Book Reviews 29

The Magical Chorus

Variations on the Theme: Galina Ustvolskaya

Udine Conference Papers (2005)

29_Magical /

‘The Magical Chorus’ by Solomon Volkov
A History of Russian Culture From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn
Solomon Volkov, translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
352 pages
Knopf 2008
ISBN-10: 1400042720

As its subtitle suggests, this engaging book, translated from its author’s mother tongue, Russian, into clear, elegant English, is sweeping in its scope.

Clearly someone unafraid of biting off a lot, Solomon Volkov has done justice to his subject. Readers of his passionate study, “Shostakovich and Stalin,” will not be surprised at the enormously high level of engagement he brings to this latest enterprise. The good news for them is that, four years on, he has shed some of the hothouse, insiderish manner that at times rendered the earlier book somewhat inaccessible to those less informed than he is about all things Russian. “The Magical Chorus” is an ideal guide, clear but still subtle and nuanced, to the rich complexity of Russian culture, its splendors, controversies, achievements and tragedies throughout the 20th century.

In its first decade, Leo Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest European novelist, was still active, a glorious iconoclast questioning not only Russian autocracy but also the very way people lived their lives. Anton Chekhov was writing groundbreaking plays until his premature death in 1904, and Konstantin Stanislavsky was producing them (and many others) at his Moscow Art Theater, perhaps the most avant-garde venue in Europe. Idealist philosophy dominated Russian culture: Individualism was the order of the day. Volkov evokes the excitement of that far-off time with compelling immediacy. .

The czarist regime, though brutal, was less interested in stifling cultural expression than political heresy. By contrast, the leaders of the Soviet Union, especially Lenin and Stalin, were keenly aware of the uses of culture and the dangers it posed to a collectivist dictatorship. Lenin exiled the nation’s best and brightest intellectuals. Under Stalin, terror, backed up by firing squads and the Gulag, minimized dissent. This dictator was highly opinionated when it came to culture, imposing his own tastes – ironically, rather conservative and anti-modernist – on his nation. Volkov reports that as early as 1929 Stalin argued that “without making the entire population literate and ‘cultured’ they [would] not be able to raise the level of agriculture, industry, or defense.”

But he had more sinister motives for harnessing culture, as Volkov notes with characteristic pithiness: “Stalin regarded Soviet culture as a huge hose for brainwashing his subjects before what he considered the inevitable Third World War, in the course of which Communism would at last conquer the whole world.”

Born and raised in the Soviet Union, Volkov, who now lives in New York, powerfully depicts the contradictory emotions the regime engendered. He recalls as a boy “the fear and horror I felt when on the dark and damp morning of March 6 [1953] as I was getting ready for school I heard the radio announcer speak slowly and with bathos” of Stalin’s death.

He continues: “I did not know then that on the same day, and also from brain hemorrhage, Prokofiev had died. The composer was weak and the tension that was in the air in the last days of Stalin’s life had apparently hastened his end.” Volkov uses the coincidence as a telling cultural symbol, but he also adds little details forgotten (or never known) except by those who were there: “[I]t was difficult to scrape up flowers for [Prokofiev’s] coffin because all the flowers and wreaths in Moscow had been requisitioned for Stalin’s funeral.” There was a baleful side to the treatment of even those artists the regime favored: When they were told to play at Stalin’s funeral, pianist Sviatoslav Richter and violinist David Oistrakh “and the other musicians were not allowed to leave the Hall of Columns for several days and nights, kept there on dry rations.” Details like this enliven the book.

Volkov’s vast and intimate knowledge of his subject and beyond is displayed throughout, whether he’s discussing the effects of Prokofiev’s devotion to Christian Science or the current Russian version of imperialism: “Contemporary Eurasianists call for the creation of a new empire on the ruins of the Soviet Union, with Russia at its center. The United States is the great Satan for the neo-Eurasianists, and they see the mission of the Russian people as stopping the American-sponsored expansion of the Western liberal model of economic and cultural development. They propose creating new geopolitical axes: Moscow-Beijing, Moscow-Delhi, and Moscow-Tehran, and also uniting with the Arab world. Consequently, they argue, Russia’s cultural priorities must be Eastern, not Western.”

