Charles Petzold

Happy 80th Birthday, Sofia Gubaidulina!

October 24, 2011
New York, N.Y.

During much of his lifetime Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) was the dominant figure in music in the Soviet Union, yet he failed to provide a model that could be emulated by younger composers. Particularly during the Stalin years, his music would often incur the suspicion of the government; yet outside the Soviet Union, this same music was considered hopelessly reactionary. (Pierre Boulez called him "the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.") To Soviet authorities, Shostakovich's politics were often suspect, yet in the rest of the world he was widely perceived as a government lackey.

The next generation of Russian composers after Shostakovich couldn't avoid being influenced by him, but they had to find their own distinct paths. They tended to be less political than Shostakovich, but musically more radical. The most distinguished of this generation is undoubtedly Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998), but this generation also includes Edison Denisov (1929 – 1996), Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), and Sofia Gubaidulina, born October 24, 1931 and celebrating her 80th birthday today.

Sofia Gubaidulina was born in Christopol in the Tatar Republic of the USSR to parents of Russian and Tatar ancestry. She studied music at the Moscow Conservatory from 1954 to 1963, where her instructors apparently believed her early compositions to reveals that she was on a "mistaken path" in music, but Shostakovich is reputed to have told her "I want you to continue down your mistaken path."

Gubaidulina cites Bach, Shostakovich, and Webern as her greatest influences, but her mature music sounds like none of these composers. She'll sometimes use a motif from Bach, but extensively deconstructed. In later years, her music has a very strong religious and spiritual component, as well as incorporating numerical concepts such as the Fibonacci Series and the Golden Mean. She is fond of unusual instruments, and the use of extended techniques on traditional instruments, such as manipulating the strings of a piano. A common Gubaidulina sound is a glissando on a string instrument. For much of her career she has experimented with micro-tonality, particularly quarter-tones.

Most often Gubaidulina's compositions have a relaxed and time-transcendent pace, and among American listeners this quality of her music might bring to mind the works of Morton Feldman, or perhaps George Crumb. Her music can get very loud, but is quiet much more often, and her compositions almost always end quietly. currently lists over 80 CDs featuring Gubaidulina compositions that span a 50-year period. Here a few highlights:

I think the earliest composition by Gubaidulina available on CD is the four-movement Piano Quintet of 1957, written while she was still a student, and it sounds so influenced by Shostakovich that it sometimes makes me chuckle. The first movement really moves, the third movement achieves a kind of lyrical serenity, and the finale has a lackadaisical witty conclusion, revealing a talented composer, although not necessarily an inspired one, and no hint of what is to come later.

The only other early Gubaidulina works I've heard are piano music: The Chaconne (1962) announces itself with loud, ringing chords, and never quite relaxes. It is characterized by propulsive rhythmic passages (including jazzy sections) that would later largely disappear from Gubaidulina's music. In retrospect, the classically structured three-movement Sonata (1965) for piano seems a transition piece. After hearing the work, a non-appreciative Igor Stravinsky is reputed to have quipped "I finally understand the meaning of the Iron Curtain." Oddly, passages in the first movement actually sound a little Stravinskian to me! The two fast outer movements are quite rhythmic, but the second movement has an exceptionally sparse texture that characterizes Gubaidulina's later works.

In a local store that sells used CDs I was fortunate to pick up a disk from the Soviet Melodiya label with two works from Gubadulina's late 30's: Rubayat (1969) is a spooky cantata based on poems by Omar Khayyam and others, for baritone — alternating between singing and speaking — and chamber ensemble, heavy on the percussion. The all-electronic Vivente — non vivente (1970) has Gubaidulina controlling the synthesizer. This is a low-key soundscape with a central section that sounds to me like processed voices and laughing, and towards the end I love the sound of bells ringing in the distance.

The instruments that make up the percussion-heavy chamber orchestra of Concordanza (1971) often have the chance to play solo passages, or combine in unusual ways. The sheer sonics and experiments with micro-tones make this a fun piece.

Historically, 20th century Russian composers have had a special relationship with the string quartet. In a previous blog entry, I discussed the string quartets of Shostakovich, and one of the comments to that blog entry turned me on to those of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. A Kronos Quartet recording of Alfred Schnittke's four string quartets is also a revelation.

Gubaidulina's String Quartet No. 1 (1971) is the first of four (so far), all in single movements. It starts off as if it's going to be conventional work, but then begins incorporating glissandi, harmonics, high-pitched spine-scratching trills, and extensive pizzicato. The work is punctuated by frequent pauses, so it incorporates a considerable amount of silence, and somewhere in the middle it becomes almost like a chorale

The Ten Preludes for Cello (1974) range in length from about a minute to three and a half minutes. While incorporating some of her signature string sounds — such bouncing the bow off the strings — the work also frequently reveals a startling lyricism.

The single-movement Introitus (1978) is a piano concerto. (The title refers to the opening of the Roman Catholic mass.) I hear sounds in the opening that sound like a low-pitched shakuhachi, although I know they're not. The piano doesn't enter until about 3 1/2 minutes in, and barely makes an impression. Overall, the work finds an interesting balance between stasis and frenetic activity, with micro-tones contributing to some shimmering orchestral textures.

