Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphonic Poem No. 1

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Matthew Gregoire

The Composer
Galina Ustvolskaya was once hailed by her teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, as a unique talent, one that would “achieve world fame” with her unprecedented compositional style. However, that sentiment would never reach fruition during Shostakovich’s lifetime. In fact, Ustvolskaya’s works were scarcely premiered outside of Russia until she was nearly 50 years old. Ustvolskaya, perhaps boldly, claimed that her musical catalogue of fewer than 30 published works did not resemble any musical style of her predecessors or contemporaries, saying “there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any composer, living or dead.” Her style is characterized by surprising instrumental combinations (such as her Symphony No. 1 for orchestra and two boys’ voices, or her Benedictus, Qui Venet for four flutes, four bassoons, and piano), use of tone clusters, transparent texture, and excessively repeated “blocks” of sound, a technique that prompted Dutch music critic Elmer Shonberger to name her “the lady with the hammer.”

The Separation
Ustvolskaya’s relationship with her teacher was about as complicated as her music. Shostakovich respected Ustvolskaya’s works and often sought her criticisms for his own unfinished compositions. Shostakovich also harbored romantic feelings for his student, affections that were ultimately rejected. Shostakovich’s Fifth String Quartet even reflects his heartache, quoting Ustvolskaya’s Trio from 1949. Following their separation in 1947, Ustvolskaya rejected any musical or personal connection she had with her mentor of eight years, even stating later in life that she dismissed Shostakovich’s perceived genius as a composer, and considered his works too “depressing” and lacking innovation. In 1995, she said, “At no time, not even when I was still a student, did I feel any affinity whatsoever with either his music or his personality. This supposedly exceptional man is far from exceptional to me. On the contrary, he has ruined my life and has utterly destroyed my most heartfelt feelings.”

The Music
The pieces she wrote in the decade following her tutelage with Shostakovich are described as meeting the Russian aesthetic standards, but perhaps do not reflect her unique style, which at the time had not earned a place in the concert hall. Her Symphonic Poem No. 1 is considered among these less radical works, and shows significant evidence that Ustvolskaya was indeed capable of appealing to a wider audience with more comprehensible scores. The Poem even sported a programmatic title, The Light of the Steppes, before being renamed by the composer in its addition to the official catalogue. Ustvolskaya, however, largely rejected the aesthetics of the USSR and chose to remain true to her own unique artistic voice, a decision that ultimately would prove to be a detriment to her financial success as an artist. Despite its relative accessibility, the First Symphonic Poem was declared a failure at its premiere in Leningrad, an event at which Shostakovich only half-heartedly defended her, possibly fueling Ustvolskaya’s hostile feelings toward him in the later half of her life. Today, her compositions have achieved increasing appreciation, especially in the West, as they represent a composer that struggled against all odds and influences to foster an inimitable artistic vision.

R. Strauss’ Four Songs, Op. 27

Notes by TŌN violinist Gaia Mariani Ramsdell

Ruhe, meine Seele!
Completed in 1894, Richard Strauss composed his set of Four Songs as a wedding present for his wife, the eminent soprano Pauline de Ahna. The first song, “Ruhe, meine Seele!” (“Rest, my soul!”), is set to the text of a poem by the German poet Karl Henckell. Of the four songs, this one is perhaps the most somber. The poem urges the listener to rest their spirit and try to forget all sufferings, reassuring them that their troubles will soon be over.

The second song, “Cäcilie,” is one of Strauss’ most impassioned love songs. Composed the day before his wedding, it uses the text of a love poem by German writer Heinrich Hart, who fittingly wrote the poem for his own wife, Cäcilie Hart. Strauss uses a passionately churning accompaniment and soaring vocal line to express what the love of his wife means to this ecstatically happy husband.

Heimliche Aufforderung
Third in the set, “Heimliche Aufforderung” (“Secret invitation”) is set to the text of a love poem by Scottish-German poet John Henry Mackay. This is an ardent love song about a secret tryst amidst a joyous feast of merrymakers. Rippling figurations accompany the yearning vocal line and a peaceful postlude follows the voice’s rapturous plea for night to fall so the lovers can meet.

The fourth song, “Morgen!” (“Tomorrow!”), is one of Strauss’ most well-known works. Set to another text by John Henry Mackay, this rapturous love song paints the inner elation of a lover staring into the eyes of his beloved. The voice waits a considerable amount of time before entering with “and tomorrow the sun will shine again,” as if caught mid-thought in dreamy revery. Strauss uses the solo violin to emphasize the theme, creating a sense of sweet nostalgia, and a succession of chords that never resolve perfectly depicts the lover’s yearning for his beloved.

Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Guillermo García Cuesta

The Work
Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony is probably the biggest American symphony ever written. Copland began working on it in 1944 and finished it in 1946, which means the compositional process started during World War II and finished once the war was over. It was premiered in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky in October of 1946. If we count Copland’s 1930 Dance Symphony, the 3rd Symphony would be his fourth work under this form.

The Sound
Copland is a great icon of the orchestral sound that we identify as American. His music always sounds to me like open fields, the far West, and a quest for land and freedom. When I was first discovering his music back in the day, as a teenager in a small town in Spain, I could easily imagine Copland wearing a big cowboy hat like John Wayne did in the movies, riding a horse out on the prairie. Well, it wasn’t like that. Aaron Copland was born into a family of Lithuanian immigrants. He was a gay, Jewish New Yorker . . . and he never rode a horse.

American Brass
The last movement of this symphony features Copland’s most famous creation, which also works as a piece on its own, orchestrated only for brass and percussion: the Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland’s way of writing for brass, no doubt, helped to create the characteristic American way of playing those instruments, and for a European who grew up listening to Hollywood soundtracks (even though many of them were recorded by English orchestras), playing this symphony, here in New York, is a dream come true.