"I stiffen in the block of stone while God the craftsman -- only He! -- hesitates to wield the hammer blow." -- from a sonnet of Michelangelo
There is an obscure but essential dream in the arts, which surfaces from generation to generation: the artist imagines herself as a channel of divine energy into sculpture -- as the tool through which God converts a spiritual burst into a material of awesome strength and particularity. It seems no mystery that Michelangelo, himself a master sculptor, would entertain such a vision; and, some 400 years later, it seems only a stretch that Russian painter Kazimir Malevich would think to convey total spirit by portraying only hardest objects -- squares and rectangles of monolithic intensity.
In the case of composer Galina Ustvolskaya, we're given an interesting twist. Her Twelve Preludes for solo piano from 1953 seem to convert the journey from spiritual vision to stone into a musical format; each of these austere miniatures feels hewn from some granitic matter, crafted into a static, statuesque blocks of time. Every prelude also pursues its path obsessively, as if rent in a single hammer-stroke. In this sense one might compare them to Baroque suite movements with their "unity of affect." But Ustvolskaya's diminutive carvings don't seem to have anything in common with Baroque artifice and spectacle; they speak with strained, intimate sincerity, like bottled messages under great pressure.
Generally, these adamantine preludes are cut from one of two molds: one is extremely fragile and lithe, glowing with painful introversion. The first and third preludes exemplify this strange pathos, ruminating upon their narrow path like barely-heard sleepwalkers in the background; the sixth prelude pursues this train most intensely, its step-wise tunnel vision remaining darkened through the end. The second mold produces works of tremendous force, frightening in their controlled violence; the second and fifth preludes are singular eruptions, as barbaric as others are vulnerable. In the eighth and ninth preludes, Ustvolskaya straitjackets this power, creating small musical juggernauts which inflexibly run their course and abruptly stop.
The set's harmonic language is a disquieting fusion entirely Ustvolskaya's own, also heard in her Third Piano Sonata from the previous year. Not tonal but also not quite atonal, the lines move like Gregorian chants disenfranchised from medieval cloisters into the nightmare of mid-century Soviet Russia; they weave in and out of tonality, suggesting but never affirming resolution (this very particular sound would haunt the last works of Ustvolskaya's teacher Shostakovich some 20 years later).
Ustvolskaya's fascination with a music of stone, received as a spiritual vision and pressed into musical sculpture, may seem like tragically doomed strategy; while it somehow woks in these preludes, one can feel the strain created when one tries so intensely to hold music still. But Ustvolskaya appears a quester after impossible things, betraying her quixotic sensibility in a letter to two of her favorite musical interpreters: "I regret not being almighty, otherwise I would have offered you an island, an old castle or a windmill."