With her incorruptible character, Galina Ustwolskaya was born at a distinctly inconvenient time: in 1919, two years after the October Revolution. Her family lived in poverty, and her childhood and youth were overshadowed by profound feelings of loneliness. A solitary nature marked her way through life, even if this was directly at odds with the normalising state doctrine of socialist realism that dominated organised culture from the beginning of the 30s. Working on religious or spiritual themes in music, for which Ustwolskaya became renowned, was still taboo years after Stalin’s death in 1953. The composer would subsequently attempt to exclude most of her works from the 40s and 50s, which are at least outwardly consistent with state doctrine (including her First Symphony from 1955), from her catalogue, which includes a mere 25 approved pieces.
Between 1960 and 1970, Ustwolskaya took the logical but drastic step of no longer publishing practically any new compositions. Once she resurfaced in Soviet musical life, her works almost exclusively featured religious and liturgical texts and titles. Unlike Messiaen, however, Ustwolskaya’s religious belief is directed towards an abstract divine power and is not used to serve any institutionalised faith. In aesthetic terms, too, a very different language dominates her work: instead of flow, the thrill of colour and development, here there is clarity, breakage and collision. The closest her music, which is conceived entirely in horizontal terms, gets to harmony comes in the form of clusters (adjacent notes gathered together), such as she repeats emphatically in the opening of her Third Symphony.
While the political thaw during the 70s led many Russian composers to explore the western avantgarde with fruitful results for their own work, Ustwolskaya‘s music only changed to the extent that her characteristic qualities became even more radical: with extreme dynamics, a reduction of means and unusual combinations of instruments. Then there was also her particular habit of no longer using a full orchestra in her symphonies. She didn’t even come close: typically, instruments in the middle register would be dispensed with – and sometimes whole families of instruments: in the Second Symphony, for example, the entire string section. The instrumentation for each symphony becomes progressively more chamber-musical, and the accentuation of sonic contrasts and contours more intense, which Ustwolskaya, with her inclination towards the painfully sharp, hard entries, raises even further.
Pain is not only her companion in retreating from the world: pain is also the means of transport that propels Galina Ustwolskaya into another sphere through her music. At times the sense of being overcome turns into an almost physical experience, behind which a metaphysical dimension opens up – and this is what seems to matter to the composer. The pain that is written into the repeated banging of fists on the piano and the violent drum beats 215 in her Third Symphony evoke ideas of self chastisement and self-abasement in the face of the highest, redemptive power – to which she appeals in the text. It is as if the pain of the body that is imprisoned in reality becomes an escape route into a sphere that is beyond the physical: sublimated – or, indeed, metaphysical.