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"I only write when I am in a state of grace," asserted the composer whom Dutch musicologist Elmer Schoenberger has called "the lady with the hammer." Born the year Prokofiev composed his Overture on Hebrew Themes, her entire identity has been forged within the Soviet context. Ustvolskaya studied with Shostakovich during the time she was composing the 1949 Clarinet Trio; although we do not know the extent to which their relationship went beyond professional, we know that it proved problematic. Fifty years later Ustvolskaya reminisced: "a seemingly eminent figure such as Shostakovich, to me, is not eminent at all, on the contrary he burdened my life and killed my best feelings."
"I implore all those who really love my music to refrain from theoretical analysis of it," she wrote - and yet the Trio's opening Espressivo is a textbook example of music that begs to be interpreted as political metaphor. A searching melody on solo clarinet is soon interrupted by an ominous motive in the piano, which in turn stimulates increasing dissonance and a desperate stabbing motive. Any extramusical interpretation, however, fails to account for the deft abstraction of the polyphony, in which the individual parts imitate, surround, and comment on each other. A clarinet solo also begins the Dolce, its warm resonance supported eventually by double stops in the violin and distant fragments in the piano. The final Energico gives the piano first chance at a brittle, rhythmic idea that acquires an obsessive, grotesque quality within which the individual parts are balanced with knife-edge precariousness. Musicologist Ian MacDonald might have been responding to Ustvolskaya's plea against theoretical analysis when he wrote: "though doubtless ruthlessly true both to its times and its composer's inner voice, [her music] remains difficult to penetrate and, for much of its extent, difficult to listen to, let alone to love." True - but the power of Ustvolskaya's music is such that love ultimately seems less important than artistic integrity.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.