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The Piano Sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya

How does one understand a composer whose music is often described as enigmatic, who considered her music to be beyond analytical approach (Nalimova 56), and whose publisher described her compositions as having “her own language, which is unique and is beyond any form of analysis” (Derks 33)? How do you approach a woman whose music has been characterized as Russian nihilism (Blois 11), hallmarked by brutality (Ross H23), and as a “pure manifestation of life of the spirit… it is the music of the subconscious” (Nalimova 41)?


Though not as well known as many of her Soviet contemporaries, Galina Ustvolskaya (1919–2006) is a powerful figure of her era. Her compositional oeuvre is small (just twenty-one acknowledged works, rarely reaching twenty minutes in length), yet it contains a purity and hypnotic power that is rare.


Ustvolskaya’s Life


Born in St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) into a middle-class family, Ustvolskaya’s childhood was unhappy and lonely, where

“[she] used to walk around the city for hours, often missing lessons, and would come home very late. I [Ustvolskaya] did not want to go there, I knew I would be told off and even punished (Nalimova 41).”

Many critics attribute her reclusive behavior and severe compositional style to her troubled childhood, beginning a lifelong hermetic life from a young age. She began her serious musical studies at the small music college attached to the Leningrad Conservatory (Petrograd now called Leningrad) in 1937, continuing her studies at the Conservatory with Dmitri Shostakovich in 1939, which lasted through her postgraduate studies, finally graduating in 1950. She began teaching at the music college in 1947, teaching until the day of her 55th birthday in 1975.


For many people, it is through her connection with Shostakovich that the name of Ustvolskaya is familiar. However, her relationship with Shostakovich remains convoluted and contentious, with many falling-outs between the former teacher and student. Though Shostakovich seems to have greatly valued his relationship with Ustvolskaya—sending her compositions for comments, quoting her works in his own music, and even proposing to her after his first wife died in 1954 (Blois 10)—she did not always reciprocate this seemingly positive relationship. She denied that it was Shostakovich who defended and promoted her early compositions while studying at the Leningrad Conservatory, rather saying it was Mikhail Gneissin. She likewise denies Shostakovich’s influence on her compositions, with her publisher Viktor Suslin saying

“it took Galina almost superhuman strength to avoid his influence; she is the only one of Shostakovich’s pupils who did not become his clone (Derks 32).”

Ustvolskaya spent her entire life in St. Petersburg, only once venturing out of Russia. Though her music did have its champions (such as her husband and former student Konstantin Bagrenin, and pianist Oleg Malov), her own reclusiveness and the persecution of the Soviet authorities delayed both performance and publication of many of her her works by twenty years (Jeremiah-Foulds 23). It was not until the 1980s and 90s that her music spread to the West (Ross H23). Today, her complete oeuvre has been recorded multiple times.


Understanding her piano sonatas, which span her entire compositional career, is no easy task. The six sonatas (making up over a quarter of her published works) contain many technical and musical difficulties, including both extended notation and techniques. Her Sonata #1 (1947, published in 1973) was written while she was still a student. This was quickly followed by Sonata #2 (1949, published 1969), in which she began characteristic notational and musical trends that lasted throughout the rest of her sonatas. Sonata #3 (1952, published 1974), and Sonata #4 (1957, published 1971) comprise her “middle period,” followed by two late pieces, Sonata #5 (1986, published 1989), and Sonata #6 (1988, published 1989).


Ustvolskaya’s Musical Language


Though Ustvolskaya denies any outside influence in her music, many writers have identified several important influences: composers such as J. S. Bach and Modest Mussorgsky, musical styles including expressionism, minimalism, and Baroque polyphony, literary and philosophical figures such as Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann, and Russian traditional folk music, religion, and chant, called znamenny raspev. Even if Ustvolskaya did not intend these influences, they can be useful in interpreting her music and understanding her style.


Musicologist Elena Nalimova suggests that it is the overall philosophy and “Russianness” of both Gogol and Dostoevsky that can be found in Ustvolskaya’s music. She writes that Gogol’s work contains a unique “Russian darkness” and a spiritual searching, both of which she finds present throughout the emotional mood conveyed in Ustvolskaya’s music (Nalimova 116). With Dostoevsky, she identifies the common theme of a spiritual awakening through suffering, something that is keenly felt in the painful and often intense music of Ustvolskaya (Nalimova 124). The pounding rhythms and sometimes almost brutal dissonance often dissolves into a quiet solitude, such as the subito transition between ffff and ppp found near the conclusion of her Sonata #2 (see Example 1).


Example 1 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #2, second movement, final systems.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


Understanding the musical influences that may have acted upon Ustvolskaya’s music is complicated. Musicologists have suggested an extensive list of possible composers: J. S. Bach, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Olivier Messiaen, Giacinto Scelsi, and Louis Andriessen. Several of these names, such as Bach, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky come to us through Ustvolskaya’s students, listing composers whose music she emphasized for their studies. Tellingly, Ustvolskaya denies knowing the music of many of her contemporaries, including the influence of expressionism and minimalism (Derks 32). Her reputation as a recluse, combined with the difficulty of obtaining the music of contemporary Western composers before the fall of the Soviet Union lends credence to this claim.


Personally, I believe that it is Bach’s influence that is most beneficial when approaching these sonatas. Polyphony plays an important role in every sonata, with two or more melodic voices often appearing together. The opening gestures in her Sonata #3 provide a clear example of two-voice polyphony, each voice moving independently (see Example 2).


Example 2 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #3, first two systems.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


Another example of Bach’s influence can be seen in Ustvolskaya’s use of chorale-like textures. Looking again at Sonata #3, there is a clear three-voice chorale with phrases denoted by fermatas (see Example 3). Understanding and identifying both polyphony and chorales can determine what musical gestures should be at the forefront, and additionally helping both the performer and audience understand these difficult pieces.


