Book Reviews 17

Music as an Obsession
O. Gladkova
(Available in Russian only, from Muzika Publishers, St Petersburg 159pp)

Gladkova’s book is the first monograph attempting an in-depth treatise of Galina Ustvolskaya‘s work. Although her music is heard more and more worldwide, it still awaits due recognition, remaining as enigmatic as her person.

A woman of unique integrity and unyielding to any kind of compromise, she was an outsider in the Soviet arts establishment, and remains such today, when odes to Lenin have given way to a flood of sacred music.

She didn’t leave the country as did many others but for many years lived in “internal emigration.” She never stopped composing, despite the fact that her music was rarely, if ever performed. In her music, everything is extreme, taken to the limit; from instrumental range (dynamics, timbre) to unusual instrumentation, from style to aesthetics. Ustvolskaya testifies:

“The process of composing occurs outside of the instrument. Everything is thought through in detail, as if the music is born inside, and when the time comes, I just write it down,”

The book is rich with quotes from fellow musicians (as well as from Ustvolskaya herself) regarding her craft and spirituality in addition to the very essence of her music and art. These elements are rarities, given the extreme seclusion of her life:

“For me, nature, peace and calm are more important. But not people… Solitude is best. Because it is only in solitude that I can find myself, that which is, indeed, the essence of my life.”

A separate chapter is dedicated to the relationship between Ustvolskaya and Dmitry Shostakovich. Unfortunately the subject is treated here with an extreme lack of tact and reserve. True, Ustvolskaya and her mentor had not always been on a friendly footing, and for a variety of reasons she is not particularly happy when filed among Shostakovich’s progeny. But Gladkova takes matters one step further. Acting upon the premise that the only way to “clear a place in musical history that Ustvolskaya deserves” is to dismiss her mentor out of hand, she takes Shostakovich to task. To reinforce her own “critical opinions,” she quotes extensively from Victor Suslin and (sigh) Ustvolskaya herself. Ironically, the style and tone of this “critique” is painfully reminiscent of certain infamous articles in the Soviet press from Shostakovich’s own past·

Otherwise the book presents thorough analyses of some major works: the Octet, the Grand Duo for Cello and Piano, the Piano Preludes and Sonatas and symphonic works. Gladkova’s interpretation emphasizes the originality of the composer’s mentation and her courage in face of huge emotional overloads.

“Ustvolskaya’s music is tragic to its core. One can’t just listen to it – one has to live through it, prepared to be burnt by its pain and expressiveness. It is very difficult to find a written equivalent to describe her music.

It penetrates consciousness, takes over and remains – an obsession.”

Thus writes her student, Olga Gladkova.


The Spiritual Works of Galina Ustvolskaya by Marian Lee

Ustvolskaya was one in a string of composers from the Soviet Union to be “discovered” by the West during the period of Glasnost and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union. In the last decade her music has been eagerly devoured in the West. Over twenty recordings exist of her works and every single composition in her 1990 catalog has been recorded. Notable international artists such as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor Valery Gergiev and pianists Reinbert de Leeuw and Oleg Malov have championed her music.

Despite the avid admiration and interest her music has drawn in the past ten years, Ustvolskaya has hidden from the spotlight. Leading a very private and isolated existence, Ustvolskaya hardly leaves her home, avoids giving interviews, recoils from being taped, videotaped or photographed, and until 1995 at the age of seventy five, had never left her country, despite numerous invitations from abroad. Ustvolskaya also never accepts commissions – telling one publisher that “it depends on God not on me.” The unwavering resolve in her religious belief and the self-imposed solitary life Ustvolskaya leads, reminds one of a monk who has taken vows of seclusion and abstinence from the material world.

Marina Primachenko, translated by Victor Dvortsov