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Sofia Gubaidulina, the Grande Dame of New Music, on her 90th birthday

“I hear the world sounding inside me and want to bring this into a musical form and fix it in tones - like an ancient man who wants to record what he has experienced and seen on the wall of his cave.”

It was not necessary for Sofia Gubaidulina to orientate herself towards certain directions of contemporary music for her to find her style. Nor had she to set out compulsively in search of a particular expression, she simply had to let her musical language develop freely. As a consequence, there are no specific phases in her work that can be clearly separated from one another, as can be the case with many other composers. Gubaidulina’s work moves and unfolds in a calm flow. One develops from the other, and the works are always based on a clearly formulated idea of content or structure, which the composer consistently elaborates with formal clarity. In all this, philosophy, literature and Gubaidulina’s strict, even passionate Christian faith are only parts of a whole. Curiosity and the joy of experimentation play no less a role in this composer’s oeuvre. Already in her early years, Gubaidulina was intensively engaged in improvisation. Later she discovered the extraordinary instruments of the Far East. The composer often travelled to Asia or Japan and collected instruments of the respective countries, whose handling she learned and which she partly incorporated into her compositions. If one is to talk of a common thread in Sofia Gubaidulina’s creative activity, then it is man and his relationship to God. Christian faith is the source and orientation in this composer’s thinking, who celebrates her 90th birthday on 24 October 2021. Gubaidulina once used the image of “breeding” to characterise the creation of a musical work. In this activity, she sees herself more as a kind of gardener than a constructing architect. With the help of a sound and dramaturgical concept developed anew with each work, she determines form and structure and thus endeavours to restrain her imagination and steer it into fixed paths.

Since the 1980s, numerical relationships have played a major role for Gubaidulina, and these assist her in the structuring of pitches, rhythms and formal progressions. In her quest to combine intellectuality and emotionality, she feels close to Johann Sebastian Bach. She often develops her works out of silence. She has described her dilogy St. John Passion and St. John Easter as her opus summum, where, in a bold theological approach, she counterpoints the Evangelist texts with passages from the Apocalypse.

Around the time of her 85th birthday, the composer wrote another large-scale oratorio titled On Love and Hate, which was to be one of the last works of her life to be seen as a form of legacy, expressing her fervent and desperate appeal for humanity to follow God’s commandments and establish a lasting peace.

As this topic has preoccupied the composer a great deal in recent years, on the occasion of her upcoming 90th birthday, we asked her in what way she thinks her music can help to bring people to their senses and establish peace in a world in so much alarming disarray. Sofia Gubaidulina’s response: 

“To answer the question of what music can do to bring people to their senses and establish peace in this so disordered world, one must understand the deeper cause of this threatening scenario. Essentially, the problem can be explained by the conceptual pairs of high/low, ideal/material, good/evil, finite/infinite. In the course of the last two and a half thousand years, the dimension of the sublime lost its vertical orientation and moved in the direction of a dimension of flatness. At present, these two opposing dimensions are on a line, on the plane of an exclusively material, physical existence. Numerous aspects of this process collide with each other and create chaos. The maelstrom of this existential development has reached a point where it threatens to turn into an ever-contracting spiral and head for an explosion. The art of music, like every other art form, is also affected by this existential feeling. Why? Because it is precisely this art form that deals with a matter directly connecting the finite with the infinite. In this sense, it is precisely sound art that has the means to help the rapid fall of man be stopped.

Unfortunately, compared to all other living beings, man, despite all his merits, is inadequate and immature. And quite terribly weak - and hopelessly tardy. In this sense, personally, I am somewhat pessimistic. And yet I have a certain hope: I am counting on the enthusiasm of our present generation, i.e. the musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. Are we not lucky people? We have the opportunity to come into contact with those masterpieces that are already available to us. All my hope therefore rests on the interpreters of this rich treasure. All my hope rests on the performers and organisers who are committed to this beautiful and sublime art, and on their enthusiasm, which is real and truly effective. And it is indestructible!”

In the context of Sofia Gubaidulina’s 90th birthday, numerous events, performance projects and festivals have been planned, as well as book and CD publications. The Gubaidulina Centre in Kazan has also produced a film entitled “Sofia Gubaidulina - Dialogue: Me and You”, which is to be premiered at the Gubaidulina Festival there in October 2021. 

