Galina Ustvolskaya – Symphony No. 1

by 5:4

None of Galina Ustvolskaya‘s five symphonies are particularly well-known. That’s also true for most of her output, but it’s particularly true of the symphonies, which are rarely performed and even more rarely recorded. Her First Symphony is perhaps the most obscure of them all. Composed in 1955, the work is her biggest symphony in terms of both duration and instrumentation, featuring two boy soloists in addition to a full orchestra. Its sung text comes from a collection of poems for children by Italian communist poet Gianni Rodari (a popular poet in Russia during Stalin’s reign) that critique aspects of life in the USA. As such, being poems written for and, in the symphony, sung by children, Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No. 1 gives an acutely poignant voice of lamentation from the perspective of childhood.

Symphony No. 1 comes at a point in Ustvolskaya’s career when she was beginning to develop the austere musical language for which she is best known today. It therefore speaks in a fascinating amalgam of defiance, sobriety, matter-of-fact bluntness, numbed formality and resignation, yet with palpable traces of warmth, though this is arguably best read as the residual glow from a combination of profound pain and incandescent rage. The symphony is structured in three movements, the first and last serving as a short instrumental prelude and postlude, with the bulk of the work, the middle movement, containing the sequence of eight songs. It’s hard not to hear in some of the music echoes of Stravinsky’s similarly pared-back symphonies, particularly the Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Symphony of Psalms, though its overall language is entirely Ustvolskaya’s own.

Galina Ustvolskaya

Part I sets up the environment of the symphony. Gentle winds, more chordal than melodic at this stage, suggest a strained kind of neutrality, tilting between vague notions of tension and release. Underpinning it all is a strong sense of pulse, and this will dominate the symphony as a whole (as well as being a sign of things to come in Ustvolskaya’s music): everything, no matter how it moves and at what speed, always fits within a clear temporal grid. The harmonies are oblique more than overtly dissonant; they seem remote, hard to get a handle on, non-committal, perhaps damaged, and as such they conclude unresolved, small surging phrases over a distant muted trumpet, before a brief reprise of the opening.

It’s therefore something of a shock when we’re abruptly plunged into Part II, and the first of the eight songs. The emphatic pulse has the effect of driving along each song such that there’s never an opportunity to repeat a word or even linger on a syllable for longer than the briefest of moments. The effect is a cross between chant, recitative and bald statement. In some respects there’s little to differentiate the songs, as their essential mode is the same; in a similar way to Part I they all tilt between slightly differing degrees of tension and emotional temperature. ‘Saturday night’ recounts a conversation with parents about restrictions on life due to poverty, alternating between the boys’ voices in brisk, irregular metres. Likewise the conversation with the rag-and-bone man in ‘We take junk!’ chugs along with a heavy jauntiness, giving its humour the lightness of a lead balloon. ‘The waiting room’ is similar, the ostensible cheerfulness of its music an apparent attempt by the homeless protagonist to appeal to the conductor and avoid getting thrown out of the railway station.

Yet Ustvolskaya regularly makes the most of the songs’ emotionally-charged aspects. At the end of ‘The waiting room’, the evocation of a locomotive’s whistle (11:40) is made an integral part of the anguish in its closing lines. The observation of racial segregation in ‘Carousel’ is set to a harsh, intense accompaniment that scalds the playfulness the music has below the surface. In ‘Ciccio’, the gloomy account of a child locked in a basement takes a turn (4:29) for the lush, even romantic, at the sight of “gardens” and “splashing fountains” that can be seen beyond the window. It’s all the more tragic for being such an ephemeral moment of uplift (there’s nothing else like it in the whole symphony; it’s (literally) the tiniest of windows into an entirely different world). The youthful swagger in ‘Boy from Módena’ is broken (8:26) in an impassioned recounting of the narrator having witnessed both of their fathers being shot “at point-blank range” the previous day. The lament in ‘When the factory chimneys die’ is heightened throughout, the boys crying out at various points in a doomed attempt to rouse the factory whistle and thereby “Awaken the heart of the city!”, subsequently becoming darkly internalised (12:29) when reflecting on how its closure is “As if someone had closed the gates / And stopped the heart within”, the voices here accompanied by a sharp polarisation of oboe and tuba.

Nonetheless, these excruciating moments of torment are just that, moments, within a musical context that generally makes little concession to word painting, which only makes their tone more despairing, the damage inflicted more absolute, and the distressing nature of the texts yet more horribly disturbing. The epilogue to Part II is a literal descent into darkness, the boys – having effectively given up on earthly hope – making fragile calls to the Sun, accompanied by ethereal strings. Yet the centre of the song is a distraught acknowledgement of how, even though “The sun has not yet set … the light has already gone out / … It’s not evening, but eternal darkness.”