De profundis (1978) is Gubaidulina's first work for the bayan, a type of Russian accordion developed in the early 20th century. The bayan (accent on the second syllable) is classified as a chromatic button accordion, in contrast to a more conventional piano or keyboard accordion. The buttons span a range of over five octaves, compared to the less than four octaves of a keyboard accordion. In later works, Gubaidulina combined the bayan with other instruments but this work is for solo bayan, and if you heard the opening without knowing it was being played on an accordion, you probably couldn't guess. It begins with a low-pitched pulsing sound, made (I suspect) by pumping the bellows quickly and irregularly. But that's not the only extended technique called for here. Before working on this composition, Gubaidulina did her research, and spent much time studying the strange ways in which the bayan could be played.

Based on the number of recordings (eight currently available), Gubaidulina's most popular work is In Croce (1979) for cello and organ, although it is most commonly performed in a 1992 arrangement for cello and bayan. The title refers not only to the Cross of Christianity, but to ways in which the cello and bayan cross paths melodically — the bayan starting out in the high register and the cello in its low register. When the instruments do cross over the course of the 15-minute work, all hell breaks loose, but I like much more the tranquility of the splendid coda.

In the late 1970s, violinist Gidon Kremer began popularizing Sofia Gubaidulina's music in the West, and her violin concerto known as Offertorium (1980) is dedicated to him. Based on a theme from Bach's Musical Offering — played almost literally at the beginning and thereafter with notes progressively removed from its end, and then built back up — this is a work of frequent breathtaking beauty. The more this work proceeds, the more it resembles a traditional violin concerto, with several solo passages for the violinist puncuated by orchestral outbursts. Towards the end, a long lyrical passage is quite effective in its simplicity and emotional impact.

Gidon Kremer has been playing and championing Sofia Gubaidulina's music for over 30 years now, and at a concert at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday evening I saw him perform another Gubaidulina work from this era, Rejoice! (1981) for violin and cello with cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite. (After intermission, pianist Andrius Zlabys gave us a powerfully rhythmic Chaconne.)

Over the centuries, many composers have used as a theme the seven last words of Christ. The most famous is Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Savior On the Cross (c. 1785), but I'm also familiar with a setting by Heinrich Schütz (c. 1658) and Scottish composer James MacMillan's The Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993). But I guess we can be certain that Sofia Gubaidulina's Seven Words (1982) is the only setting that incorporates a bayan, which here is accompanied by a cello and string orchestra. This is one of Gubaidulina's most popular works, featuring long periods of sustained tension, unforgettable glissandos, and haunting melodies.

Stimmen... Verstummen... (1986) — perhaps the most appropriate translation is "silence... consent..." — is labeled a "Symphony in 12 movements," and the movements range in length from 30 seconds to 11 minutes. This work is an odd mix. Some comparatively tonal sections at times sound almost like Beethoven in a pastoral mood, or perhaps the Ravel of Daphnis and Chloe. These are contrasted with more frenetic passages, and throughout there is a tension between these two extremes. Sonically, the work is gorgeous, with a skillful mix of percussion, solo instrument writing, and full-blown orchestral power.

Gubaidulina doesn't write much vocal music, but an Homage to T. S. Eliot (1987) features a soprano singing excerpts from Four Quartets accompanied by an octet of strings and woodwinds (the same ensemble used by Schubert in his Octet). The full ensemble doesn't come together until the fifth of the seven movements, but when it does, we are treated to some of Gubaidulina's most enchanting music.

The year 1987 saw two more string quartets: String Quartet No. 2 is a study in contrast. It's short (about 9 minutes) and seems divided into three sections. The String Quartet No. 3 is about twice as long as the second but much quieter and sparser, largely because bows aren't used for about half the duration, so we're treated to quite a variety of non-bowed sounds. When the bows finally do come in, they do so with a vengeance, but the whole last section seems surprisingly conciliatory, still full of tension, of course, but almost blissful.

An episodic three-movement Trio for Violin, Viola, and Violoncello (1988) has a first movement that lulls you in until it has its fists around your throat. The second movement is mostly very calm pizzicato, while the third breaks out into sustained driving propulsive rhythms that finally surrender to the inevitable crush of much angrier pizzicato. Silenzio (1991) is a five-movement work for bayan, violin, and cello, played — as the title might suggest — at a fairly low volume. This is a sedate, contemplative work, with a long lyrical final movement

Gubaidulina uses some aleatoric techniques in Stufen (1992) for large orchestra and narrator, with prominent parts for piano and harpsichord. It initially sounds like it's going to be raucous, but never stays so for long. By the time the narrator enters near the end — actually several overlapping pre-recorded narrators reciting a short passage with a religious theme — the music has entirely disappeared.

In 1992, Gubaidulina moved to an isolated area of Germany near Hamburg, and the change seems to have spurred a number of compositions. And: The feast is in full progress (1993) is a cello concerto. (The title comes from a poem about the Last Judgment.) The piece starts off quite calmly, and ends that way as well, but in the middle sections encounters several high-tension episodes. Dancer on a Tightrope (1993) is for violin and piano, yet for much of the piece the piano is played by rubbing the strings with a glass tumbler, contrasted with very skitterish notes on the violin.

