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Sofia Gubaidulina

Sophia — or sofia, to follow the usual transliteration from the Russian form — is the Greek word for “wisdom.” As wisdom personified, Sophia has a place in many schemes of mystical thought, a spirit not only of supreme awareness but also of challenge and anguish. Sophia is wisdom effulgent; she is also wisdom hidden, wisdom in chains, wisdom separated.

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina was well named. Intense in her gaze and always alert in her posture, she has the look of one who can trespass beyond the mundane: a wise woman. At the same time, she fits into the Russian tradition of the holy simpleton, whose earthly folly is heavenly wisdom. Female shaman and blessed fool, she is an extraordinary figure to have arrived in a time of cynicism, lethargy, irresponsibility, and confusion, but all the more vital for that. Almost unknown outside Russia untilshe was into her fifties (and not much known inside), she has become in the last thirty years one of the most deeply appreciated artists of our time. She does not offer easy solutions, or calm, or the vision of a better past. She is at war with the present, but on behalf of the future. She is at war with herself, casting off artistic decorum, throwing doubt into the wild mix that almost any work of hers will contain.

The mix comes from within. She gained a dual heritage from her parents, Russian and Tatar, who were themselves heirs to different cultures: Orthodox and Muslim (though her father was not religious), central and peripheral, western and eastern. She was born, on October 24, 1931, in Chistopol, an industrial town on the banks of a great reservoir on the Volga, right at the center of Tatarstan, the northernmost reach of ancient Islam. In 1949 she entered the conservatory in the regional capital of Kazan, a city with churches and mosques, a prestigious university (where Lenin was a student), museums, and an opera house. The nineteenth-century Russian socialist Alexander Herzen wrote that: “The significance of Kazan is very great: it is a place where two worlds meet. It has two origins, the West and the East, and you can see them at every crossroads; here they have lived together in amity as a result of continuous interaction, and begun to create something quite original.”

What Herzen saw in the city, Gubaidulina was finding in herself. This was the bleak time of Stalin’s last years, but light shines more clearly in the dark, and Gubaidulina had found that light in music. She transferred in 1954 to Moscow, to study at first with Nikolay Peyko, who himself had studied with Myaskovsky and was pre-eminently a symphonist. From 1959 she studied in the Moscow Conservatory’s composition master class with Vissarion Shebalin, also a Myaskovsky pupil and a composer of symphonies (as well as string quartets and a Taming of the Shrew opera). By the time she finished her studies, in 1963, she was into her thirties, and for a while her progress remained slow. Only a few works, such as her imposing Chaconne for piano (1962), remain in her catalog from before the late 1960s; some of those early compositions indicate her awareness of serialism and of new instrumental techniques coming from the West. Such interests — and her whole artistic positioning — earned her criticism at the conservatory. Shostakovich, though, had encouraged her to keep to her “mistaken path.” Meanwhile, she supported herself the conventional way, writing film scores.

She entered her stride as a composer with pieces including Night in Memphis (1968), a cantata on texts from ancient Egypt set in translation for mezzo-soprano, men’s choir, and a mixed instrumental ensemble, and Musical Toys (1969), a book of children’s piano pieces. Concordanza had its premiere at the Prague Spring Festival in 1971, but generally she remained little known outside Moscow and Leningrad. That may have been partly by choice, as she enjoyed working with musician friends, among them two fellow composers, Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, with whom in 1975 she formed the group Astraea, to improvise on folk and ritual instruments from Russia, the Caucasus, central Asia, and further east.

Unlike such contemporaries as Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, and Andrey Volkonsky, she was unknown in the West until the end of the 1970s, when two major works had western premieres: her First Quartet in Cologne and Hour of the Soul in Paris, the latter a setting of poems by Marina Tsvetayeva for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra without strings. It was, however, Gidon Kremer’s espousal of her violin concerto Offertorium that brought her to the forefront. Kremer gave the first performance in Vienna in 1981 and played the work around Europe and North America. Its success enabled the composer to make her first visit to the West in 1985, and in 1992 she moved to the outskirts of Hamburg, while maintaining an apartment in Moscow.

Her output, nearly all of which is available on CD or YouTube, includes a pair of oratorios after St. John’s gospel, several smaller choral pieces, orchestral works, and four string quartets at the head of a large body of chamber music. Most of the top awards available to composers have come her way, including the Praemium Imperiale of Tokyo, the Sonning Prize, and the Polar Music Prize, but honors and age have not kept her from becoming ever more wisely foolish, more foolishly wise.

Trio (1989) for violin, viola, and cello

Having written two string quartets in 1987 (Nos. 2 and 3), Gubaidulina added this three-movement triothe following year, dedicating it to the memory of Boris Pasternak. The commission came from Radio France, but the first performance was given by members of the Moscow String Quartet, who brought the piece to New York in 2001, for an evening celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday.

Together at the start, bouncing the note B around, the three instruments progressively separate through the three movements. In the first, they agree on everything — when to move, and where — through acourse that includes insistence on dark chords along with dialog and a final section of gathering intensity, projected as if by voices in prayer.