Part III picks up where Part I left off, the prospect of which seems unfathomable coming in the wake of such an overwhelming litany of catastrophe. However, its austerity turns out to be powerfully affected by what the songs have expressed. The winds’ material is now melodic, rather than chordal, and its lyricism is tremulous; furthermore, the strings soften the music, almost soothing it. Seemingly energised within (17:50), all of this sounds poised, and with good reason. Ustvolskaya directly confronts the preceding horror, switching to a strange kind of glittering momentum (18:28) that leads to a massive declamatory climax, as metrically regular as ever, the orchestra now pounding for all its worth in huge, blank outrage. The delicate aftermath is a return to how the movement began (slightly redolent of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony), now rendered strange, dazed and exhausted, yet, in spite of everything, beautiful.

In later years, Ustvolskaya distanced herself from Symphony No. 1, claiming she had had no choice in using Rodari’s texts (on one page of the score of the symphony she wrote, “the text should be stronger!”). i also wonder, in light of the way her work developed, if it’s possible she came to regard the symphony as being too emotionally direct. Yet despite Ustvolskaya’s later opinion of the work, her acquaintance Semyon Bokman, in his book Variations on The Theme Galina Ustvolskaya, recounts a conversation with the composer when he managed to track down a rare copy of the score of the symphony (at the time, only 200 copies had been printed). She advised him, “Study it a little. There are things to look at.”

This performance of Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No. 1 was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu, with outstanding performances from trebles Oliver Barlow and Arlo Murray.



Чиччо в подвале живёт, у помойки,
Спит на заржавленной, ломаной койке.
Стол да табурет —
Больше в подвале мебели нет.

Там, наверху, за окошком подвала,
За день народу проходит немало.
Влезет на мешки,
Чтоб за окном считать башмаки.

Есть на земле и сады, и поляны.
Тысячи брызг рассыпают фонтаны.
В тёмном подвале по стенке всегда
Медленной струйкой стекает вода.


Ciccio lives in the basement, by the garbage dump,
He sleeps on a rusty, broken bed.
A table and a stool —
There’s no more furniture in the basement.

Up there, outside the cellar window,
A lot of people pass by during the day.
He climbs on the sacks,
To count the shoes outside the window.

There are gardens and glades on earth.
Thousands of splashing fountains spray.
Down the walls of the dark basement there’s always
Slow trickling water.


У белых на ярмарке нынче веселье —
Люди катаются на карусели,
Круглой, блестящей, на солнце похожей.
Дети на каждом луче золотом,
Не уставая, летают кругом.
Ты на луче покружился бы тоже,
Да не пускают тебя: чернокожий.

Ты говоришь: — Я родился в стране,
В этой стране, называемой Штатами.
Рос я под солнцем с другими ребятами.
Место в Америке дайте и мне!


The whites are having fun at the fair —
People are riding the carousel,
Round, shiny, like the sun.
Children on each golden ray,
Flying around, never getting tired.
You would spin on a ray too,
But they won’t let you: you’re black.

You say, “I was born here in this country
In this country called the States.
I grew up in the sunshine with the other boys
Give me a place in America too!”

Субботний вечер

В белом конверте — недельная плата.
Папа потрогал, сказал: — Маловато.

Мама сказала: — Мы всем задолжали.
Рис, макароны опять вздорожали.

Папа задумался: — Вот и работай!.. —
В папином голосе грусть и забота.

Мама ужасно печально сказала:
— Завтра в кино не пойдете, пожалуй.

Папа добавил: — На этой неделе,
Видно, не будет для вас карусели.

Грустно, понятно, во всем виновата
В белом конверте недельная плата.

Saturday night

In a white envelope, a week’s pay.
Dad touched it and said, “It’s not enough.”

Mum said: “We owe everyone.
Rice, macaroni prices have gone up again.”

Dad thought: “Well, then work harder!…”
Sadness and concern in his voice.

Mum said with great sadness:
“You won’t be able to go to the movies tomorrow, I’m afraid.”

Dad added: “This week,
It looks like there won’t be a carousel for you either.”

It’s sad, but understandable
The weekly pay in the white envelope is to blame for everything.

Мальчик из Мóдены

— Вчера ты был весел, мальчик, мальчик из Мóдены,
А нынче гулять не выходишь, не выходишь во двор.

— Вчера — не сегодня. Я видел сегодня,
Как наших отцов расстреляли, расстреляли в упор.

