Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya (Russian: Гали́на Ива́новна Уство́льская listenⓘ, 17 June 1919 – 22 December 2006) was a Russian composer of classical music.
Born in Petrograd, Ustvolskaya studied from 1937 to 1939 at the college attached to the Leningrad Conservatory (later renamed the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory). From 1947 till 1977 she taught composition at this college. In 1939 she was the only female student in Dmitri Shostakovich's composition class at the Conservatory. Her composition teacher said of her:
"I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve world fame, and be valued by all who hold truth to be the essential element of music."
Shostakovich sent some of his own as yet unfinished works to Ustvolskaya, attaching great value to her comments. Some of these pieces contain quotations from his pupil's compositions; for example, he employed the second theme of the Finale of her clarinet trio throughout the Fifth String Quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (no. 9).
Ustvolskaya was a pupil of Shostakovich from 1939 to 1941 and from 1947 to 1948, but her works from the 1950s onwards retain little influence of his style. Until 1961 none of her true works were performed other than patriotic pieces written for official consumption. The middle of the 1960s witnessed greater tolerance for modernist music, and interest in Ustvolskaya grew – the Leningrad Union of Composers organized in the 1970s evenings of her music, which received high praise from listeners and critics. Widespread recognition came after her music was performed in several concerts of the 1989 Holland Festival.
Ustvolskaya developed her own style, of which she said, "There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead." Among its characteristics are the use of repeated, homophonic blocks of sound – which prompted the Dutch critic Elmer Schönberger to call her "the lady with the hammer" – unusual combinations of instruments (such as eight double basses, piano and percussion in her Composition No. 2); use of extreme dynamics (as in her Piano Sonata No. 6); the employment of groups of instruments to introduce tone clusters; sparse harmonic textures; and the use of piano or percussion to beat out unchanging rhythms. Ustvolskaya's music has been described by critics and scholars as carrying “the bleakness of one who stares into the void on a regular basis” and as evoking “visceral feelings of horror.” Many have attributed influences to her work, all of which Ustvolskaya has denied.
Despite being a highly private person, Galina Ustvolskaya has commented publicly on the spiritual aspects of her music. She has often incorporated religious texts, especially in her late works, though she insists that none of her pieces conform to the beliefs of a specific religious sect. In an interview, her friend and publisher Viktor Suslin stated that her music is not liturgical and should not be labelled as religious, but rather that it “springs directly from the contact she feels with God.” When discussing her compositional process, Ustvolskaya has said that she only composed when she “fell into a state of grace” inspired by God and that “each work has a very long period of coming into being, after which she simply writes it down.” When offered a commission, she wrote: “If God gives me the opportunity to compose something, then I will do it without fail.” Although it is unclear whether Ustvolskaya was a member of a religious community, it is evident that she was greatly inspired by her spiritual connection to God and that it is integral to her compositional process.
The music of Galina Ustvolskaya was not openly censured in the USSR. However, she was accused of being unwilling to communicate and of "narrowness" and "obstinacy".
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