The central slow movement has violin and cello conversing in short phrases, pizzicato throughout, while the viola cuts the high air with harmonics, like a soul in flight. It descends to normal tone only in the closing measures.

In the finale, for the most part, the instruments follow separate paths, which from time to time they exchange. One possibility is a bobbing within a narrow range — the viola’s option to begin with, then the violin’s, and so on. At the end of an episode of upward glissandos, which they all execute, the violin comes up with a five-note motif that gradually comes to dominate the music: a little wave — up two steps, down a step, up a bigger step. Ultimately, this draws the instruments together, and draws them high. They end, though, in their different states of aloneness.

Concordanza (1971)

Concord, agreement, harmony. These are the meanings of the Italian word Gubaidulina chose as title for her composition of 1971, which on one level is a struggle between concordant elements — not necessarily straightforward concords, but musical ideas that are flowing, homogeneous — and others that are discordant, disruptive. The piece is scored for ten soloists, and there are many ways in which it plays out contrasts of smoothness and irregularity — or of irregularity within smoothness, and vice versa — through its course of twelve minutes. But perhaps the lesson is that these diverse magical moments — the solos, the quasi-fugue for woodwinds, the beautiful slow movement with horn and bassoon over extreme strings and cymbals, the march, and more — are all parts of a greater unison, whose nature the composer was to go on discovering.

Meditation on the Bach Chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (1993)

Offertorium, based on Bach’s Musical Offering, evidently opened Gubaidulina to further Bachian commissions, including, as well as a St. John Passion for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000, this composition of 1993 for the Bach Society of Bremen. The piece plays for twelve minutes or so. As in Offertorium, Gubaidulina chose music with late-Bach associations — in this case, the chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” (Herewith I come before your throne), which the composer’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel added as a kind of appendix when he published his father’s Art of Fugue. Also important to Gubaidulina was evidence that Bach had composed sometimes with significant numbers, which he would derive from names by counting where their letters came in the alphabet; for example, “BACH” (2–1–3–8) yields by summation the number 14. To Bach’s numbers, for his own name and that of Jesus, she added 48, for “SOFIA.”

The resulting numbers govern the lengths of sections and subsections, in what is a new prelude on the same chorale, scored for harpsichord and solo string quintet. A sense of the uncanny is summoned at once, with imposing harpsichord entries, string tremolandos, and eventually a sustained tritone, before the first line of the chorale is intoned by the double bass. From this point on, much of the music refers to motivic elements in the chorale, in continuing atmospheres of strangeness, with the chorale melody occasionally coming fully into focus. An early phase of somewhat Bartókian string polyphony, for instance, provides a foil for the chorale in violin harmonics with pizzicato viola. Later, the double bass has an-other solo, tremolando and with sliding bow, from which it moves toward an implacable ostinato drawn from the chorale. Finally, the whole chorale bursts in on full strings, sounding in this setting like an old Russian hymn. The harpsichord, however, has the last word, closing with a sequence of chords whose top notes spell out B–A–C–H.

Concerto for bassoon and low strings (1975)

Gubaidulina has written several concertos, most of them at the request of a particular soloist or institution, and so it was here, with her first. Valery Popov, the pre-eminent Russian bassoonist, heard her Concordanza at its enthusiastically received Moscow premiere on January 15, 1974 (it had to be repeated), and asked her to write something for him. She attended his concerts and his classes at the Moscow Conservatory, and became entranced by his playing. “Gradually,” she has recalled, “I began to penetrate into the essence of the instrument itself, to understand it like some character in a play. It was then that the idea came to me to surround the ‘personality’ of the bassoon with low-register strings: double basses and cellos. The interactions between the soloist and the surrounding instruments are complex, contradictory, as in a dramatic scene full of action. The concerto includes moments of reconciliation and hostility, tragedy, and loneliness.”

Composed in 1975, the work has five movements, of which the first is much the longest, playing for about ten minutes. Here the bassoon enters alone, very much in the register of its opening solo in The Rite of Spring, but soon going way down to the bottom of its range. Then one of its melodic invitations finds an echo in the strings, laid out in seven parts (a favorite number of the composer’s): four of cellos and three of basses. The process of an image being answered by its echo, or its shadow (if a shadow can seem to be made of light), continues a while. Before long, the shadows are preceding the images, not following them, and taking on a life of their own. The dialog becomes more frenetic, then subsides, and something like the initial state resumes, until the bassoon settles on a fanfare, arpeggiating a G Major second-inversion triad. This curious feature may have come about because Gubaidulina knew Popov had originally been a trumpet player.

The short second movement, slow and low, introduces multiphonics on the solo instrument (chords produced by special fingerings). The third picks up from the fanfaring at the end of the first, but before long a double bass takes over, and the movement continues without the work’s ostensible soloist. Repeating glissandos convey a sense of lament.

Returning in the brief fourth movement, the bassoon presents a cadenza in quickly changing characters: swinging, comic, desperate, laughing. It settles finally on a chant-like phrase that encourages the strings to participate.

As the finale gets going, the bassoon’s “swinging” persona seems to have won through, but the chant reappears, followed by other memories, setting up a dramatic end.