September 27, 2019
She's Rising from the Depths of Soviet Music HistoryRoundup
tags: Russia, Soviet Union, music history, twentieth century, musicology, composition, Galina Ustvolskaya
Gabrielle Cornish is a PhD candidate in musicology at Eastman School of Music.
Early in 1994, the composer Galina Ustvolskaya sat in a dimly lit apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia. As the chilly winter air seeped through rickety windowpanes, she gave a rare interview about her work.
“If the fate of my music is that it shall endure for some time,” she said softly, “then for thinking musicians, without the limitations of stereotypes, it will be understood that this music is new both in its intellectual sense as well as in its contents.”
She paused, before continuing in a whisper: “It is not pleasant for me to talk about this, but I have decided to try.”
Will Ustvolskaya’s music endure? While this year marks the centenary of her birth, on June 17, 1919, the occasion has largely been overlooked by the music world. American audiences have long embraced her Soviet peers, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke, but Ustvolskaya is hardly played in this country. Even in her native Russia, her works are seldom performed outside of academic and new-music circles.
Slowly but surely, though, scholars and performers are embracing Ustvolskaya’s music, which is, as she characterized it in that 1994 interview, truly new: grueling but cathartic, shockingly visceral and fleetingly metaphysical. Known for its dynamic extremes, ranging from “pppp” to “ffff” — the quietest to the loudest — with little in between, her works have been admiringly likened to black holes, lasers and radiation burns. The musicologist Elmer Schönberger indelibly referred to her as “the lady with a hammer” because of the stony relentlessness of her style.
Markus Hinterhäuser likened her works to Malevich’s stark black-and-white Suprematist paintings of the early 20th century. “You can’t talk much about it — and she didn’t want you to,” he said. “But you have to accept that it’s there, it exists.”
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