Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography

By Schmelz, Peter J. | Notes, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography

Schmelz, Peter J., Notes

Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography. By Michael Kurtz. (Russian Music Studies.) First English edition, revised and expanded. Edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown, translated by Christoph K. Lohmann. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. [xviii, 335 p. ISBN-13: 9780253349071. $39.95.] Illustrations, bibliographical references, index, list of works.

Indiana University Press's Russian Music Studies series, founded by Malcolm H. Brown, continues to do an important and unique service in America by publishing translations of significant texts on Russian music, both new and old (the only contemporary equivalent is Ernst Kuhn's series Studia slavica musicologica in Germany). The English translation of Michael Kurtz's "authorized" biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, originally published in German in 2001, is one of the most recent of these (Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: Eine Biografie [Stutt gart: Urachhaus, 2001]). This version of Kurtz's biography provides a useful, readable introduction to Gubaidulina's life, especially for those without knowledge of either Russian or German, and helps establish a good basis for future study of the composer. However, though an important-even indispensable-document for those wishing to learn more about Gubaidulina's life, times, and music, Kurtz's biography is not without its own limitations, chief among them its lack of critical engagement with many of the topics he raises and his insufficient scholarly apparatus. Furthermore, Kurtz does not treat Gubaidulina's music in any detail, providing only capsule descriptions for most pieces (there are no music examples in the book save for a page from Vivente non vivente).

The virtues and problems of Kurtz's biography both stem from the fact that, as he notes in the introduction, Gubaidulina "authorized this biography and read the entire manuscript" (p. xviii). Not surprisingly, throughout there is an absence of objective perspective on Gubaidulina. As Nigel Osborne remarked of Kurtz's earlier, generally well-received biography of Karlheinz Stockhausen, "It is less a critical biography, than a partisan appraisal" (Nigel Osborne, review of Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen: Eine Biographie [Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1988], Tempo no. 171 [December 1989]: 38; the book was later published in English as Stock hausen: a biography, trans. Richard Toop [London: Faber, 1992]). That being said, Gubaidulina was Kurtz's primary source for the book, and her imprimatur doubtless proved crucial for facilitating the countless interviews Kurtz conducted with her family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances that form his most important layer of evidence. Kurtz tirelessly tracked down seemingly every major figure (and many minor ones as well) associated with the composer, both in Russia and other republics from the former Soviet Union as well as in Europe, the United States, and Japan (as someone who has done his own share of interviewing in the former USSR, I can imagine how difficult this was logistically, financially, and intellectually). The results are invaluable for the light they shed on Gubaidulina's personality, creative process, and the compositional history and reception of specific works. Particularly illuminating are those reminiscences that reveal Gubaidulina's personal and creative "determination, . . . strength, and . . . calmness" in poet Gennadiy Aygi's words (p. 100; see also Mark Liando's remarks on p. 30, Valentina Kholopova's on p. 46, and Kalevi Aho's on pp. 181-82). Interesting too are details about Gubaidulina's brushes with the KGB because of her second husband Kolya (Nikolai) Bokov's samizdat activities (pp. 107-09, 62-63, 68, and 88), and her self-proclaimed "Party loyalist" father's poignant rejection of her music after Tikhon Khrennikov denounced it in 1979 (pp. 145-46).

Most of Kurtz's interviews are cited properly (with date and interview location), yet only once in his entire endnotes (p. 296, chapter 2, note 10) does he directly refer to one of his "many conversations" with Gubaidulina that reportedly took place between 1990 and the present translation, although in this specific case no date is given (Kurtz discusses his interviews with Gubaidulina for the book on p. …

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