Galina Ustvolskaya 's entire life is tied up with one and the same city. She was born on June 17, 1919 in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). From 1934 to 1937 she studied cello at the Leningrad Capella, and from 1937 to 1947 (with a break during the war) attended Dmitri Shostakovich's composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. Ustvolskaya particularly wanted to study under Shostakovich as she thought him the only composer able to teach her anything. As the years went by, however, and she came to know the man and his music better, her opinions were dramatically revised (see the page devoted to Shostakovich). Her composition teacher, who seldom praised his students, valued Ustvolskaya 's work very highly and said of her: "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance." On several occasions Shostakovich supported her in the Union of Soviet Composers against opposition from his colleagues. He sent some of his own as yet unfinished works to Ustvolskaya, attaching great value to her comments. Some of these pieces even contain quotations from his pupil's compositions; for example, he employed the second theme of the Finale of her Trio throughout the Fifth String Quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (no. 9).
On graduating from the conservatory Ustvolskaya was at once admitted to the Composers' Union and from 1947 until 1950 honed her skills as a graduate student. In 1948, Ustvolskaya began teaching composition at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and continued to do so for around 30 years. According to the composer, she taught "only to subsist on it", and did not see herself as the creator of any of well-regarded composers: "They were educated at the College". In general, she expected her students to work to the same high standards she set for herself and, despite reports to the contrary, she never singled out any of her students for special praise.
Ustvolskaya 's first compositions were a considerable success and were performed by leading musicians at the most prestigious concert halls of the city. From the mid 40s onwards, Ustvolskaya 's work grew in strength. In 1946 she released her Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra and Timpani, in 1947, her Piano Sonata No. 1, and, in 1948, Stepan Razin's Dream, a composition for bass and a symphony orchestra which was deemed fit to open four successive seasons at the Leningrad Philarmonic 's Grand Hall. However, her name soon began to disappear from the concert bills, to be replaced by those of the socially connected and the officially sanctioned; premieres of her music became increasingly rare, and many of her works were published decades after their composition. For some time her music was practically unheard, the critics did not accept it, condemning it as "too sketchy thematically", "designed for a narrow circle of listeners", "tough", etc. Some of Ustvolskaya's compositions were censored by her publishers (bars being inserted where they did not belong, etc.) They are now performed based on the composer's original notation.
Ustvolskaya lived in constant poverty. In 1950s she attempted to improve her financial situation and composed a number of contract works as well as music for several documentaries, works which much later she strived to exclude from her Catalog, going to considerable lengths to locate them, in orderÂ to destroy all traces of their existence. On the few manuscripts which did survive, she later wrote "for money", thus defining her attitude towards them. From 1961 onwards, despite the catastrophic lack of money, Ustvolskaya's life was devoted exclusively to "the true, spiritual, not religious creativity".
Ustvolskaya 's music is unique and does not resemble any other. It is exceedingly expressive, high-spirited, austere and full of tragic pathos attained with modest expressive means. Ustvolskaya's musical thought is distinguished by its intellectual power, while a keen spirituality occupies the core of her work. Viktor Suslin, with whom Ustvolskaya maintained friendly relations for many years, once called her "a voice from the "Black Hole" of Leningrad, the epicentre of communist terror, the city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war." Ustvolskaya liked the scientific metaphor of the black hole, as these were rarely applied to her music in those days. And although she was never interested in politics and society, the influence of Leningrad's history on her output can not be underestimated.
Genuine recognition came to the composer only in the late 80's when a concert in Leningrad was attended by Juegen Koehel, the director of the largest music publishing house "Sikorski" and Elmer Schoenberger, the Dutch musicologist. Mr. Schoenberger was so stunned by the music that he did everything in his power to ensure that this concert was heard in Europe. Soon, a series of international Ustvolskaya's music festivals was organised (1995, 1996, 2005, 2011 Amsterdam, 1998 Vienna 1999 Bern, 2001 Warsaw, 2004 Bastad), and Mr. Koehel acquired the rights to publish her works. She unambiguously dismissed subsequent proposals that she should emigrate from Russia: all her life had been connected with St. Petersburg, which she left only a few times in order to attend festivals of her music. Galina Ustvolskaya led a solitary life, thinking over the new works until her last days. "My music is my life" she said.