The Late Work
 

“The Light of the End” for large orchestra (2003)

In this large-scale work of about 25 minutes, the brass, reinforced in the lower register by tenor-bass trombone and contrabass trombone, play a special role. The clearly audible impurity in the horns at the beginning results from the fact that the composer instructs them in passages to blow natural tones instead of adjusting their pitches in the sense of the tempered scale procedure common today. According to her own statement, in this work Sofia Gubaidulina intends to transfer a fundamental problem of her human experience, namely the conflict between nature and reality, which she perceives as painful, into musical-acoustic contexts. The composer often makes use of such transfer procedures in her work. In the end, the problem of intonation dissolves into a bright, light sound world of natural harmonics, glissandi and trills in the harp and high strings.

“... The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair” for flute and orchestra (2005)

The title of the flute concerto “... The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair”, written in 2005 for flutist Sharon Bezaly, was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1927 poem “Ash Wednesday”, which deals with the hopelessness of a person, his inner struggle, but also with the attempt to turn to faith in despair. Eliot also references the Inferno from Dante’s Divina Commedia. 

In this work, Gubaidulina again translates human emotional states into musical-acoustic phenomena by working with differential tones pulsating at different speeds.

“The Lyre of Orpheus” for violin, percussion and strings (2006)

The lyre of Orpheus, the very instrument of the Greek mythical singer killed by Thracian women, is said to have drifted across rivers and seas, playing lamentations. The work was premiered on 11 June 2006 in Basel as part of the festival ‘les muséiques’ by Peter Sadlo and Andrei Pushkarev (percussion), Gidon Kremer (violin) and the Kremerata Baltica conducted by Roman Kofman. 

“The Banquet during the Plague” for large orchestra (2006)

“The Banquet during the Plague” is the title of one of Alexander Pushkin’s four so-called minor tragedies. The subject has a frightening topicality in the current Corona situation, as it is about young people coming together celebrating a feast while a cart with plague dead bodies passes in front of the door. In her orchestral work, Gubaidulina focuses on the theme of the highest intensity of life and of becoming aware of a lived present in the face of death.

The composer considers the three works “The Lyre of Orpheus”, “... The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair” and “The Banquet during the Plague” as a triptych of works entitled “Nadejka”, which she dedicated to her daughter who died in 2004. In January 2007, all three works were performed in a concert in London.

“In tempus praesens”. Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra (2007)

Commissioned by the Paul Sacher Foundation, Sofia Gubaidulina wrote a second violin concerto, this time for Anne-Sophie Mutter, 26 years after her violin concerto “Offertorium” dedicated to Gidon Kremer. For a long time she had shied away from following up her extremely successful first work with another violin concerto. 

“In tempus praesens” addresses the problem of time in human life and in art and its influence on the formal composition of works. She explains: “I am extremely concerned about the problem of time. In everyday life we never have real time. Only in dreams, in religious experience and in art can we expect lasting real time. This is precisely why musical form exists. In its course, it endures a multitude of events. And these can form an overarching shape, for example one that resembles a pyramid. The complete experience of this pyramid also represents ongoing real time – ‘In tempus praesens’ - literally: for now.”

“Glorious Percussion” for percussion ensemble and orchestra (2008)

The concerto “Glorious Percussion” was jointly commissioned by the Swedish percussionist Anders Loguin, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Sofia Gubaidulina once said of this work that it is distinguished from her previous works by two special features: “1. the central theme here is the correspondence of the sounding intervals with their differential tones. The structure of the form also results from this. 2. 2. the solo percussionists have seven episodes in this work, in which they step in front of the orchestra and improvise without a fixed musical text. This is, as it were, a reminiscence of a performance practice from a time when only an oral culture existed.”

“Fachwerk” (half-timbered) for bayan, percussion and orchestra (2009)

Sofia Gubaidulina wrote her composition for the Norwegian bayan virtuoso Geir Draugsvoll, who lives in Copenhagen, and dedicated it to him. For Gubaidulina, the term “half-timbered”, which refers to the medieval stickwork construction of buildings and whose word sound fascinates her immensely, contains two components. On the one hand, it contains the work of craftsmanship that is necessary to turn a composition into a performable musical work in terms of structure, form, architecture and chronological sequence. On the other hand, the term also has an aesthetic component. After all, the half-timbered construction of the houses of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period not only serves structural purposes, but also gives the buildings a particularly attractive, picturesque appearance. In the eyes of the composer, the ‘half-timbered’ principle also manifests itself perfectly in the bayan instrument due to its construction and its specific sound possibilities. Thus, in Sofia Gubaidulina’s latest instrumental concerto - as in her previous works - beauty and construction combine to form an artistic whole. 