I don't know if Gubaidulina intends to write any more string quartets, but it might be hard to stretch the boundaries of the form more than the 12-minute String Quartet No. 4 (1993). If I read the description of this work correctly, the unique fluttering sound heard in this work was achieved by bouncing balls off the strings of the instruments. In performance, a pre-recorded tape provides a background to what seems to be the "live" quartet, with passages that stretch from the lyrical to the crazed. (As far as I know, the only recording is on a Kronos Quartet compilation entitled Night Prayers, which unfortunately seems to be out of print.)

Despite the rather Bartokian title, Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion (1994) mostly resembles a three-movement flute concerto, where the soloist plays a bass flute, alto flute, and piccolo as well as a standard flute. The string section is divided in two, with half playing a quarter-tone flat, so altogether the strings create a really shimmering sound, as well as other startling effects. Gubaidulina's writing for the flute in this piece is often marvelous; towards the end of the first movement the flute seems to circle in the stratosphere like a dive bomber. Like a traditional three-movement concerto, the second movement at first seems rather slow and quiet, but that resemblance is deceptive as the movements gets quite crazy near the end. The really slow and quiet movement is the third.

Quaternion (1996) is for four cellos, but two of the cellos are tuned a quarter-tone lower than the others. Even with the considerable use of extended techniques — including playing the cello with thimbles on the fingers, and using glissandi while bouncing the bow of the strings — the work mantains a considerable amount of lyricism, and the extended fade-out ending is amazing.

The Canticle of the Sun (1997) is ostensibly a choral work based on a text by St. Francis of Assisi, where the chorus is accompanied by solo cello and multiple percussionists. But that description doesn't quite capture the flavor of how this work is put together. The voices that sing the actual text — sometimes chorus, sometimes solo — are often quite subdued. Usually much louder are wordless voices frequently used in conjunction with an extensive percussion section. In some cases, the voices seem to extend the percussion sounds. The solo cello part is extremely prominent, and seems to sit on top of both the chorus and the percussion, commenting on everything that's going on below.

In retrospect, The Canticle of the Sun was just a warm-up for Sofia Gubaidulina's longest and most ambitious work, the 90-minute St. John Passion (1999). (Apparently this work was revised and coupled with another composition called St. John Easter (2001); I have the first recording conducted by Valery Gergiev.) The text combines passages from the Gospel of John with — and here's the Gubaidulina touch — the Book of Revelation. The orchestra is large, including an organ and an array of percussion; a choir is supplemented by a chamber choir; and there are four soloists — a bass (whose voice dominates much of the work), baritone, tenor, and soprano (who is heard hardly at all). It's a very unsettling work, without the resolution normally found at the end of a Passion but instead a portrayal of chaos and (uncharacteristically for Gubaidulina) a loud ending.

Remember Quaternion with four cellos? On the Edge of the Abyss (2002) calls for seven cellos and two waterphones. (The waterphone is a bowl with metal rods attached to it; when bowed, the rods produce an ethereal sound.) The cellos might suggest a rather low register for the work, but the cellos frequently play in very high ranges and with harmonics, and the work has an extraordinary wide variety of sounds given the limited instrumentation. (I bet seeing this performed live is a real kick.)

... The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair (2005) — the title is from T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" — is a flute concerto, but it begins with some very deep rumblings in the orchestra, and the flute doesn't seem to be required until about the 4½ minute mark. For awhile the piece doesn't seem to be going anywhere; eventually it becomes characterized by recurrent patterns of acceleration and deceleration, with frequent lyrical passages.

The most recent Gubaidulina composition I've heard is a violin concerto commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter, In tempus praesens (2007), and the composition and first performance is the subject of a documentary Biography Of A Violin Concerto available on DVD. (Part of the documentary shows how computers are used these days to create a printable score from the composer's manuscript score.)

Unlike most other Gubaidulina concertos I'm familiar with (but like Music for Flute, Strings, and Percussion), this one begins with the solo instrument, and the violin remains prominent throughout. The result is that this composition feels more like a traditional concerto than some of Gubaidulina's earlier compositions. The violin part seems to incorporate fewer unusual techniques than earlier compositions, with the result that the violin becomes more of a traditional lyrical and virtuoso instrument. (Knowing that Anne-Sophie Mutter would be performing this work seems to have provided Gubaidulina considerable inspiration.) The orchestral coloring also adds a great deal: There's much percussion, a harpsichord shows up occasionally, and there's a crowd-pleasing uprush and bang towards the end. (Of course, the real ending is quiet.)

To be released later this week on the Naxos label is a recording of Fachwerk (2009), a concerto for bayan, percussion, and strings. (The title is German for "framework" as in the structure of a building.) This YouTube video is a subtitled mini-documentary about the recording posted by Geir Draugsvoll, the bayan player and dedicatee of the work:

Gubaidulina's compositions of the past several years seem to me to be some of her best, so as she turns 80, I am particularly excited by what she'll be composing in the decades ahead.