony should be performed. And I was very happy we could do it in this way. We had dinner, and she was in a very good mood. We had a wonderful meeting. I went to St. Petersburg once more after filming. We sat around her kitchen table, she, my partner Kees, her husband and I, and we had the best chocolate cake, which she ordered. We ate and she was declaiming Heinrich Heine—her German was very good by then—and she was talking and laughing. That was the last time I saw her.

After she died, I went to film her grave and her apartment, because her husband had left everything as it had been. I filmed the house without Ustvolskaya, but with her atmosphere, including her shoes. We had been planning a festival of her music in Holland in 2006, and she had been hoping to be there and to hear everything. But she wasn’t there.

Reinbert de Leeuw: It was a wonderful thing. In three days we did something like four concert programs. We did one of the symphonic poems, in the style of the time. We did that with the Piano Concerto and then, in the second half, the “Michelangelo Songs” of Shostakovich, in which he quoted her Trio. It was whole three days filled with Ustvolskaya. It was very special. There was a huge audience for it and people were so impressed. That was after her death that we did that, a kind of memorial for her.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Since those first encounters with her, I have become an advocate of her music and program and play it whenever and wherever possible. For the 2017 Lucerne Festival I even played her wooden cube in Dies Irae. In interviews I mentioned a few times that this wooden cube reminded me of a coffin, an impression that came from seeing the piece performed with Reinbert de Leeuw using an instrument which was longer than the size she gives in the score. There were complaints about my comments from the Ustvolskaya community, so I apologized and promised to never call it a coffin again. Still, the horrifying punches that you hear in the piece remind me of a Christian Orthodox funeral ceremony where the body is first seen in an open coffin, so that the family can say goodbye, and is only then covered with a lid and nailed shut with loud strikes of the hammer.

Reinbert de Leeuw: I’ve performed Ustvolskaya a lot. For me the problem is that I can’t play the Three Compositions anymore. I don’t have the strength. It’s really tough. But I’m still performing, for instance, the Violin Sonata.

Patricia Kopatchainskaja: Your fingers literally bleed. You know, you really suffer when you play this music, and I think it is important to suffer. Only then can you tell the truth about this music. It is an extraordinary intimate music, utterly personal and lonely. It’s like carrying one’s own cross inside oneself. No effects; no space for interpretation. It’s a confession.

Elmer Schönberger: I shook hands with her, but I never had a real personal relationship with her, as Josée Voormans had. In a way, it was good for me that she always stayed at a distance, and that she was to me a persona more than a real person. I could take her work and her music as though, strange as it is to say, from a dead composer, not complicated by personality. I liked that.

Alexei Lubimov: Oh, by the way, I remember Sister Andre. She called me in around 1992 or ’93, and we talked about Ustvolskaya. I was disappointed with myself, though, because I was only just beginning to understand the music and I couldn’t say much that was useful. Sister Andre was ahead of me, I think. Actually, I think she was ahead of many people. ¶