“Fantasy on the Theme S-H-E-A” for two pianos (2009)

The 2009 “Fantasy on the Theme S-H-E-A” for two pianos is dedicated to Paloma O’Shea, the Spanish pianist, patron of the arts and president of the Fondación Albéniz and is part of a commissioned programme for O’Shea’s 70th birthday. The commissioned compositions, which were presented by the end of December 2009, were then premiered in various cycles. The work, which requires the second piano to be tuned a quarter tone lower, is technically very demanding, especially for its dynamic range and rhythmic complexity. Often one of the pianists has to reach into the piano strings of his counterpart and create spherical noises by rubbing the strings.

“Sotto voce” for viola, double bass and two guitars (2010)

“Sotto voce” is dedicated to the double bass player Alexander Suslin, the son of 

Gubaidulina’s friend and colleague Viktor Suslin. The composer has worked closely with him on double bass issues for many years. After her experiences with the work “Pentimento”, in which she already combined double bass and guitars, she wrote “Sotto voce”, a work in which she juxtaposed the double bass with a viola and two guitars. “The instrumentation fascinated me,” says the composer, “by its dark colour and by its possibility to create a contrast between a subdued, almost whispered ‘sotto voce’ sound and that special expressivity that is inherent in the low instruments.” The fourths and fifths tuning of the various stringed instruments and a constantly repeating motif play the main role in this striking work.

“So Be It” for violin, double bass and percussion (2013)

“So Be It” is Sofia Gubaidulina’s first complete composition after her crisis year of 2012, which was marked by illness and a creative void.  She wrote the work bearing the sorrow of the death of her friend and fellow composer Viktor Suslin, who died on 10 July 2012. His death resulted in Sofia Gubaidulina losing her last musical comrade-in-arms and co-thinker from her Moscow days. Gubaidulina’s music is neither funeral music, nor a setting of biblical end-time texts, but a work for only four instrumentalists, a witty-subtle homage to the deceased, a last message to the soulmate, with numerous hidden and open references to his tonal-harmonic aesthetics, with the B-A-C-H motif beloved by both of them and repeatedly interspersed with cross motifs. Gubaidulina sees no reason to sound funeral music in the face of death. Her answer is an “Amen” - or in German translation: “So be it”.

“The Pilgrim” for violin, double bass and two percussionists (2014)

The composition was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitsky Music Foundation of the Library of Congress and was written for the Contempo Ensemble Chicago. “The work is written in the form of variations,” explains Sofia Gubaidulina. “They are based on a theme reminiscent of a kind of procession of pilgrims (pilgrimages) who are searching in their innermost being for something sacred. Such listening to something outside the everyday occurs a few times on their way in the form of a shimmering, static chord. In essence, this is a juxtaposition of the linear course of everyday life and the vertical of an event outside of space and time.”

“Simple prayer”. Messa bassa for speaker, two cellos, double bass, piano and two percussionists (2016)

Gubaidulina wrote the “Simple Prayer” for the Russian cellist Vladimir Tonkha, who took part in the Moscow premiere in a dual role as speaker and cellist. The work was composed during Gubaidulina’s work on the oratorio “On Love and Hate” and is partly based on its musical material and texts, which are essentially taken from the Psalms of David. The work ends with a recitation of the so-called “Simple Prayer”. In the Russian-speaking world, this is understood to be the so-called “Peace Prayer” (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”), which originated in France and was first published in 1912. The prayer is often attributed to Francis of Assisi, but for this there is no historical evidence.

Triple Concerto for violin, cello, bayan and orchestra (2017)

Gubaidulina wrote her Triple Concerto on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Carnegie Hall, the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. The concerto was written at the behest of bayan soloist Elsbeth Moser, to whom it is also dedicated. It has the unusual soloist instrumentation of violin, cello and bayan. The Russian button accordion bayan is one of the composer’s favourite instruments, for which she wrote numerous solo and chamber music works and also a solo concerto. In this work, the number three plays a special role for Gubaidulina. This is reflected not only in the number of soloists, but also in the tripartite form and in the use of recurring simple triads. But at its core, the composer is interested in experimenting with the expansion and attraction of intervals. According to the composer, a cosmic drama manifests itself in these physical phenomena.

“On Love and Hate” for soprano, tenor, baritone, bass, two mixed choirs and orchestra (2016 /2018)

“On Love and Hate” is a work commissioned by the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Stiftung Frauenkirche Dresden, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival. The composer first presented a version in 9 movements in 2016, which she then expanded into a 15-movement version two years later. In her oratorio, Gubaidulina sets psalm and prayer texts to music in German, Russian, Italian and French. In its musical and textual content, the work is the composer’s spiritual reaction to the increasing peacelessness of our world today. She suffers from the enmity between peoples and the discord between religions, which is increasingly turning into inhuman violence: “No religion in this world has the right to exalt itself above another religion and to incite hatred against it,” she once said. In this oratorio, Gubaidulina evokes the destructive power of hatred and the healing power of love with a haunting, expressive tonal language. In a great theological discourse that names the hatred of people as well as the wrath of God in the face of such behaviour, the work culminates in the prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” and in the invocation of the Holy Spirit, who may bring people back to the path of love.

“Dialogue: I and Thou”. Concerto No. 3 for violin and orchestra (2018)

The title of the work refers to Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou”, which Sofia Gubaidulina particularly admired. In this book, Buber speaks about a world that he calls “two-fold”. Two-fold also because man often tries to describe the world with pairs of words such as ‘I – Thou’ or ‘I – It’. “Man, that is a being that is aware of its place in the universe. That is a being that strives to approach the world and to know it. But more important than anything is that he is aware of the relationship between himself and this world.” Gubaidulina takes up Buber’s complex account in her “Dialogue: I and Thou”. “The basic question of the conversation between the ‘I’ of the soloist and the ‘I'’ of the conductor is essentially: The question of discord and drama that emerges from this conflict.”

Violinist Vadim Repin and the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andres Mustonen premiered the work in Novosibirsk on 2 April 2018.

“The Wrath of God” for orchestra (2019)

The orchestral work “The Wrath of God” had originally been a commission by the Staatskapelle Dresden which, when completion was delayed, was passed on to the Salzburg Easter Festival. It is a work that takes up thoughts from Gubaidulina’s most recent oratorio “On Love and Hate”. The composer dedicated the work in the autograph “to the great Beethoven”. The fact that it was premiered in the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday and not in spring 2019, as was once originally intended, was a happy coincidence. 

The composer intends to preface the “Wrath of God” with a “Prologue” for orchestra that explores the Beethoven question “Must it be?” This work is not yet complete.

Events for Sofia Gubaidulina’s 90th Birthday (24.10.2021)

 

Special events and festivals:

Season 2021/22
Leipzig
Sofia Gubaidulina is Gewandhaus composer (until summer 2023)
Numerous performances by the Gewandhaus Orchestra 
(including Triple Concerto, Offertory, Viola Concerto, Canticle of the Sun)

29. Aug.+10.+12. Sept. 2021
Weimar
Gubaidulina performances as part of the Weimar Art Festival under the motto “Prayer of Sound”:
29.8. (Stadtkirche): “In croce” for violoncello and organ
10.9. (theatre foyer): Chaconne, “Silenzio”, “Sounds of the Forest”
(Christina Meisner, cello / Martin Sturm, organ / Christoph Ritter, piano / Ensemble klangwerk am bauhaus / Claudia Buder, bayan)

16./17. September 2021
Reykjavik
Iceland premiere “Fachwerk” with Geir Draugsvoll and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eva Ollikainen

09.+10. Oktober 2021
Amsterdam (9.10.) and Nijmegen (10.10.)
Portrait Concerts with 9 Gubaidulina chamber music works (including Galgenlieder à 5) (Vincent van Amsterdam, accordion / Jan Hage, organ amongst others)

16. Oktober 2021
Salzburg
Gubaidulina portrait event at the Mozarteum
(among others “Concordanza” and “Descensio”)

25.-31. Oktober 2021
Kasan
Gubaidulina Festival, organised by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan, the Gubaidulina Centre for Contemporary Music and the Kazan Conservatory, with Andres Mustonen and the Tatar Symphony Orchestra, among others.
(among others piano concerto “Introitus”, “Why?” for flute, clarinet and strings, “In croce” for double bass and bayan and Chaconne) 

02. November 2021
Moskow
Gubaidulina portrait concert at the Moscow Gnessin Academy, appointment as honorary professor of the Gnessin Academy

13. November 2021
Moskow
Gubaidulina Portrait Concert of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia under Vladimir Jurowski
(Russia permiere “The Wrath of God”, “Mirage”, “Rubaijat”, “Revue Music”, “Night in Memphis”)

14. November 2021
Tallinn
Estonia premiere “The Wrath of God” and “Dialogue: I and Thou” with the Tallinn Acad. Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andres Mustonen

27. November 2021
Moscow
Gubaidulina portrait concert by Russian performers at the House of the Composers’ Union (“To Sofia With Love”), with Vladimir Tonkha, Friedrich Lips, Valeri Popov and Alexander Suslin, among others.
(RE “Metamorphosis”, “Mirage”, “Quasi Hoquetus” and others; plus works by Viktor Suslin)