Что было вчера, то прошло для меня.
Я много узнал со вчерашнего дня.

Boy from Módena

— You were happy yesterday, boy from Módena,
But today you don’t go out to play in the yard.

— Yesterday is not today. Today I saw,
How they shot our fathers, at point-blank range, and killed them.

What was yesterday is gone for me.
I’ve learned a lot since yesterday.

“Старье берем!”

— Эй, старичок “Старье берем”!
Что ты несешь в мешке своем?

— Несу башмак без каблука,
Один рукав без пиджака,
Смычок без скрипки и ошейник,
Безносый чайник и кофейник
Да котелок из чугуна без дна.

Несу министра без портфеля.
Он правил без году неделю
И призывал страну к войне…
Он у меня на самом дне!

“We take junk!”

— Hey, old man, “we take junk!”
What are you carrying in your sack?

— I’m carrying a shoe with no heel,
A sleeve without a jacket,
A bow without a violin and a collar,
A noseless teapot and coffee pot
And a cast-iron pot without a bottom.

I’m carrying a minister without a briefcase.
He’s been ruling for a week
And called the country to war…
He’s at the very bottom of my bag!

Зал ожидания

Это — большое вокзальное зданье.
В зданье имеется зал ожидания.

Если приюта нигде не найдешь,
Ты притворись, будто поезда ждешь.

Сидя на лавке меж двух узелков,
Спи под напев паровозных гудков.

Сплю я, синьор, не будите меня!
Только не поезда жду я, а дня.

Носят меня не колеса, а ноги.
Днем я хожу да хожу по дороге.

Жду я работы, ищу пропитанья,
Но возвращаюсь я в зал ожиданья…

Гул паровоза, протяжный и зычный,
Напоминает гудок мне фабричный.

Ах, контролер, не мешайте вы мне
Видеть работу хотя бы во сне!

The waiting room

This is a large train station.
The building has a waiting room.

If you can’t find shelter anywhere,
Pretend you’re waiting for a train.

Sitting on a bench between two knots
Sleep to the tune of steam train whistles.

I’m asleep, sir, don’t wake me up!
But it’s not the train I’m waiting for, it’s the day.

I’m carried not by wheels, but by legs.
During the day, I walk and walk along the road.

I wait for work, I seek sustenance,
But I return to the waiting room…

The rumble of the locomotive, long and resounding,
Reminds me of a factory whistle.

Oh, conductor, don’t disturb me
From seeing work even in my dreams!

Когда умирают фабричные трубы

Трубы, трубы,
Нет над вами дыма клубов.

Трубы, трубы.
Гудком рабочих не зовет,
Стоит безжизненный завод.
Как будто, затворив ворота,
Остановил в нем сердце кто-то.

Проснись, гудок! И дни и ночи
Гуди, зови народ рабочий!

Пусть он средь мертвого покоя
Разбудит сердце городское!

When the factory chimneys die

Chimneys, chimneys,
No longer smoke rises above you.

Chimneys, chimneys.
The whistle of the workers no longer calls,
The lifeless factory stands.
As if someone had closed the gates
And stopped the heart within.

Wake up, whistle! Day and night
Whistle, call the working people!

Let them, amid the dead calm,
Awaken the heart of the city!

Эпилог. Солнце.


Солнце еще не ушло за дома,
А для тебя уже света не стало.
Это жестокой болезни начало.
Это не вечер, а вечная тьма.


Epilogue. Sun.


The sun has not yet set behind the house,
But for you the light has already gone out.
This is the beginning of a cruel illness.
It’s not evening, but eternal darkness.


(translation by ChatGPT and DeepL)

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Chris L

The link back to Shostakovich is a lot clearer here than in Ustvolskaya’s later work, although really she already sounds like no-one but herself (so that it also becomes clearer why the teacher ultimately became the pupil in some respects!).


He wasn’t according to his diaries. And that was the only performance of this symphony in the USSR.


Thanks for the information. I should clarify myself that I wasn’t implying DSCH’s later works were directly influenced by this one; nor, for that matter, do I have any truck with the disparaging things Ustvolskaya had to say about him towards the end of her own life – they sound far too much like sour grapes…


Incidentally, I heard DSCH 15 live for the first time at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Saturday, during one of my vanishingly rare rare concertgoing experiences – no hint of Ustvolskaya-influence in that! Rather stupidly, I hadn’t realised from the various recordings/broadcasts I’ve heard how ubiquitous solo instruments are in it, but Storgards must have spent a good five minutes at the end asking each of the BBC Phil’s soloists in turn to stand for the applause. Anyway, I digress…

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