Early in 1994, the composer Galina Ustvolskaya sat in a dimly lit apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia. As the chilly winter air seeped through rickety windowpanes, she gave a rare interview about her work.
“If the fate of my music is that it shall endure for some time,” she said softly, “then for thinking musicians, without the limitations of stereotypes, it will be understood that this music is new both in its intellectual sense as well as in its contents.”
She paused, before continuing in a whisper: “It is not pleasant for me to talk about this, but I have decided to try.”
Will Ustvolskaya’s music endure? While this year marks the centenary of her birth, on June 17, 1919, the occasion has largely been overlooked by the music world. American audiences have long embraced her Soviet peers, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke, but Ustvolskaya is hardly played in this country. Even in her native Russia, her works are seldom performed outside of academic and new-music circles.
Part of this was temperament: Living reclusively, Ustvolskaya almost never spoke with journalists, musicologists or musicians — it was, as she said, not pleasant for her to talk about her music — denying her the chance to build the networks that support a composer’s legacy. And part is a question of supply: When she died, in December 2006, she had approved for performance just 21 works.
Slowly but surely, though, scholars and performers are embracing Ustvolskaya’s music, which is, as she characterized it in that 1994 interview, truly new: grueling but cathartic, shockingly visceral and fleetingly metaphysical. Known for its dynamic extremes, ranging from “pppp” to “ffff” — the quietest to the loudest — with little in between, her works have been admiringly likened to black holes, lasers and radiation burns. The musicologist Elmer Schönberger indelibly referred to her as “the lady with a hammer” because of the stony relentlessness of her style.
The pianist and impresario Markus Hinterhäuser said in a telephone interview that her music “demands everything of the performer.”
“There’s absolutely nothing written like it in the Western world,” he added.
A longtime champion of her work, Mr. Hinterhäuser will perform Ustvolskaya’s six piano sonatas on Oct. 29 in Berlin. Played as an hourlong cycle, the sonatas push the pianist to physical and emotional limits, but the experience can prove to be an almost mystical one for both performer and listener. Such is Ustvolskaya’s style: to both provoke and transcend.
Born in a rapidly changing St. Petersburg, which was called Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, Ustvolskaya was part of the earliest generation of Russians to come of age after the 1917 revolution. Neither of her parents were musically inclined: Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a schoolteacher. But the precociously gifted Ustvolskaya began studying music at seven before attending a music-oriented secondary school (in what was by then called Leningrad) to study piano. She stayed there, enrolling in the city’s conservatory in 1937, at a particularly tumultuous time in Soviet musical history.
It was just a year after the state newspaper Pravda had published an anonymous denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” in which the composer was cautioned that his “formalist” musical tendencies — a style that emphasized form and technique over expressiveness and clarity — could “end very badly.” Musicians of the time had reason to heed such warnings: At the end of the 1930s, members of the Soviet intelligentsia were disappearing in the middle of the night before being sent to labor camps or summarily executed.
As an alternative to formalism, Soviet musical bureaucrats championed socialist realism: a style of art that would be intelligible to everyday people and promote national values. Shostakovich took up the call in his “Song of the Forests” from 1949, an oratorio that glorified Soviet forestation campaigns in Siberia through pleasing, triumphant harmonies and an easy-to-understand text setting.
Studying under Shostakovich in the late 1930s and 1940s, Ustvolskaya, too, dabbled in socialist realism. Early works like her Concerto for Piano, Orchestra and Timpani (1946) drew on idioms from both socialist realist and modernist styles, with influences including Stravinsky and Bartok. Combining the aggressive with the lyrical, the piece foreshadows the jagged contours and percussive explosiveness that would define her later works.
Although she was mentioned in further attacks against formalism in 1948, Ustvolskaya was able to counter the accusations by composing a series of state-supported pieces, like music for films. She disavowed most of these works later in life — save for her score to a short comedy film, “The Girl and the Crocodile,” from 1956 — as her mature style emerged.