27.+29. November 2021
Berlin (27.11.) und Bremen (29.11.) 
Performances of the “Canticle of the Sun” with Leonard Elschenbroich and the RIAS chamber choir conducted by Justin Doyle

02. Dezember 2021
Katowice
Poland premiere Triple Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra of Poland Radio conducted by Domingo Hindoyan
(Soloists: Piotr Plawner, Ivan Monighetti, Klaudiusz Baran)

02.-05. Dezember 2021
Bonn
Gubaidulina Festival of the In Situ Art Society
17 chamber music works with Natalia Pschenitschnikowa, the Asasello Quartet and the Ensemble Musikfabrik, among others.

13. Mai 2022
Utrecht
Holland premiere of “The Wrath of God” with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Hilversum conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk

31.05.+01./02./06.06.2022
Greifswald und Stralsund
Four performances of “Fachwerk” with Geir Draugsvoll and the Philharm. orchestra 
Western Pomerania conducted by Alexander Mayer

02. Juli 2022    
Munich
Gubaidulina portrait concert by the Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by Clemens Schuldt at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
(“Nachtmusik der Moderne”), including “The Lyre of Orpheus” and “Fachwerk” with Geir Draugsvoll)

Further performance projects:

- Three Gubaidulina works in the 2021/22 season of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Cottbus State Theatre (“The Rider on the White Horse”, “Fairy Tale Poem”, “Offertory”)
- Gubaidulina concert series by Americas Guitar Duo with musicians of the Dortmund Philharmonic (12.6.2021 Essen / end of July 2021 Lugano / 28.8.2021 Aachen) with the works “Sotto voce”, “Repentance”, Serenade and Toccata
- Gubaidulina project of the Minguet Quartet in 2021/22 (14 performances of the String Quartet No. 1 and 7 performances of “Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H” in Germany, Austria, Belgium and France) 
- Accordion/Violoncello programme (“The Spirit of Sofia”) by Fanny Vicens and Virginie Constant in 2021/22 (“In croce”, works by Bach among others)
- 3. October 2021: Gubaidulina portrait concert of the bayan class Geir Draugsvoll at the Royal Conservatory Copenhagen (among others premiere of “Hell und dunkel”, arranged by Geir Draugsvoll for 2 bayans) 
- 21.+22.+23. October 2021, Boston: “The Light of the End” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons
- 18. November 2021, Tallinn: Gubaidulina Workshop of the Acad. Sinfonietta Tallinn with Andres Mustonen (“Why?” for flute, clarinet and strings and piano concerto “Introitus”)
- Jan. or Feb. 2022 Pushkin House London Portrait Concert with chamber music by Sofia Gubaidulina
- 7. April 2022, Reykjavik: “Seven Words” for cello, bayan and strings with Geir Draugsvoll and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eva Ollikainen
- April 2022, Cologne: “Voices ... fall silent ...” with the WDR Symphony Orchestra
- 11. Mai 2022, London: “Fachwerk” with Geir Draugsvoll and the Philharmonia Orchestra London conducted by Zvonimir Hacko (CD release)
- 27. May 2022, Cleveland: “The Light of the End” with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst
- Gubaidulina focus at the Int. Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in June 2022 (including violin concerto “Offertorium” with Vadim Gluzman and the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Omer Meir Wellber on 29 June 2022)

CDs:

- Gubaidulina Portrait CD (3rd Violin Concerto “Dialogue - I and Thou” / “The Wrath of God” / “The Light of the End”) with Vadim Repin and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Andris Nelsons (Release: 22.10.2021)
- CD “What does Chalk Sound Like - an orchestra adventure for children” with the “Fairy Tale Poem”, recorded by the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia under Rasmus Baumann. Narrator: Juri Tetzlaff (Release: autumn 2021))
- CD of the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Andrew Manze with the Triple Concerto (soloists: Baiba Skride, Harriet Krijgh, Elsbeth Moser) (release: spring 2022)
- SIGNUM-CD “Contemporary Women Composers, Vol. 1” with the bayan concerto “Fachwerk”(Geir Draugsvoll and the Philharmonia Orchestra London conducted by Zvonimir Hacko). 
(release: 22.5. 2022)

Books:

- Valentina Kholopova, Sofia Gubaidulina - Monograph – 5th enlarged edition (Russian) 
Publisher Kompozitor, Moscow 2021 

- Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina. A Biography – 3rd enlarged edition (Russian)
Publisher Kompozitor, Moscow 2022 

 

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