In Russia, the intertwining of culture and politics is supercharged, as Volkov shows in his tour d’horizon of this corner of the world’s turbulent preceding century. He ends on a somber note: “Once again, as it was at the start of the twentieth century, Russia – anxious, brooding, enigmatic – is at a crossroads, choosing its way.”

No one reading “The Magical Chorus” will doubt which way Volkov hopes it will choose. His experiences of his beloved nation under the iron heel of Marxism-Leninism have taught him the necessity for freedom of expression and action. And his book celebrates liberty, idealism and humanism – all that is most valuable in Russian culture.

Courtesy LA Times,
by Martin Rubin


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Variations on the Theme Galina Ustvolskaya
by Simon Bokman
Translated by Irina Behrendt
Studia Slavica Musicologica No. 40
Verlag Ernst Kuhn, Berlin, 2007

At the time of her death, on 22 December 2006, Galina Ustvolskaya was known to the outside world by reputation only – of necessity – as something of an eccentric, to put it no more strongly than that. Her music was sui generis, including five ‘symphonies’ composed between 1955 and 1990, all with voices singing or reciting religious texts and the later two, despite their labels, scored not for orchestra but for unusual chamber combinations. Her output contained a further handful of eccentrically scored chamber works (a term she rejected), among them Composition No. 1 (1970–71), subtitled Dona nobis pacem, for piccolo, tuba and piano, No. 2 (1972–73), Dies irae, for eight double-basses, piano and a wooden box, and No. 3 (1974–75), Benedictus, qui venit, for four flutes, four bassoons and piano. Not that the eccentricities of Ustvolskaya’s works stopped at their titles and instrumentation: their dynamic markings range from ppppp to ffffff, and they manifest abrupt shifts in texture and mood, from a motionless contemplation focussed on a single note or hypnotically rocking semitonal oscillation to violent and dense outbursts of rage.

This music – more or less the only representation of her character in the wider world – spoke of an almost maniacal religious intensity. Her personal behaviour and few public utterances reinforced the image of a bizarre, well, nutter. She had hardly ever travelled abroad, resisting invitations to festivals. She repulsed enquiries about her music, not least from musicologists (‘All who really love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it’), and spoke of it in a way that seemed deliberately isolationist (‘There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead’). Fiercely principled, she sought no advantage in her sex (‘We should only play music that is genuine and strong. If we are honest about it, a performance in a concert by Women composers is a humiliation for the music’). Not only had she rebuffed Shostakovich in marriage; she minced no words when she spoke about him (‘Then, as now, I determinedly rejected his music, and unfortunately his personality only intensified this negative attitude […]. One thing remains as clear as day: a seemingly eminent figure such as Shostakovich, to me, is not eminent at all, on the contrary he burdened my life and killed my best feelings’). The calculated ritual of her music combined with her explosive personality in a manner that seemed calculated to forestall any assessment of her as an individual – and it worked.

That’s why Simon Bokman’s reminiscences of Ustvolskaya – for all the sloppiness of the presentation – are so important: this book takes you beyond that wolverine exterior to reveal, yes, as a tough personality as you’d expect but one with a considerable sense of humour, and which on occasion was surprisingly candid about her insecurities. Bokman, born in Kiev in 1950, studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music in Leningrad from autumn 1968 until his graduation in 1974; during that time Ustvolskaya taught him composition. She was a solicitous teacher, but one who showed her concern through tough love. When a student brought an unashamedly Scriabinesque piece into her class, she commented that ‘Music is here, the author is abs-ent’ (p. 16). She wards her students off copying her music with barbed sarcasm: ‘Do you know Sviridov’s Piano Trio? […] I honestly can’t tell it from Shostakovich’s Trio. So, Shostakovich praised this Trio a lot’ (p. 22). Ustvolskaya ‘trained self-reliance. She did not try to “endow” students with her knowledge and experience. One had to learn to take it from her’. Having suggested Bokman examine the difference between the painting in the Rembrandt room in the Hermitage and those of his students in the neighbouring ones;

Ustvolskaya never asked me whether I went to the Hermitage or did the other things she suggested; she never asked what I saw and what I understood. Never. That, as I understand, was one of her pedagogical principles: not to instruct, but to give direction, following which a student would discover the answer […]. Students should be able to set a creative problem and work independently towards its resolution [pp. 26–27].

