An introduction to the music of Georgy Sviridov, Rodion Shchedrin, Galina Ustvolskaya and Sofia Gudaidulina

Running the gamut of 20th-century Soviet composers will always bring out the likes of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Schnittke. But what about the unsung heroes of the late 20th century: Sviridov, Shchedrin, Ustvolskaya and Gubaidulina? Along with Shostakovich and Schnittke, their music writes the true story of post-Stalin Russia. These were mainly Cold War years, still a time of Socialist Realism, when religious beliefs and radical experimentation were discouraged and brushes with the Soviet establishment were rife pre-glasnost and perestroika.

Rodion Shchedrin
Rodion Shchedrin

Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998)

Sviridov was a mainstay of Russian music in the Soviet era. Seeing himself in the line of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, after an initial period of experimentation under Shostakovich he adopted a neo-romantic style, drawing on the rich traditions of Russian culture. With its strong lyrical content, the apparent simplicity of Sviridov's music is its greatest strength, with a depth of emotion lurking beneath the surface. The fate of Russia and the death of the poet were major themes in his compositions, with his vocal and choral works steeped in Orthodox Church traditions, trickier to pull off in pre-perestroika Russia, and in numerous poetic inspirations. He turned to Pushkin many times throughout his career, as in the choral concerto Pushkin’s Garland and The Blizzard (Snowstorm), with its colourful orchestral glimpses of troikas, marches, weddings, waltzes, bells chiming, winter and spring. Try this Troika:

With other pieces like Little Triptych and Time, Forward!, Sviridov's instrumental works show his mastery of the orchestral palette, and even his small output of chamber works drew recognition, such as his Piano Trio which earned him the Lenin Prize in 1946. 

But it is his vocal and choral works that provide his greatest musical legacy. His Oratorio Pathétique  of 1959, using Vladimir Mayakovsky texts, is a touch of Soviet realism, capturing the plight of those struggling with the Communistic ideal, with his vocal poem Petersburg, evocatively capturing the symbolism of Alexander Blok’s poetry, and his final work, Hymns and Prayers for a cappella choir, showing Sviridov’s skilful synthesis of words and music in questioning reflections on the fate of a city and of humanity. Hear the power and beauty in these two clips (and don't miss the gorgeous Russian choral sound in the second clip):


Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932)

In contrast to Sviridov, Shchedrin is more in the line of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Known for his wide range of genres and styles, he displays great orchestral flair and a penchant for adapting his musical language to fit the theme. His earlier works are tonal and colourful, reflecting the rich cultural traditions of Russian life, although he later developed a more contemporary style. His best known work, the one-act ballet Carmen Suite written for his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, is a respectful and lively re-orchestration for strings and percussion of music from Bizet’s opera. By way of contrast, his Symphony No. 2 of 1964 is a much more serious affair. This is a significant piece of Soviet Russian music providing a searing account of the sounds of peace and conflict and employing more taxing musical language, which did not curry favour with the authorities. 

His five concertos for orchestra use everyday themes from Russian culture to parade Shchedrin’s diverse styles, from the dark-edged sparkle of satirical folk rhymes in the popular Naughty Limericks and the mysterious soundscape of The Chimes through to the depiction of old Russian provincial circus music, evocative roundelays and folk-songs. 

But Shchedrin was not just proficient in instrumental music. Two contrasting pieces based on Nikolai Leskov stories include the 1988 Russian liturgy The Sealed Angel, a moving and reflective piece for a cappella choir and shepherd’s pipe (usually played on flute or oboe), and his 2002 concert-opera The Enchanted Wanderer, which applies Shchedrin's creative and modern touch to archetypal components of Russian life.

But now to two contemporaries of Sviridov and Shchedrin with a completely different slant on things. Hold onto your hats, folks!


Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)

A former pupil and close companion of Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya incorporated elements of her teacher’s style in earlier pieces like the Concerto for piano, strings and timpani before developing her more distinctive voice, which can be heard in its embryonic stages in the starker soundworld of pieces like Octet (1950) and Symphony No. 1. 

Ustvolskaya’s forceful, uncompromising style of music is characterised by oppressive blocks of sound, repeated motifs, extremes of dynamics, tone clusters, the constant use of piano and/or percussion and unusual combinations of instruments which open up vast spaces, like Composition No. 1 (Dona nobis pacem) for piccolo, tuba and piano. But it is also deeply expressive, and its effect is intense, exciting and with penetrating shards of blackness brimming with tension. Her narrow approach has been likened to the "concentrated light of a laser beam that is able to pierce through metal", which made it difficult for any of her music to be heard until the demise of the Soviet Union, and her last two pieces, Piano Sonata No. 6 and Symphony No. 5 (‘Amen’), show the shocking but thrilling culmination of her developed style in quite different ways. 

Although religion runs through many of Ustvolskaya’s works, her approach to liturgical texts and musical material is more spiritual than religious. Her Symphony No. 3 (Jesus Messiah, Save Us) is raw, dissonant and violent, with the text conveying not so much a sense of hope and redemption, but one of struggle and desperation. This form of musical expression was perhaps her musical legacy.


Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931)

Gubaidulina’s music has a similar intensity to Ustvolskaya’s but with a markedly different aesthetic. Her back story reflects deep religious beliefs, encouragement from Shostakovich, modernist experimentation and censure (being blacklisted as one of “Khrennikov’s Seven”). She uses contrasts to project tensions between opposing forces: atonal and tonal, silence and sound, earthly and heavenly. Her second violin concerto In Tempus Praesens, for example, is a captivating piece concerning itself with “the present time” and the passage from darkness to light, although it was her first violin concerto, Offertorium, that provided her breakthrough, combining religious themes with elements of Bach (the theme from The Musical Offering) and Webern (Klangfarbenmelodie), her two great inspirations. 

Gubaidulina’s style incorporates a curious mix of tonality, chromaticism and microtonality – hear this in action in the clip below from The Canticle of the Sun – together with numerological structures like the Fibonacci sequence, and her fascination with the timbres of percussion instruments and with Russian and Asian folk instruments can be heard in pieces like De profundis for bayan (a type of button-accordion), In Erwartung for percussion and saxophone quartet and Fachwerk, a concerto for bayan, percussion and strings. 

In Stimmen… Verstummen, with its innovative use of silence, she employs not only the Fibonacci sequence but also a cadenza for conductor (John Cage would have been proud!), and she stretched the physical and acoustic dimension further in her string quartets, with String Quartet No. 4 played against pre-recorded tapes, one with the sound of a plastic ball bouncing on the strings. All of this reveals a heady concoction of music that is exciting and intensely stimulating, an eclectic mix of experiences ultimately aiming to realise the composer’s ideal of human transcendence.

With such rewarding and provocative music, I think my new favourite idea for a concert programme has to be a selection from these four composers. We have only scratched the surface here, but it is just the beginning of a fascinating journey of musical discovery to heighten the emotions and stimulate the senses. Fasten your seat belts!