Galina Ustvolskaya, a reclusive composer who lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, from her birth in 1919 to her death in 2006, has acquired a reputation for works of unearthly spiritual strength and formidable technical demands. “Your fingers literally bleed,” the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja has said of playing them.
But if Ustvolskaya’s few, grim compositions are works of violent extremes, the brutally loud cluster chords that often smash their way dissonantly through them are tempered with moments of quiet, rapt tranquillity.
It’s that prayerful side of a composer who wrote for God as much as for mortals that appeals to the pianist Yefim Bronfman, who performs her Sonata No. 4 (1957) alongside sonatas by Beethoven and Chopin at Carnegie Hall on Monday.
Ustvolskaya insisted that her music was not susceptible to ordinary analysis, and she vowed that no influences could be traced in it; even without her efforts, it would still sound unique. After all, as the historian Simon Morrison has written, Ustvolskaya “challenged the conventions not just of art, but of our understanding of art” — writing not “for workers in obeisance to official aesthetics,” but turning “music into work.”
Still, no music exists entirely outside history. Asked in an interview to choose a favorite page from the Fourth Sonata, an 11-minute piece in four brief, continuous movements, Bronfman discussed how Ustvolskaya’s work extends traditional forms, as well as its political context. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Ustvolskaya’s music has only really become prominent outside Russia since around the end of the Cold War. How did you come across it?
I never really knew her until seven or eight years ago, when a conductor asked me to perform her “Composition No. 2” for piano, percussion and eight double basses. Somehow the performance never happened, but having studied the score, there was something very special about it. I started looking into her other music, of which there is not very much. I spoke to Markus Hinterhäuser, who recorded all the sonatas. It’s been a fantastic experience, I have to say, very different from anything else I have ever played in my life.
I didn’t find any connection to anybody, except Beethoven maybe. Everybody leads toward Beethoven in a direct way or an abstract way. Hers is an extremely abstract way. As Beethoven grew older, his sonata form got shorter and shorter. Hers relate to that. No matter how short a movement, there is always a sonata form in it. Sometimes the development section is only a few notes, but then there’s a clear indication of the recapitulation in each movement.
Music usually has a life span. The music starts and ends, and then life begins anew. But a piece by Ustvolskaya — you play it, and it lingers for a long time. It’s almost like a meditation. It gives you a very peaceful feeling playing it.
Do you see it as religious or at least spiritual music in that sense?
Not religious, but very spiritual. She grew up in Soviet times, and religion was prohibited. A lot of people who leaned toward religion experienced it in a spiritual way, not in a biblical way. That’s how I feel about Ustvolskaya.
So you hear her personal introversion in her music as well?
Definitely, I hear total loneliness. She’s talking to the universe and she doesn’t want to be involved with anything else. I don’t feel there is any gravity to the music; most music has an epicenter, but hers is in slow motion, out there. That is not to say there are no explosions; there are very violent explosions. But they are usually followed by very serene and soft sounds.
I have to say that she’s also a very Russian composer in the sense that one always hears bells. Bells and choruses, human voices, like in the second movement of this sonata, it begins with bells, and there is a chorale. The third movement is all bells.
Some of it sounds quite close to chant.
Right. She’s maybe more connected to medieval music, but with a very modern voice. You know, it’s very hard to talk about this music because one needs to hear it and experience it.
She herself said that she didn’t want us to analyze her music, that it should just be felt.
Correct, and she didn’t want to appear influenced by anybody. Even Shostakovich, her teacher, she rejected. She felt a regret for how much he tried to influence her, and she tried to throw it all out. I don’t think there is even one inch of his music in hers. She is completely unrelated to anything before her or after her, which is quite fascinating.
So much of Shostakovich’s work was shaped by his political context. Do you hear similar struggles in her later work?
Shostakovich suffered a lot from being persecuted by the authorities. He wrote a lot of Soviet music to please the authorities, and so did she. But music like the sonatas has nothing to do with politics; it’s totally apolitical music.
It’s interesting that she was able to create that space, given the traditional Western clichés about composers working in Soviet society.
I’m sure she experienced the same as other composers who wanted their voice to be heard, and were not allowed. A lot of composers at this time were much more creative writing between the notes than in the notes. The message was always hidden. A little bit like Schumann, in a different time and for different reasons.
Ustvolskaya wrote six piano sonatas over four decades. Why perform this one?
I picked it because it’s not so violent. Especially the last movement, it has those cluster chords but most of it is very peaceful and has a very beautiful, meditative quality that I think is needed for this program, after the intensity of Beethoven’s “Appassionata.”
Is there a page of the score that you particularly enjoy or that is revealing of her?
I like the middle section of the second movement, where it’s “pppp”: It’s almost like human voices coming from another world or from space, in the middle of this violent piece. I also love the murmurs of the trills in the last movement; you have those long notes against them — for me that’s very special.
Those trills, to my ears, suggest the first movement of Schubert’s last sonata.
It definitely has an echo of that. They go through the whole movement, those trills, then the cluster chords with sforzandos, then you have a pianissimo progression. It has a fascinating sonority and imagination.
Ustvolskaya was fastidious about how people performed her music. She reacted strongly against people being particularly expressive with it. And she’s asking an enormous amount of you. How possible is it to distinguish between a “ppp” and a “pppp,” a “fff” and a “ffff”?
Dynamics are relative, in all music. “Piano” means “piano” only in context with what comes before and follows after. The same thing with her. If it’s “ppp” it’s one sound, but if it’s “pppp” it has to be softer; there’s no magic to it. You find an instrument on which you can really differentiate between dynamics, that’s all we can do.
Every composer I have worked with is different. Stravinsky said just play the notes, play what’s written and don’t exaggerate. I imagine she belonged to the same school; she wanted you to execute exactly what is on the page. The music speaks for itself. You don’t need to work hard to make it sound the way it should.
Will you play her other sonatas in concert?
I really want to. Why not? She’s a good composer, I think a great composer. She has a strong message, however abstract it is, and rare, but there’s something there that has a magnetism to it.