Friday, 15 December 2017

Galina Ivanovna's Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya, seen in the Dutch TV documentary Scream Into Space
For many years I worked in a music library. I know how many years passed there, but I couldn’t now divide the time and say what belonged to which of the years. Libraries are places where time collects and where ideas go to rest, but time and thought stand strangely still between the shelves. Libraries have cycles and habits, and they go on until one day, they stop.

An elderly, sprightly lady used to breeze through the gate and give a brief but sincere “hello”, and a “hope you’ve a lovely holiday” or the like as she left. These all passed between us as though we’d done the introductions long before, but in truth, I barely knew who she was, only that she was a rare exception, a library regular from outside our institution. At Christmas, she’d bring a box of biscuits and card, left with her usual economy. A smile, a few words, and gone again.

“Sister Andre sort of came with the library”, the Librarian told me. “She’s been coming for years. She’s a nun. She’s researching something.”

I think more years passed before I asked what it was.


“Dullaghan”, she said, in a way that sounded right and compact in her Irish brogue. “D-U-L-L-A…”

“Got it”, I said, finding her record and issuing her books. Sr Andre Dullaghan.

What did she do up in the reading room, I asked? She was working on her book, she replied, on the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya. I knew the name, a little of the reputation, though I didn’t know the sound of the music. Strange and intense, I’d heard. A recluse, who’d not long ago died.

And then, from the little nun to whom I’d nodded and smiled for years, came the story of the time she’d made it into the world of Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya, a tiny world sealed shut to all but a select few.

Galina Ivanovna lived in a nondescript apartment in St Petersburg. If one knew anything of her, it was that she’d been a pupil of Shostakovich. He’d even, it was said, proposed marriage. She declined, and later in life, she vehemently denied his musical influence and his personal friendship. Shostakovich “killed my best feelings”, she wrote.

In her later years, she cultivated the myth of her own singularity. Scholarly study of her music was forbidden. Early works were struck from her catalogue. Just a handful of musicians could perform her music to her exacting standards. She admitted no influences, no antecedents. She belonged to no tradition. And she’d withdrawn from the world, to that tiny flat that she shared with her husband. No one saw her. One did not visit Ustvolskaya.

Some time, in the 1980s, perhaps, Sr Andre had fallen under the spell of the music. In the pounding of Ustvolskaya’s brutally expressive, rhythmically single-minded symphonies and sonatas, Sr Andre had seen God, a raw and blinding image of Him that spoke intensely to her faith. A visit to St Petersburg, in 1993, gave her the chance to discover more than was then possible from the trickle of information reaching the West. She found scholars and musicians eager to share their knowledge of Ustvolskaya’s work, but speaking with the composer was out of the question.

Further visits followed, and the quest to learn more became a doctoral thesis. Finally, in 1997, at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, Sr Andre took a risk and phoned Galina Ivanovna’s home number, a few days shy of the composer’s 78th birthday. She answered. Galina Ivanovna didn’t throw down the phone, but rather, spoke with Sr Andre warmly. News of Sr Andre’s passion for her music, and of her research visits to St Petersburg, must by then have reached her, even within her little fortress. Was this a way in? Sr Andre sensed that it might be, if she proceeded with care. A few days later, she phoned again.  

“I do not wish to see you”, said Sr Andre, “but at 5:30 I will ring your doorbell and leave you a present.”

Immediately: “There’s no need to.”

Sr Andre, though, had prepared. “I have already bought your present.” Chocolate-covered prunes – Galina Ivanovna’s favourite.

There was a pause – a long pause.

“What time did you say you’d call?”

That evening, Sr Andre arrived at the apartment, at the appointed time. She rang the bell, not expecting any response. But the door opened, and there stood Galina Ivanovna, dressed beautifully. She offered Sr Andre a warm embrace, and invited her into the apartment. They spoke for a while, and the composer asked this question: “Why do you love my music so much?”

“I love your music”, replied Sr Andre, “because every note touches my soul.”


She told me this story as I sat behind our library’s broad wooden issue desk. I read later that Galina Ivanovna referred to Sr Andre as “the nun”. And here she was - Galina Ivanovna’s nun - telling me of this precious meeting. I was at one remove from the most mysterious of the Soviet Union’s visionary musicians.

I stored it away in my mind. Years passed, I changed career, and eventually I set to writing something about Ustvolskaya. I knew who to contact first.

I had expected the routine to continue, even without me, and for Sr Andre to be regularly climbing the stairs to the reading room, to be reviewing her notes and shaping her manuscript at the big sloping table on the first floor. But she wasn’t; she isn’t. News came back from a colleague that she had passed away in 2015, eight years after and ten years the junior of her beloved Galina Ivanovna.

I don’t know what became of her work. The book she was shaping will never be finished. Perhaps the notes and the thoughts they hold rest somewhere, in a box or on a shelf of some little library, waiting for someone to pick up the threads and continue the work.

Sr Andre Dullaghan
The details of Sr Andre's meeting with Galina Ustvolskaya are related in the introduction to her doctoral thesis, Galina Ustvolskaya: Her Heritage and Her Voice (City Universtiy London, 2000) and are much the same as they were told to me by Sr Andre herself. Images used on this page fall under fair use and are intended to aid study and review. They will be removed upon request by the copyright holders. 


Anonymous said...

What an amazing story! I have to confess I have not come across this composer. I must explore her music.

Andrew Morris said...

Thank you, anonymous reader! I think the documentary Scream Into Space is a good place to start, as some familiarity with the composer's intentions is useful when getting to grips with this uncompromising music. I hope to write a much longer article about GU at some point, which will (I hope) provide a good starting point.