Scream Into Space: An Exposé of Galina Ustvolskaya

The climax of the Allegro non troppo movement in Shostakovich’s Fifth String Quartet, Op. 92, is marked by a distinct and repetitive motive that begins on the mediant of the tonic key of B-flat.  It is an impassioned moment of the piece, marked fff, espressivo. The same climactic motive appears in the third movement, strangely reminiscent of the cyclical nature of Shostakovich’s Russian predecessors (namely, Tchaikovsky).

To Shostakovich, this motive in the Fifth String Quartet was as important as its source: fellow Soviet composer Galina Ustolskaya. It is with Ustvolskaya that this theme is originally attributed. After quoting her in a number of other pieces, Shostakovich even said, “It is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you.” And, later, “I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance.”

With such praise, why has Ustvolskaya’s music been largely unnoticed by the Western classical music world? Why did Shostakovich’s female contemporary leave as large an impression on his music?

One must only look to the relationship of the two Soviet composers to answer the latter question. Galina Ustvolskaya entered the composition studio of Shostakovich in 1937 and was encouraged to resist the USSR Composers’ Union. Describing her time with Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya complained that “never once during the years, even during my studies at the Conservatory which I spent in his class, was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality…. such an outstanding figure as Shostakovich was not outstanding to me. On the contrary, it was painful and killed my best feelings. I begged God to give me strength…” Shostakovich, on the other hand, felt much differently, as he proposed marriage to his younger student after the passing of his first wife, Nina. Perhaps the instance of musical borrowing in the Fifth String Quartet was a final attempt to woo Galina after she declined the proposal.

While studying under Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya’s music seemed to echo that of her teacher’s, namely in her Concerto for Piano, Strings, and Timpani of 1946. However, upon leaving his studio the next year, her distinct compositional voice became more focused. Piano Sonata No. 1 (1947) shows a unique style characterized by thin and homophonic textures, extreme dynamics (especially the louder), two part counterpoint, and intensity unmatched by her previous work.

Her symphonies contain the same characteristics, although the music becomes extremely harsh and bleak with the added addition of spoken texts, often religious in nature. For example, in Symphony No. 2, groups of flutes, oboes, and brass answer ffff chord clusters in the piano. After each formal section is played through, a solo vocalist proclaims the words Gospodi, vechnost, istina (Lord, eternity, truth).

In the Fifth Symphony, the spoken text (this time being The Lord’s Prayer) is incorporated so well that the words become a musical element unto themselves. This symphony, being her last piece, is quiet in dynamic and gesture – a stark contrast to most of her other works. One thing to take note of in all of Ustvolskaya’s instrumental works is the innovative, sometimes clever instrumentation. The Fifth Symphony, for instance only contains a violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, percussion, and voice. Writing for such few musicians, the music becomes all the more deliberate, as each pitch is clearly heard and realized alongside the other five parts.

One of her most radical and violent works, the Piano Sonata No. 6 utilizes chord clusters in a way that’s timbre has remained unmatched. The top note of each cluster is instructed to carry the melodic line, which is woven throughout the piece intricately overtop accented, fffff clusters. One minute before the end of this earth-shattering cataclysm, a series of six chords, played as softly and chorale-like as possible, suddenly emerges and provides a momentary stillness. It is shocking music, as relentless and unwavering as a hammer striking nails.

As was common in Soviet Russia, subversive material was banned, especially that which was deemed religious in nature, Western, or avant-garde. Due to this, Ustvolskaya’s music was routinely dismissed by the political society, her name being replaced on concert programs by composers such as Shostakovich, Gubaidulina, and Kabalevsky. She died in 2006 in St. Petersburg, the place she spent her entire life. Not until recently has her music been rediscovered, revived, and realized for what it truly is: music that has remained some of the most original and innovative music to date. It is music that could have been written tomorrow.

Listening list:

Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (the source material for Shostakovich’s string quartet) (1949)
Symphony No. 2, “True and Eternal Bliss” (1979)
Symphony No. 5, “Amen” (1990)
Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988)


Wilson, Elizabeth. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. 2nd ed. London: Faber, 2006.

The place for all things Ustvolskaya – interviews, recordings, photos:

Alex Ross’s take on her music:

A short documentary of her music, entitled “Scream into Space”:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: