Gubaidulina at 70

By Warnaby, John | Musical Opinion, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Gubaidulina at 70


Warnaby, John, Musical Opinion


Ultimately, Sofia's refusal to simplify the spiritual aspect of her work means that besides upholding the legacy of Shostakovich she has also, to some extent, inherited the mantle of Messiaen's specifically religious compositions.

Sofia Gubaidulina was born on 24 October 1931 and is now the sole survivor of the triumvirate who attempted to fill the vacuum in Soviet music caused by the death of Shostakovich in 1975. Her music can also be considered more characteristically Russian than that of either Alfred Schnittke or Edison Denisov, and there is little doubt that she is now the leading representative of Russian music, even though she has been living in Germany for some years. Yet she was the last of the three to achieve an international following and even today her reputation is based on relatively few scores.

Like Alfred Schnittke, and, to a lesser extent, Edison Denisov,

Gubaidulina comes from a complex ethnic background, so that besides links with the Jewish and Christian traditions, her family had strong ties with Islam. She was born in the Tatar Region, where the population is predominantly Muslim and where her grandfather was a Mullah. Indeed, this aspect of her background may well have contributed to the mystical character of her music, though there are no obvious references to the folk music of Tatarstan in her output.

Gubaidulina graduated in piano and composition from Kazan University and moved to Moscow in the middle 1950s to continue her studies with Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin. Along with other composers of her generation, including Arvo Part, she was able to benefit from the cultural thaw following the demise of Stalin. The gradual easing of restrictions resulted in a growing familiarity with recent developments in Western music, but it was still a revelation when she and her colleagues encountered Luigi Nono and his work in the early 1960s. Gubaidulina has never tried to emulate the agitated manner of Nono's politically inspired music, but there are occasions when her recent compositions reflect the intensity of Nono's later scores.

During the Brezhnev era, attempts were made to re-introduce censorship, but these were never entirely successful as they had to compete with various technological advances which simplified the process of making and distributing recordings. At the same time, the spirit of the avantgarde was undaunted and in the 1970s Gubaidulina joined forces with fellow composers Viktor Suslin and Vyachislav Artyomov to form Astreya, an ensemble specialising in improvisation, using various kinds of ethnic music.

Sofia Gubaidulina's international reputation is largely based on the compositions she has produced over the past 20 years. She has never been a prolific composer but has written steadily throughout her career, including several significant pieces from her earlier years. As early as 1956 a large-scale orchestral song cycle, Phacelia, established the pattern whereby even her purely orchestral works have a literary basis. The powerful Piano Sonata dates from 1965, while the first of her four String Quartets was completed in 1977. The 1970s also saw the composition of several orchestral works, including Marchenbilder in 1971; Hour of the Soul: Music for Percussion, Mezzo-soprano and large Orchestra in 1976; and Introitus. Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra in 1978. Gubaidulina also contributed three movements to a collective Oratorio: Laudatio Pacis, for large forces, written in 1975. …

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