for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1949)




Galina Ustvolskaya (Галина Ивановна Уствольская, 1919, Petrograd–2006, St Petersburg) studied at the Leningrad conservatory with Dmitri Shostakovich. Later Ustvolskaya became a leading composition teacher herself, with famous students such as Boris Tishchenko. She composed the Trio for clarinet (in B-flat), violin and piano in 1949 while she still was a student. Besides the teacher-student-relationship, Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya apparently had an intense personal relationship.[1] Nevertheless, their mutual musical respect is strong: Shostakovich quoted the theme of the third movement of this Clarinet trio twice in his works: in the fifth string quartet (1952) and in the Michelangelo Suite (1974) (Suslin 2002, 99). However, Ustvolskaya herself did not mention the Clarinet trio in her work list for decades, and the first performance had to wait until 1968.[2] Sovetskaya Muzyka published the Clarinet trio in 1970, and Sikorski republished it in 1993.

The trio cannot be compared to any other work in that instrumentation. Ustvolskaya´s highly individual musical language unfolds in a range of expression, from introverted and intimate passages to explosive outbursts of aggression.  In the preface to her first monography, Ustvolskaya criticizes the way that her music is generally described: “It would be better to not write anything about my music than to write the same thing over and over — chamber, chamber, religious and once more chamber” (Gladkova 1999, 3–4). In her striving for musical independence, one can also see that she did not care for the suggestion that her work contained any intertextuality (Kozlovski 2017, 24). The aspect of chamber music deserves a closer look in this clarinet trio: the extent to which the instruments interact or keep at a distance, and the role of the clarinet as well as the use of violin and piano.

The trio has a total duration of ca.13 minutes and consists of three movements:
1. Espressivo
2. Dolce
3. Energico

[1] Shostakovich even asked Ustvolskaya to marry him, but she did not consent. Shostakovich sent her various manuscripts of his new works with a dedication to Ustvolskaya, among them the 5th string quartet (Gladkova 1999, 40-42). 

[2] The first performance took place in 1986 in Moscow with clarinetist Krasavin, violinist Liberman and pianist Karandashova.

Video ex.5.3.1: Monologue (Ustvolskaya, Trio, mvt. 1, mm.1-14)


The clarinet opens the first movement, Espressivo, playing alone, in a soft dynamic and dolce. The impression is somewhat lonely, as if talking to oneself (Video ex.8.3.1: Monologue). The opening characterizes the overall calm atmosphere of the movement; the texture throughout the work is very transparent. Subsequently, the piano enters with stoic quarter notes, gradually changing to more fluent eighth notes. The bar measures constantly change between 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 3/8, creating a somewhat restless or unstable impression. The section with clarinet and piano gives over into a violin-piano passage where the clarinet remains aside. 

Video ex.5.3.2: Crossing paths (Ustvolskaya, Trio, mvt. 1, mm.78-89)


The entrance of the violin, played espressivo, presents a new, punctuated theme which develops into more vivid sixteenth note movements, followed by a section of violin-clarinet duo. All three instruments play at the same time in 20 bars of the movement only; the rest is either one instrument alone or a duo. Even when playing together, more than uniting in any way the instruments rather cross each other’s paths, occasionally taking over musical ideas from each other. The performers play together, but at the same time stay distant from each other, confirming Ustvolskaya’s idea of not chamber music (Video ex.8.3.2: Crossing paths).


Video ex.5.3.3: Serenity (Ustvolskaya, Trio, mvt. 2, mm.1-14)


The clarinet opens the second movement, Dolce, as well playing alone. The frequent use of fermatas create a pensive, even meditative mood, occasionally giving the impression that time is standing still (Video ex.8.3.3: Serenity). The clarinet sound stays restrained, ending in hardly audible soft dynamics. In this movement, at no time do all three instruments play together. The first half is played by the clarinet and violin, the other half by the violin and piano. Minimising the texture even more, the piano plays with one hand only and no more than two notes at the same time. The instruments almost switch their roles: in the beginning, the clarinet plays one voice with double notes on the piano; later the piano plays the same double notes and the violin one.  


Video ex.5.3.4: Quoted Theme (Ustvolskaya, Trio, mvt. 3, mm.46-66)


The third movement, Energico, opens with a fugato and builds up tension
continuously. At the end of the movement only the piano is left, changing from aggressive tones, as if being torn in pieces, to fading into a kind of desperation. In the middle section (mm. 60 ff.), the clarinet introduces the specific theme which Shostakovich quoted later in his 5th string quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (Video ex.8.3.4: Quoted theme). This section grows in intensity and dynamics, increasing to a maximum dynamic of ffff. Abruptly, the dynamic drops to pppp (a tempo, mm. 130ff.). 

The use of extreme dynamics – from pppp to ffff – is characteristic of this trio, even though the soft dynamics dominate in the clarinet part. I experience in this trio a fragility of sound that requires special attention to sound control, as a suspended expression of feelings with introverted characteristics (Video ex.5.3.5: Introvert). I see Ustvolskaya´s striving for independence realized in many ways: in not being similar to any other composer or style; in not being typical for her time in the Soviet Union under Stalin; in using instruments in uncommon ways; in questioning the essence of chamber music and of playing together.

Video ex.5.3.5: Introvert (Ustvolskaya, Trio, mvt. 3, mm.146-159)



Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet

Nonna Knuuttila, violin

Kiril Kozlovsky, piano

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2nd doctoral concert "Between Love and Hate" 

12.05.2015, Helsinki Music Centre