The emphasis on self-reliance had its origin in her own fierce independence of mind, which often manifested itself as prickliness – although some of the devices that Ustvolskaya devised to keep the world at bay have a comic touch, such as ‘changing’ the date of her birthday from 17 June to 17 July, since she would be then be holiday and would not have to fend off visitors.

Bokman is at pains to point out the coherence of her personality and attitudes, sometimes expressed unexpectedly: ‘Galia’ I once asked, ‘do you like fried meat?’ ‘I like everything but the Soviet regime’ (p. 87). But from that opposition he draws an insight into the nature of her music: ‘Ustvolskaya is a prominent Soviet composer. Only in Russia, with its merciless tyrannical system, the consequences of which have yet to be outlived, could such powerful and spiritual opposition appear’ (p. 110). Should we then understand the wild idiosyncrasy of her music as, at least in part, a political gesture? Was her destruction of her earlier, socialist-realist compositions – chiefly occasional cantatas and symphonic poems – also a clearing of her conscience? Bokman leaves us to guess: by the time he raises the fascinating suggestion that the Soviet system itself might have triggered Ustvolskaya’s moral and stylistic intransigence we are in the second-last paragraph of his main text.

But then organisation is not its strong point. The text is presented in 21 ‘Variations’, which display no particular structural purpose, and which are interspersed by a series of rambling ‘Interludes’ (often as long as the Variations), set in italics – but the Variations also include reminiscences set in italics, so that the reader often stumbles from one section to the next with no clear sense that he is being taken anywhere. The 40 pages of end-notes contain material that could as easily have sat in the main section. Bokman often states the obvious or drifts into irrelevant asides. The translation can be awkward, though the translator’s footnoted adumbrations of specifically Russian concepts are helpful.

Still, for all that the text itself would have benefited from some tough editorial love, it tells us more about Ustvolskaya than any other source I know in English, and it substantially revises the received ideas about her personality, as composer and human being. Both the subject of this book and its readership are the richer for it.

Martin Anderson

29_rossanna /

Dmitrij D. Šostakovič (1906-1975).
Tra musica, letteratura e cinema.

Atti del Convegno internazionale
(Università degli Studi di Udine, 15-17 dicembre 2005).
A cura di Rosanna Giaquinta.
362 pp, 2008
ISBN: 978 88 222 5718 5
Series: Historiae Musicae Cultores – Biblioteca, vol. 112

The essays collected here (in Italian, English and Russian) emanate from a Shostakovich Conference that took place in Udine, Italy, in 2005. They include papers on Shostakovich’s literary interests and the relationship with the sources of his compositions, the development of new forms of musical drama, his film scores, contemporary relationships with the music establishment of his time as well as aspects of the reception of his work in Great Britain and Italy.

NB A full review will appear in a later edition of the DSCH Journal

Franco Pulcini – Šostakovič e Mahler Valerij Voskobojnikov – Šostakovič-pianist i ego fortepiannoe tvorcestvo
Evgenij Dobrenko – Šostakovič-formalist
Pauline Fairclough – The Old Shostakovich: A Short History of his Reception in Britain
Roberta De Giorgi – II testo della Lady Macbeth da Leskov a Šostakovič
Gabriella Rosso – La monodia di Katerina «Ach, ne spitsja bol’se» nella prima versione della Lady Macbeth del distretto di Mcensk (1932)
Levon Akopjan (Hakobian) – Šostakovič, Proletkul’t IRAPM
Elena Petrusanskaja – ‘Šostakovič-citatel’
Boris Gasparov – Smert’ v sovetskom bytu: stichotvorenie B. Pasternaka V bol’nice / 11-j kvartet D. Šostakoviča
Lewis Owens – On Trial: Shostakovich, Sinyavsky and Socialist Realism
Rosanna Giaquinta – Viaggio da Pietroburgo a Napoli. Eduardo De Filippo rilegge Gogol’ attraverso Šostakovič
Rosamund Bartlett – Shostakovich and the Debates about Opera in 1920s Soviet Russia
John Riley – Keeping the Icons on the Wall: Shostakovich’s Cinema and Concert Music
Manasir Jakubov – Šostakovič cerez 30 let
Natal’ja Nusinova – Šostakovič i FEKS (Kozincev i Trauberg)
Hélène Bernatchez – Shostakovich and FEKS. Integrating the Theory of Russian Formalism into the Music of New Babylon
Roberto Calabretto – L’Amleto di Grigorij Kozincev