That style was defined by oscillation between loudness and silence. Written in 1979, her Symphony No. 2 begins with a pianist traversing the length of the keyboard, hammering tone clusters, with punctuation coming in the form of massive bass drum hits. Her “Dies Irae,” from 1973, calls for eight double basses, a piano and a percussionist who pounds a large wooden box. (In many performances, this box is positioned at the front of the ensemble and unavoidably resembles a coffin.) The Fifth and Sixth Piano Sonatas (1986 and 1988, respectively), demand that the soloist strike the keys so forcefully that bleeding knuckles are not uncommon.
“She gets your attention with the thickness, intensity and edge of her sonorities,” Leon Botstein, one of the few conductors in the United States to program her music this centenary season, said in an interview. “She has a hypnotic quality that is not about minimalist repetition, but about sonority.”
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that either Ustvolskaya or her music became inherently dissident. The reality of the Soviet music industry is that it relied on both sticks and carrots — punishments and rewards — and most composers bridged the gap between official and unofficial work.
This distinction became even blurrier following Stalin’s death in 1953, which ushered in a period of relaxed social restrictions and greater cultural freedoms under Nikita Khrushchev known as “the thaw.” During this era, as the musicologist Peter Schmelz has described, a younger generation of composers was able to carve out space to explore Western techniques — including aleatoric and 12-tone music — while officials grudgingly looked on. By the mid-1970s, Ustvolskaya’s works were even occasionally programmed by the Composers’ Union in official settings.
Through these transformations, Ustvolskaya maintained her unique, vivid voice. Yet she is often referred to in relation to Shostakovich, with whom she long traded off musical quotations and who would send her drafts for her approval. Later in her life, though, Ustvolskaya vehemently rejected Shostakovich’s impact on her.
“Never once,” she wrote in a 1994 essay, “was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality.”
She was even chagrined when Shostakovich claimed her as a kind of muse: “It is not you who are under my influence,” he once wrote to her. “It is I who am under yours.”
She strongly disagreed. “He burdened and killed my best feelings,” she wrote.
The back-and-forth with Shostakovich is part of the fascination with Ustvolskaya’s place as one of the few Soviet women to gain prominence in the international music world. Her reception, the musicologist Maria Cizmic has argued, was gendered both in Russia and abroad: The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Ms. Cizmic said in an interview with the music publication Van, described “this polite, demure young woman who sat at the piano and then started doing her unexpectedly aggressive thing.” Yet the musicologist Simon Morrison said in a recent interview that Ustvolskaya “cannot easily be interpreted along gender or identity political lines.”
Instead, Mr. Morrison said, he considers her to be “a perfect combination of two important trends in Russian thought before, during and after the Soviet era: nihilism, a negative condition; and apocalypticism, a positive condition.”
Her argument was with God, Mr. Morrison added, not with her fellow composers or with audiences. And Ustvolskaya stayed far away from both. Even after travel restrictions were lifted following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ustvolskaya seldom left her home in St. Petersburg and traveled outside Russia only a few times for performances of her work.
For unclear reasons, she stopped composing in 1991 and spent the last 15 years of her life living an ascetic, monastic life. This is not to say she wasn’t still invested in her music: She could be viciously demanding in rehearsals and was known to dismiss performers who did not meet her standards. In 1994, she sent an alternatingly consoling and scathing letter to a colleague, criticizing a recording by the pianist Marianne Schroeder for its excessive expressiveness, in which she requested that the pianist not move ahead with her plans to perform the piano sonatas.
And she had little sympathy for theorists who tried to dissect her music. “It is better not to write anything at all about my music,” she said, “than to constantly write the same thing over and over in a circle.”
Markus Hinterhäuser likened her works to Malevich’s stark black-and-white Suprematist paintings of the early 20th century. “You can’t talk much about it — and she didn’t want you to,” he said. “But you have to accept that it’s there, it exists.”