Gubaidulina, Sofia

She was born in 1931 in Chistopol (Tatar Republic of the Soviet Union). She studied piano (with Grigory Kogan) and composition, and graduated from the Kazan Conservatoire in 1954. In 1954–59 she studied composition with Nikolai Peiko (Dmitri Shostakovich’s assistant) at the Moscow Conservatoire, and later completed postgraduate studies under Vissarion Shebalin. She has been active as a composer since 1963. In 1975, together with Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, she founded the Astreya Ensemble, which specialised in improvising on rare Russian, Caucasian, Central and East Asian folk and ritual instruments. These previously unknown sounds and timbres and ways of experiencing musical time had a profound influence on her creative work. Since the early 1980s, and especially as a result of the support and encouragement given to her by Gidon Kremer, her works have been performed widely in Western countries. With Schnittke, Denisov and Silvestrov, she is considered one of the leading representatives of new music in the former Soviet Union. This is reflected in numerous commissions from the BBC, Berlin Festival, Library of Congress, NHK, New York Philharmonic, and other institutions, and in the large number of CD releases. Sofia Gubaidulina is a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Free Academy of Arts in Hamburg, Royal Swedish Academy of Music (Kungliga Musikaliska Akademien), and of the German order Pour le Mérite. In 1992 she moved to Germany, and now lives near Hamburg. 

She has received numerous accolades, including at the Rome International Composers’ Competition (1974), Prix de Monaco (1987), Koussevitzky International Recording Award (1989 and 1994) for the CD recordings of her violin concerto Offertorium and her symphony Stimmen ... verstummen ..., Premio Franco Abbiato (1991), Heidelberger Künstlerinnenpreis (1991), and Russian State Award (1992). Her more recent awards include the Ludwig Spohr Prize of the City of Brunswick (1995), Japanese Praemium Imperiale (1998), Prize of the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation in Copenhagen (1999), Stockholm Concert Hall Foundation’s Honorary Gold Medal (2000), Goethe Medal of the City of Weimar (2001), Polar Music Prize (2002), Great Cross of Merit of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2002), and Cannes Classical Award in the category of Living Composers (2003). 

Although Sofia Gubaidulina’s education and background are Russian, it is important to bear in mind the significance of her Tatar origins. However, she is not a Romantic nationalist. Her compositional mastery enables her to make use of contemporary techniques evolved by the European and American avant-garde, though in an entirely individual manner. Furthermore, oriental philosophies have had an influence on certain aspects of her music. A striking feature of Gubaidulina’s work is the almost total absence of “absolute” music. The vast majority of her pieces have an extramusical dimension, such as a poem, either set to music or hidden between the lines, a ritual, or some kind of instrumental “action.” Some of her compositions demonstrate her preoccupation with mystical ideas and Christian symbolism. She has wide-ranging literary interests, and has set to music poems by ancient Egyptian and Persian writers and contemporary lyric poetry by Marina Tsvetayeva, with whom she feels a close spiritual affinity. 

To my mind the ideal relationship to tradition and to new compositional techniques is the one in which the artist has mastered both the old and the new, though in a way which makes it seem that he or she is taking note of neither the one nor the other. There are composers who construct their works very consciously; I am one of those who “cultivate” them. And for this reason everything I have assimilated forms as it were the roots of a tree, and the work—its branches and leaves. One can indeed describe them as new, but they are leaves nonetheless, and seen in this way they are always traditional and old. Dmitri Shostakovich and Anton Webern have had the greatest influence on my work. Although my music bears no apparent traces of it, these two composers taught me the most important lesson of all: to be myself. 

(Sofia Gubaidulina

Selected works (since 1996): Quaternionfor four cellos (1996), Impromptu for flute / alto flute, violin and strings (1996), Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1996), St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun for violoncello, chamber choir and percussion (1996), Ritorno perpetuo for harpsichord (1997), Gallows Songs a 3, 15 pieces for mezzo-soprano, percussion and double bass to texts by Christian Morgenstern (1996–98; version a 5 with flute and bayan, 1996), In the Shadow of the Tree for koto, bass koto, zheng and orchestra (1998), Two Paths for two violas and orchestra (1998), St John’s Passion for vocal quartet, two mixed choirs, organ and large orchestra (2000), Risonanzafor three trumpets, four trombones, organ and six string instruments (2001), Revue Music for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band (1976–2002), Reflections on the theme B–A–C–H for string quartet (2002), Mirage: The Dancing Sun for eight cellos (2002), Am Rande des Abgrunds for seven cellos and two waterphones (2002), Johannes-Ostern for vocal quartet, two mixed choirs, organ and large orchestra (2002), Der Reiter auf dem weissen Pferd for large orchestra and organ (2002), Under the Sign of Scorpio, variations on the theme of six hexachords for bayan and large orchestra (2003), Verwandlungfor trombone, saxophone quartet, violoncello, double bass and tam-tam (2004), The Light of the End for large orchestra (2003–5), The Lyre of Orpheus for violin, percussion and strings (2005), The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair, concerto for flute and large orchestra (2005), Feast during a Plague for large orchestra (2005), Ravvedimentofor cello and guitar quartet (2007; version for double bass and three guitars Pentimento, 2007), Violin Concerto no. 2 In tempus praesens (2007),Quasi hoquetus for viola, bassoon / cello / double bass and piano (1984–2008), Fantasy on the theme S–H–E–A for two pianos (2008), Glorious Percussion, concerto for percussion ensemble and orchestra (2008), Fachwerkfor bayan, percussion and strings (2009), Silenzio, five pieces for bayan, violin and cello / double bass (1991–2010), Cadenza for bayan (2003–11), Labyrinth for 12 cellos (2011), Sotto voce for viola, double bass and two guitars (2010–13), So Sei Es for violin, double bass, piano and percussion (2013), Pilgrims for violin, double bass, piano and two percussionists (2014), Warum? for flute / bass flute, clarinet / bass clarinet and string orchestra (2014), Come Holy Spirit for soprano, bass, mixed choir and orchestra (2015), Einfaches Gebet. Messa Bessa for speaker, two cellos, double bass, piano and two percussionists to psalms and prayers (2016), Triple Concerto for violin, cello, bayan and orchestra (2017), On Love and Hatred for vocal quartet, two mixed choirs and orchestra to psalms and prayers (two versions, 2015–18), Violin Concerto no. 3 Dialog: Ich und du (2018), The Wrath of God for orchestra (2019).