On Saturday 12 January Vasily Petrenko conducts the Dutch Radio Philharnonic Orchestra in three works by Brahms, Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya as part of the NTRZaterdagMatinee series in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Despite their very different backgrounds, there are some similarities. The two Russian composers suffered under the repressive regime of the communists, the German Brahms was accused of writing old-fashioned music that lacked Beethoven’s ‘social-forming’ power.
‘Lady with the hammer’
Galina Ustvolskaya was dubbed ‘the lady with the hammer’ because of her relentless style, but she did not always compose drastic music that excels in extremes. Under the wings of Dmitri Shostakovich she first trod more traditional paths as a composer. She destroyed most of her early works, but spared the symphonic poem The Dream of Stepan Razin for baritone and orchestra that will get a rare performance in NTRZaterdagMatinee.
Ustvolskaya was born in Petrograd in 1919, two years after the Russian Revolution. In the same year Dmitri Shostakovich started studying piano and composition there. Ustvolskaya would remain in the city all her life, which was renamed Leningrad in 1924 in memory of the hero of the revolution and only regained its original name St. Petersburg in 1992.
Just like Shostakovich, she was confronted with an increasingly strict and repressive Soviet regime. Nevertheless – or precisely because of this – Ustvolskaya developed into one of the most elusive and idiosyncratic composers of our time. She studied composition at the Leningrad Conservatoire, being the only female student admitted to Shostakovich’s composition class in 1939.
He soon recognised her exceptional qualities and predicted her ‘worldwide recognition of everyone who is concerned with truthfulness in music’. Bravely he defended her music in the Composers’ Union, and it is rumoured he even proposed marriage to her. He asked her to review his own scores and incorporated one of her themes in his Fifth String Quartet and the Michelangelo Suite.
Shostakovich courteously wrote to her: ‘You are not influenced by me, it is rather the other way round.’ It is all the more distressing to read how fiercely Ustvolskaya later rejected her mentor and former friend. In a letter to her publishers she wrote: ‘Then, just like now, I resolutely rejected his music. (….) One thing is certain: a seemingly eminent figure like Shostakovich is not at all eminent to me; on the contrary, he burdened my life and killed my best feelings.’
In any case, just like Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya was accused of writing ‘formalist’ music. In order to earn a living she composed film scores and ‘music for the people’. This resulted in a number of works in the prescribed ‘socialist-realist’ style, which she later withdrew. An exception is The Dream of Stepan Razin, which she composed in 1949 on a text from Russian folk poetry. This is an ode to the Cossack leader Stenka Razin (1630-1671) who rebelled against the Russian landed gentry that exploited and repressed the common people.
‘Truly national art’
This early work is full of lyrical melodies, heroic fanfares and rousing Cossack rhythms. To top it off there’s a soaring solo part sung by a baritone, who gives a lively description of how Stepan Razin envisions his impending execution. The apparatchiks were so pleased that the piece was chosen for the opening of the new season of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in 1949.
Tichon Chrennikov, secretary of the Composers’ Union, even recommended The Dream of Stepan Razin to other composers, as ‘an ideal example of a truly national art’. The composition was even nominated for a Stalin Prize. The hyper-romantic music is a far cry from the radicalism of Ustvolskaya’s later compositions. Thus it fits well with Brahms’s First Symphony and Shostakovich’s Second Violin Concerto that are also on the programme. The concert is broadcast live on Radio4.