Into the Labyrinth of the Soul

Interview with Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Gubaidulina at Lerchenborg Music Days, Denmark. Photo: Marianne Grøndahl.

By Anders Beyer

Composer Sofia Gubaidulina sits across from me in her hotel room in Stockholm. I ask questions in German and she answers in Russian. She understands me; I don’t understand her. But her body language is so strong that I can’t fail to grasp part of the content in her answer in spite of the language barriers. She does not hide her Tartar heritage and Russian upbringing—the sharp lines of her face and the excited verbal outbursts reveal all. Her music is, naturally, similarly revealing. She wears all her music and her culture in her facial expressions: unfathomable melancholy, religious dedication, ironic distance, threatening energy. The eyes can express holy piety and murderous fury in one and the same look.

Gubaidulina’s music cannot be shaken off once it has taken hold. It does not fade away, but resonates in the senses—the kind of impressions that one could not possibly erase. Perhaps this is because the music’s dark illusive apocryphal nature is so compelling. It never reveals its innermost secrets: it is never absolute music for there is almost always something that points beyond the purely musical elements. It can be a text, a ritual, the act of picking up an instrument, a Christian symbol. One symphonic work, for example, culminates in silence: Stimmen . . . verstummen . . . . Only the conductor moves. He conducts and beats time in the emptiness so that the silence vibrates in one’s inner being.

To compose in this way is more than a profession, more than a craft. Viewed as a vocation, says Gubaidulina, it is demanding work that requires strong spiritual powers. She is just as uncompromising, both as a person and as an artist, as that other great Russian woman: Galina Ustwolskaja.

In Gubaidulina’s works, ‘sacrifice’ as an image keeps returning like a canonic motif, as a general subject, and as an autobiographical element. In the Russian music journal, Sovetskaja Musyka, she is quoted as saying, with evident biblical undertones, ‘When I think of how difficult and complicated my life has been, of the burdens I bear, I say to myself, “I have not asked for any other destiny. I have quite simply got more than I asked for. That’s my good fortune”.’

Gubaidulina describes herself as a believer for whom religion in practice means the re-creation of the wholeness that has been lost in ‘the staccato of life’. With this attitude to life, composing becomes a religious act and each work a new path to the core of faith. The demand for renewal of material is unyielding, but not as a consequence of a central-European modernist aesthetic. In the context of Gubaidulina’s music the word ‘modern’ sounds irrelevant and carries an unusual meaning. At a time when new music lacks a common goal, Gubaidulina has her own clear path to follow, an overriding project anchored in religious belief:

“Though I am probably undergoing some form of technical development, my way of perceiving form remains the same. I go deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of my soul and I always find something new. Naturally I have learned a few things along the way, but on the whole I am still following the same path.”

Concerning the experiment

One does not have to listen to much of Gubaidulina’s music in order to detect the lack of unity in her output; each new work explores new possibilities. It is pointless to arrange the works in large groups; it makes more sense to talk about pairs of works. Experimentation is both part of the process and the result. Gubaidulina’s endeavour is apparently to come up with something new in each work that is a ‘reply’ to something in the previous one. For example in 1983 she composed Perception where the decisive words were ‘Voices. Silenced’. Then to these key words, in her own formulation she added: ‘Voices, listen, see—where do words come from? From the inside or from the outside . . . life, tones . . . silence’. She felt that the theme was not completely used up, that there was something left that she had to answer. So a whole symphony, the next work, was called Stimmen . . . verstummen . . . (Voices . . . silence . . .).

Gubaidulina says that occasionally it is simply impossible to use up all the possibilities that arise from one work. In Sovetskaja Musyka 2 she remarked to a Soviet journalist:

“Those who think that constructive and rigorously intellectual work can have artistic results are wrong because these qualities do not lead to a real experience for the listeners. It may be that the composer has experienced something but it just doesn’t reverberate in the listener. There has also to be something extraordinary. However, those who believe that one can just work intuitively, can fantasize about sounds and let them flow out onto the paper, are also wrong, because this kind of art is too emotional and lacks balance or resistance. Good music is only made when the two positions are brought together; the approach to formal elements has to be rigorous, consciously determined and accompanied by strong inner experiences.”

She continues with a comment on the modern in music:

“I believe that the term ‘modern’ applies to a work in which a mental state is expressed in musical material. Musical material is a living organism which has its own history, its own development. We don’t invent it; it is like the soil, like nature or like a child. It demands something, it wants something, something that is indispensible. If one tries to examine this scientifically it is feasible, under favourable circumstances, to separate and formulate what it is that the musical material demands. But the artistic consciousness responds intuitively or intellectually to the condition of the material.

And the modern artist is one who uses only strictly personal resources to react independently to these demands. But a modern work is not necessarily good, and one that isn’t modern is not necessarily bad. I believe that such preconceptions spoil analytical thought. They set boundaries and give a tendentious character to evaluations. On the other hand, one should not avoid evaluation. For if that happens difficulties with the material will be overlooked.”


In 1990 Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke were the featured composers at the Huddersfield Festival in Northern England. When Schnittke spoke at the festival about the future of the Soviet Union he was quite pessimistic. The fear and hopelessness that he expressed were almost prophetic: just a few years later things headed in a catastrophic direction. Currently, the situation in Russia is so tense that it isn’t an exaggeration to call it a ‘time bomb’.

Gubaidulina now lives in Germany and has to look at the depressed situation from the sidelines.

In Russian musical circles the tendency toward dissolution is clear; Moscow’s proud Tschaikowsky Conservatory hasn’t enough money to repair the buildings and instruments. Everything is falling apart. People don’t feel safe on the streets; this insecurity is ruinous for the arts. This is clear to everyone who visits Moscow. How do you feel about the situation in your country?

“The conductor Gennady Rozjdestvenskij and I were recently interviewed on Swedish Radio. He expressed exactly what I feel about the situation. He said that he felt as if his skin had been torn to shreds. That is exactly how I feel. It’s the same whether we are at home or abroad: it’s as if we have been skinned. Whether in Moscow or abroad, we are existentially shaken by what is happening to our country. It is the first time in history that we have experienced such a situation. Earlier, Russia had some similarly horrible periods, as, for example, in the times of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. But the ideological breakdown that we are experiencing now has no historical precedent.

We have an enormous arsenal of extraordinarily dangerous weapons in the Ukraine. Earlier this century people suffered from the arms race, but the country preserved its integrity. Now we are seeing a kind of disarmament of the whole of civilization. Obviously we have feared for a long time that this would happen. Three years ago we were afraid of what could happen, but we couldn’t change the situation. I remember after Stalin’s death, twenty years ago, how the intelligentsia gathered around in order to analyse their position. What we are now experiencing is not simply a breakdown after a period of about ten years; what is happening now is the culmination of seventy years of history, namely, the period since the October Revolution in 1917.”

During the World Music Days in Zurich in 1991, Dansk Musik Tidsskrift (Danish Music Review) spoke with Edison Denisov about the fatal developments in the former Soviet Union at the time when the best leaders were emigrating. The institutions that were left behind were without adequate teachers to show the way for the younger generation. Denisov was bitter about the artists and intellectuals who were leaving their own country and settling in the West. It was his opinion that these people should stay and fight against unfair conditions. Why did you leave Russia?

“It was a question of principles. The Russian intelligentsia has an important role to play in today’s world. We have to fight to preserve this, for it did not just blossom overnight, but is the result of a development that reaches right back to the tenth century. It took a thousand years to create this phenomenon. Today this phenomenon is being destroyed in Russia. It is crucial to consider how it can be saved. In any case I completely disagree with Denisov. For a person like me to stay in Russia now would mean disintegration.

I felt it strongly when the finance minister Pavlov began his reforms in 1990. It was deeply humiliating to be a witness to the great misery it produced. I was deeply insulted on behalf of the people. I went out on the street and talked to people. They believed that they could live with it, that it didn’t mean annihilation. It was clear to me that the intellectuals are weaker, not stronger, than the people. What should I do then when I am about to die from this humiliation? I can survive the material difficulties, but under these conditions, I cannot create, I cannot work. After a month I felt that it was not just me who was in danger, but the whole of the intelligentsia. I thought at that time that one should stay and try to help with improving the miserable condition of life. And while the ‘brains’ flowed out of Russia, I tried to resist following them.

I believe that my answer to the question is more appropriate than Denisov’s. He isn’t, like me, a weak person, but a very strong one. People with my mental constitution are simply destroyed and must take that into consideration if they love the Russian people. That’s why I live just outside of Hamburg and not in my apartment in Moscow. But I have not abandoned my apartment in the strict sense, I am only living in Hamburg—as a foreigner, for a period. It is important for me to preserve my ability to work. I cannot work under the present conditions in Moscow. But my life ultimately belongs to my people.”

If one talks with a person like the former general secretary of the composers’ union, Tichon Khrennikov, then one gets the opposite viewpoint: he is of the opinion that there are now really good opportunities for Russian composers as a result of perestroika and the opening up of Russia to the West. He also thinks that the frequent performances of music by Schnittke and Gubaidulina in the West are merely a fashion. Do you see this attitude as an expression of envy? Or is it a problem that one should take seriously?

“I don’t believe that his opinion is dictated by envy. I believe that he means what he says. He does not rate certain artistic works very highly according to his criteria, and he thinks therefore that they will be forgotten in the future. The same question can be asked about any composer. Yes, what will eventually survive into the future? My composition teacher, Nikolaj Pejko, told me something that he read concerning Chopin, whose music everyone wanted to hear at that time. Once Chopin was invited to a party and he sat and played in room adjoining the room where the party was gathered and no one listened to his playing. It happens at every time, everywhere, and even with the most talented artists. It is our destiny and we have to realize that. Only the future will show what has lasting value. Some composers are temporarily in the foreground, but then slide out to the sidelines. Personally, I am at peace. I often find that at one moment people listen to my music, and in the next don’t listen at all. But perhaps it will be listened to consistently in the future. It depends also on historical and social circumstances.”

Let’s turn to more concrete aspects of your music and talk about the extra-musical elements in it. When I heard the work Stufen, I thought about the number mysticism of earlier times. The number seven is important in this work. Karlheinz Stockhausen also works with number symbolism; he speaks about ‘holy numbers’. Your work with numerical relationships could be compared to the late medieval square number cult. What does the number seven mean to Stufen, in particular, and numerical relationships to your works in general?

“I think that number mysticism is a challenge to our times. I have observed that many composers—not only myself—are working with these ideas. I am talking about composers who love numbers. We aren’t simply continuing a medieval tradition, but a Pythagorean one. I love this number mysticism, which has been a source of inspiration to me since 1983. When I composed The Seven Words of Christ I began to work with the number seven. For me it was a symbolic number, a holy number. Now I’m working intensively with musical form, and the numbers mean more than I can say. For me they are not as important in themselves as for the inherent relationships and proportions they embrace. To become aware of the inherent proportions between bodies of sounds has become highly significant to me, an important challenge that helps create the specific form of a piece.

It becomes apparent that this approach brings out hundreds of interesting constructions, and that different combinations of various types of constructions in distinct layers of a musical work lead to collisions that we can perceive as culminating moments charged with suspense. These various number relationships in different layers give me a wealth of ideas, so many that I am forced to discard some. You may call them holy numbers, but for the time being, it is just an experiment. Only the future will show if the experiment is successful. At the moment I feel I am just starting out. For me it is a kind of sacred process.”

I hear an epic quality, a narrative character, in your music. There are meaningful elements deliberately encoded in the music. Your fellow countryman, Boris Asafjev, wrote a book that was somewhat important to the development of hermeneutic musicology: Musical Form as Process. To what extent does your music correspond to Asafjev’s thinking? For example, what about his theory of intonation?

“These theories do not concern me much. There is nothing in them that inspires me. The idea of musical form as process is in accordance with my philosophy, but Asafjev’s thinking as such has not been a determinant for me.”

In your music one occasionally notices a phenomenon that can be described as a Schein des Bekannten, something that might be a citation from works of an earlier age. I’m thinking for example of the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin as heard in your work Stimmen . . . verstummen that was played at one of the concerts at the Stockholm New Music Festival. Even though you don’t use tonality in the same way, there are clear references to Wagner in your music. It seems that you reuse ideas from the past.

“That’s a good observation. The musical ideas in Lohengrin and Parsifal are close to me, and for a time I was very taken with them. I am also fascinated by the philosophical ideas of Wagner’s epic cycle. I am happy to be inspired by him.”

Two important tracks in your music often run parallel: the serious, even deeply serious, and side by side with this, ironic or parodistic elements. Shostakovich was a master of parody. One can also hear this in your work, for example in the choral piece Hommage à Marina Tsvetajeva. Seriousness is sometimes closely associated with irony in your work. Could you elaborate?

“It’s true that one can find these elements in my music. In the work you mentioned there is, however, only one movement of the five that can be called a parody. It is strategically placed to lead up to the culmination in the fifth movement. The preceding movement closes with the word ‘splendid’. I needed a kind of scherzo in this work and the word was actually used in a mocking way, exactly at the moment where everything collapses. It sounds very relevant, even more so today than when I composed the work. It reflects the way I feel about the world these days. The movement in question is both ‘splendid’ and optimistic while everything around it is collapsing.”

I would like to return to the inherent meaning in the music that we spoke of. Several years ago when I heard The Seven Words of Christ for orchestra, cello and bayan (a concertina), I could not help but think that the two solo instruments were kind of personifications, that possibly they told a certain story without words, or, in light of the title, one might rather say, a drama. Naturally you must have had certain pictures in your head while you composed the work. But did you also have a specific characteristic in mind?