Example 3 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #3, Tempo II.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


One thing that is evident in all of these examples is Ustvolskaya’s unique use of senza misura, here called mono-rhythm. Beginning with her Sonata #2, Ustvolskaya abandons traditional time signatures, often using 1|4 time, with rests indicated with numbers showing exactly how many beats each is worth. The result is an steady, inexorable pulse that many commentators link to the Russian tradition of znamenny raspev. This chant tradition is characterized through diatonic, stepwise melodies (with larger intervals found at cadential points), grouped into two- and three-note groups in a steady rhythm. Looking again at Example 2, we can see all of these characteristics: each voice is diatonic (though when combined they result in dissonance), and each voice is arranged into small groups that Ustvolskaya treats as motivic cells (Foulds 221). By understanding znamenny raspev, we are able to see phrases and cadential moments in the music that may otherwise remain hidden.


Extended Notation and Technical Difficulties


In addition to the mono-rhythm and unusual treatment of rests, Ustvolskaya’s piano sonatas contain several instances of unusual beaming, multiple staves, accidentals, notation to indicate melodic voicing, clusters, and extreme dynamics that need to be examined.

All of the sonatas contain an unusual beaming, such as the ending of the first movement of her Sonata #1 (see Example 4). Though it may look difficult, the notation is simply to help clarify the many dissonant minor second intervals found throughout her music.

Example 4 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #1, first movement, last system.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


Ustvolskaya’s music, as previously discussed, is often melodically diatonic, with individual voices often remaining within a single tonal center. The result of this is her predilection for using either sharps or flats, but almost never both simultaneously. There are two visual results of this choice: the above notation being necessary to notate the minor seconds, and the appearance of a triple flat—the written B-triple flat is played as an A-flat, but maintains her desired melodic contour and diatonic area (see Example 5).


Example 5 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #3, pg. 12, second system.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


In order to maintain polyphonic clarity, the third sonata also contains different grand staves, going between one, two, and three staves. Additionally, many of her sonatas contain other notation that is meant to clarify the voice-leading in her music. Especially evident in the fifth sonata, Ustvolskaya utilizes accent markings to emphasize which notes to voice in order to maintain a melody, especially as her later sonatas begin to explore cluster chords (see Example 6).


Example 6 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #5, first system.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


In this example, we can see a number of examples of Ustvolskaya’s unusual notation. The curious notation of the left-hand chords clearly denotes which notes are to be played, with the accent on the middle note emphasizing the melodic material. Additionally, the ‘V’ markings in the treble staff denote the phrase structure of the piece.


The fifth section of her Sonata #5 offers additional challenges, with Ustvolskaya writing one of her few examples of extended techniques. In Example 7, the left-hand chords are meant to be played with the left-hand knuckles, resulting in a clear and powerful cluster chord.


Example 7 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #5, section 5, first system.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


Her Sonata #6 contains perhaps the most difficult notation, as the whole sonata is written with cluster chords. The following example illustrates the different types of cluster chords found in the music, as well as her notation for voice-leading.


Example 8 Ustvolskaya, Sonata #6, penultimate system.

© With kind permission MUSIKVERLAG HANS SIKORSKI GMBH & CO. KG, Hamburg


The bracketed chords at the beginning of the system denote a cluster chord that is to be played between the notated pitches with the palm of the hand. Each of the following four notes is its own cluster chord. The angled ‘V’ (such as the one used below the E-flat on the second beat) is used to indicate an improvised cluster chord, with the top note of the chord notated on the staff. Additionally, the arrows found throughout the system show the voice-leading as it leaps between staves.


The last unusual technical difficulty found in each of these sonatas is Ustvolskaya’s extreme use of dynamics, utilizing everything from pppp to fffff. Alex Ross writes,

“She [Ustvolskaya] has colonized the higher end of the dynamic spectrum much as Morton Feldman took possession of the lower (H23).”

Nalimova, after interviewing many performers of Ustvolskaya’s music, suggested that

“by putting such extreme dynamics in her scores, Ustvolskaya simply indicated the points of highest emotional intensity, rather than asking for the loudest possible sound (76).”

The range in which each dynamic is written should also influence the interpretation of these dynamics, with the lower range resulting in a stronger sound. These intense dynamic changes, especially when paired with the dissonance and cluster chords, result in a ritualistic and sometimes painful approach to performance, both traits that Ustvolskaya attempted to emulate in her compositions (Foulds 76).


Ustvolskaya’s music can be difficult to comprehend, and even more difficult to effectively perform. However, these sonatas have immense power and have an almost mystical conveyance of tragedy. Grappling with her unique notation, sense of phrasing, dynamic range, and aversion to conventional musical development is worth the effort, with an artistically fulfilling result.


Works Cited

Blois, Louis. "Shostakovich and the Ustvolskaya Connexion: A Textural Investigation. Tempo: New Series, July 1995.


Derks, Thea and Galina Ustvolskaya. "Sind Sie mir nicht böse! (Very Nearly an Interview)." Tempo: New Series, September 1992.


Jeremiah-Foulds, Rachel Claire. "Forging the 'Lady's Hammer': A Profile of Influence in the Life and Music of Galina Ustvolskaya. PhD diss., Goldsmiths College, University of London, London, 2015.


Nalimova, Elena. "Demystifying Galina Ustvolskaya: Critical Examination and Performance Interpretation." PhD diss., Goldsmiths College, University of London, London, 2012.


Ross, Alex. "A Grand Russian Original Steps Out of the Mist." New York Times, May 28 1995.

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