Just when you’ve concluded the Proms are little more than schmoozing, emollience, accessibility and tradition, along comes Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphony No. 3. Regarded superficially—and, tragically, this is the way the majority of commentators regard her work—Ustvolskaya’s music is the antithesis of comfort. She eschews most of the conventions of western art music, typically bringing together unusual groupings of instruments (often timbrally and registrally incongruous) which articulate themselves from within the strictures of an utmost rigid rhythmic grid. Again regarded superficially, she is the ostensible apogee of the cool, aloof, unemotional, detached composer. Which leaves the question of why four of her five symphonies, as well as the three ‘Compositions’ (together covering a period from 1970 to 1990, the last 20 years of her composing life), should be subtitled with overt religious quotations, extended to recited texts in the symphonies. Is it irony? mischief? sacrilege?
What if, instead, she was simply being honest? We’re all painfully aware these days of how religion is very much more (or, depending on your view, less) than a collection of dogmas the belief of which tick-box you into a joyous life of buoyancy and bliss. On the contrary, religion—both within the larger subcultures of the faithful and also, particularly, within the mind of the individual believer—is riven with and arguably defined by guilt, conflict, misunderstanding, doubt, intolerance and fear. With this in mind, Ustvolskaya’s music speaks with a terrifying clarity and immediacy that, furthermore, makes one seriously question why there isn’t more religious music displaying a similar kind of aesthetic. Heads in the clouds? or in the sand?
Composed in 1983, and first performed nearly 30 years ago on 1 October 1987 in Leningrad, her Symphony No. 3 is scored for a male reciter and a small orchestra comprising five each of oboes, trumpets and double basses, three trombones, tuba, piano and percussion (2 bass drums and a tenor drum). Registral extremes and dry percussion seem apt considering the work’s subtitle, ‘Jesus Messiah, save us!” For the words, Ustvolskaya drew on the same source also used in symphonies 2 and 4, a portion of text by Hermann Contractus (also known as Herman the Cripple) that she found in a Russian anthology of Mediæval Latin literature. The stanza used here is essentially a cry for help, contextualised by deeply longed-for attributes of the deity—almighty, true, eternal, peace—and culminating in the de profundis exhortation, “save us!” It’s like a Kyrie squared (or, considering one of Ustvolskaya’s favoured percussion instruments, a wooden box, cubed), an abject expression of despair flecked with the thinnest thread of hope.
Despite appearances, immediacy is Ustvolskaya’s aim, regardless of the fact that the text was recited in actor Alexei Petrenko’s native Russian (it would have been especially nice to have heard it in English). But the message is stark and clear. The words are first proclaimed alone, whereupon Ustvolskaya moves through a sequence of repeating clusters, pained lyricism over low judderings, and oblique, circular chord sequences. Crotchets everywhere. Like a post-apocalyptic chorale, it climaxes in a second recitation, this time desperately repeating the final phrase: “спаси нас”, “save us!” Ustvolskaya then gradually retreats from her threadbare, quantised lyricism into an insular world of dead drum tremolandi, like a solipsistic fanfare for the end of the world. When the rest of the instruments return, now joined by the piano, their music seems to continue only through the most grim and relentless inner determination (again, the thin thread of hope), its apparent circularity becoming actual, stuck in a dazed, glazed repeated rut for a time. Silence. And then suddenly we’re back at the beginning again, only this time Ustvolskaya seemingly ups the tempo leading to a third recitation, the final phrase now becoming a sporadic thorn in the side of the symphony’s increasingly subdued, growling, tremulous withdrawal back into the shadows, tinged with the most infinitesimal whiff of expectation.
Symphony No. 3, like all Ustvolskaya’s music, is a staggeringly powerful demonstration of raw expressionism. Her music doesn’t so much speak as sear, roil and lacerate—fearful and bruised but nonetheless bold; full of despair yet clinging to that one remaining iota of hope—striking to the heart of both her subject matter and her audience. She is not easy to listen to, and she’s even less easy to hear—but then how is that different from any other authentic prophetic voice?
futuri pater saeculi,
Father of eternal life,
Prince of peace,
(from Hermannus Contractus, De sanctissima Trinitate)