“For me the idea of the Trinity was at the centre. So I chose instruments that to a certain extent could represent this idea, not in the form of an image, but as the essence of the idea. The cello has a particularly high degree of expressivity, which suits the characterization of Christ. The bayan personifies the anger of the Father and the string ensemble is well-suited to portray the Holy Ghost. When I wrote this work, these personifications were related to individual moments only. I felt Christ particularly strongly in the sixth movement, when the bayan plays clusters while the strings play in the highest register and the cello plays on the C string and then plays sul ponticello in order to mark the Crucifixion. There is nothing to suggest a picture; it’s only an instrumental symbol.”

Your works often have liturgical titles: Offertorium, Introitus, De Profundis, The Seven Words of Christ. But you are also frequently inspired by literature, T.S. Eliot, for example. Is there some general schema behind your choice of titles and texts? Do you have a title before the work is composed? Does it come after it is completed, or while it is in progress?

“It is very difficult for me to separate these stages from each other. Once I have finished a piece I cannot remember exactly how it was composed. In the first phase the sound comes to me, often in a form I have trouble breaking up into its component parts. It seems to be built up vertically, so I begin to guess what this sound could eventually mean. When I have gauged its meaning, a formal idea emerges that I will justify with a label, a name that points to the idea of the form. That’s all I can come up with when I try to analyse my experience of composing. I rearrange the sound from a vertical to a horizontal shape, so to speak, and with that the form comes into being. My titles are often related to aspects of liturgy, but that includes various and ancient forms. The title has immeasurable significance for me. I like to associate it closely with the formal idea.”

Looking at the formal aspects of your music in relation to your fascination with T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the issue of time in music is an important determinant of form.

“The act of creating form in music is a kind of reconciliation with time. In this concept there is not only an element of sacrifice but also of transformation. This is the essential concept. Form is a kind of alteration, a transformation, a reconciliation with time, so that reconciliation and transformation merge into one concept. In this there is also a kind of purification.

There is, so to speak, a conversion of time from past-present-future into something that is timeless. Eliot’s concept of time runs perfectly parallel with mine. I became completely convinced of that when I began to work with the problem of time in the piece Hommage à T.S. Eliot.”

Let us go a bit farther back in your development. In the beginning Shostakovich and Webern were the main stars in your musical firmament. I would very much like to know something about how you found your own completely personal musical language.

“First I studied all the standard technical forms. I had to penetrate the technical forms and styles of the old masters. I was especially interested in the strict style of the 16th century and was very taken with the composers of that time. But I actually began with the German classics that my teacher indicated I should study: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. During my whole life, Bach has been central to my work. After that I began to go through all the different styles in music, paying particular attention to the Russian school. But when I was 19 or 20, I was completely taken with Wagner. I was also interested in the Second Viennese School, and then Shostakovich in the Russian school, and subsequently the composers from my own generation. When I look back on my path in music, the names of Bach and Webern lie at the centre.”

In the West we talk about the three major composers from Moscow: Schnittke, Denisov and Gubaidulina. There are many talents—both new and old—in your country, that are just becoming known. Is it also a part of your work to promote the younger generation, so that these three don’t stand alone in the spotlight?

“I think that there are many young talented Russian composers who follow us in being experimental. Several come to mind: Alexander Knaifel, Juri Butsko, Victor Suslin, Alexander Vustin. From the younger generation I would name Vjatsjeslav Sjut, Jan Jekimovskij, Juri Kasparov, Jelena Firsova. The latter has created strikingly good works. There are also a number of people in the various republics who are now kind of foreigners to us, but in any case are good friends, for example, Farad Karajev from Baku. In Armenia there is a whole list of stars. Thinking about it, I have reason to be very pleased.”

© Anders Beyer 2000.

The interview was published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000. The interview was also published in Danish: ‘Ind i sjælens labyrinth. Et møde med den russiske komponist Sofia Gubaidulina’, Danish Music Review, vol. 68, no. 5 (1993/94): page 158-164.


Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931, Russia) comes from Tschistopol in the Tartar region of Russia, a fact that may explain the intense nature of her music. In 1954 she completed her studies in piano and composition at the conservatory in Kasan and continued her work with Nikolai Peiko, a former student of Dmitry Shostakovich, and Vissarion Shebalin at the Moscow Conservatory. Since 1963 she has been a freelance composer. In 1975, together with composers Vyacheslav Artyomov and Viktor Suslin, she founded ‘Astraea’, a group devoted to improvisation using rare Russian, Caucasian and Central Asian folk instruments. Gubaidulina left Russia for the first time in 1986 when she was invited to the Lockenhaus Festival in Austria. She has lived in Hamburg since 1992. Gubaidulina’s scores are published by Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski. Recordings of her music can be found on the Deutsche Grammophon, Chandos, Sonora, col legno, BIS, Berlin Classics, Wergo, Koch International and CPO labels.