Spiritual music

On the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

By Anders Beyer

Her sharply defined features and emotional verbal outbursts emphasize her Tatar descent and her roots in the Russian cultural sphere. The composer Sofia Gubaidulina sits opposite me in a hotel room in Stockholm. She has lived in Hamburg since 1991, but is still not entirely comfortable with the German language, so she uses Russian when she answers my questions, which I put in German. I do not understand what she is saying, but her body language is so clear that I nevertheless cannot avoid grasping parts of the meaning-content when she expresses herself, beyond the language barrier between us. It is as if she bears her music and culture in her facial expressions: unfathomable melancholy, religious devotion, intense eruptions of energy. At the same time her eyes can reflect holy piety and searing fire.

Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the leading voices on today’s international music scene, and she has received all sorts of awards for her profoundly original compositions. The 86-year-old artist no longer writes new works, but is still vigorously active and this year is artist-in-residence and festival composer during the Bergen International Festival.

The music of this grand old lady of contemporary music catches hold of us and does not let go. It continues to vibrate in us. You cannot simply decide to erase or forget Sofia Gubaidulina’s art. One of the most attractive features of her music is perhaps its mystery – the way it never reveals its innermost secrets.

And then there is almost always something that points beyond the musical in this music. It may relate to a text, a ritual or Christian symbolism. A symphonic work culminates, for example, as all the musicians stop playing and the instruments fall silent. Only the conductor continues to move: in a way he gives rhythm to the silence and the emptiness. And thus in some strange way creates both new meaning and a new point.

The constant theme

Sacrifice recurs in Sofia Gubaidulina’s compositions; as an image, as an overall theme and as an autobiographical element. During the Festival this year the violin concerto Offertorium will be performed. It was written for the violinist Gidon Kremer, who will be playing it with the Bergen Philharmonic.

In the Russian music journal Sovetskaya Muzyka the composer says, with Biblical undertones: “When I consider how complicated my life is, the burden I bear, I tell myself I haven’t asked for any other fate. I have quite simply been given more than I asked for. That is happiness.”

Sofia Gubaidulina in conversation with Anders Beyer, April 20 2009 at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Sofia Gubaidulina speaks of herself as a person of faith, and believes that religion involves the restoration of a unity that has been lost. With this attitude to life, composing becomes a religious act, and each work a new step on the way towards the restoration of that lost unity.

In an epoch when contemporary music has no unifying project, Gubaidulina has her own constant theme to hold on to, an overall project anchored in religion. She says she is venturing further and further into the labyrinth of the soul in order constantly to find something new. But she stresses that she continues unceasingly along the same path.

The two dimensions of art

For Sofia Gubaidulina artistic creation always has two dimensions: on the one hand the intellectual, structural and formal, on the other hand the intuitive, spontaneous and emotional:

“Those who assume that constructive and intellectual work alone produces artistic results are wrong, because it does not lead to a true experience in the listeners. It may be that one-sidedly intellectual composers themselves have experienced something, but it doesn’t evoke a response from others [….] But those who think you can do the artistic work intuitively by just fantasizing over what you hear and then letting it flow down on to the paper, they are wrong too, because that way the art becomes far too emotionally determined, with no counterbalance or resistance. It can only become good art when these two approaches are combined. There has to be a structure, and willed, formal work is indispensable, but it must be accompanied by strong internal feelings.”

Sofia Gubaidulina together with Danish composer Per Nørgård (left) and György Kurtág, April 17 2009 in Copenhagen. Foto: Anders Beyer.

As a result of the tense situation in Russia Sofia Gubaidulina moved to Germany, where she could observe the depressing conditions in her home country from the sidelines. The proud Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow could not afford to repair buildings and instruments; everything was in decline. All that uncertainty was destructive of the artistic milieu.

The composer is profoundly shaken by what has happened in Russia. True, in earlier epochs the country has seen similar horrific periods, for example in the times of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. But the ideological collapse we are now witnessing is unparalleled in history, she says, and she believes that this fundamentally has its origins in the October Revolution in 1917 and in the long Soviet period.

For Sofia Gubaidulina remaining in Russia would have meant being destroyed:

“I felt it as a radical humiliation to witness the misery that was caused by Finance Minister Pavlov’s reforms in 1990. I was deeply offended on behalf of the people. I went out in the streets and talked to them. They thought that they could live like that, they didn’t think it meant any destruction. It was clear to me that the intelligentsia are weaker, not stronger, than the people.

“But what was I to do when I myself felt I was dying of humiliation? I might be able to survive materially, but in the existing conditions I couldn’t create, couldn’t work. After a month I felt that it wasn’t only me who was in danger, but the whole intelligentsia. At that time I thought I ought to go on living there and help to improve the wretched conditions. But people with my mental constitution simply perish in such conditions.

“So I can say that I have evacuated myself. For a while. Now I live just outside Hamburg, not in my apartment in Moscow. But i haven’t abandoned my apartment in the true sense; I am just living in Hamburg as a foreigner – for a while. It is important for me to maintain my ability to work, and in Moscow I can’t work in the present conditions.”

The magic of numbers

In a portrait of Sofia Gubaidulina you cannot avoid dealing with the religious symbolism of numbers – an interest in which she is incidentally not alone. Karlheinz Stockhausen operated for example with the mystical meaning of numbers, and actually talked about “sacred numbers”.

Seven is an important number in Sofia Gubaidulina’s work Stufen, and I asked her what the special meaning of the number seven is there, and what significance number-symbolism has in general in her work.

“I think that the mystery of numbers is a challenge today. I can see that many composers – not only myself – are preoccupied with this challenge. These are composers who love numbers. We are continuing what is not only a medieval tradition, but a Pythagorean tradition. I am extremely interested in the mystique of numbers, and since 1983 it has been a source of inspiration for me.

“It was when I was writing the work The Seven Last Words that I began working with the number 7. For me it was a symbolic number, a sacred number, and working with it was in a way a sacred process. More generally, hundreds of interesting constructions can be revealed when numbers are translated into music.”

When the undersigned heard The Seven Last Words for orchestra, cello and bayan, I could not help seeing the two solo instruments as a kind of personifications which wordlessly tell a certain story or play out a drama.

“At the centre for me was the idea of the Trinity. So I used instruments which to a certain degree can manifest this idea, or the substance of it. The cello has a particularly high degree of expressiveness, so it is suitable for characterizing Christ. The bayan personifies the anger of the Father, and the string orchestra is well suited to the depiction of the Holy Spirit.”

At the beginning of Sofia Gubaidulina’s career Sjostakovitsj and Webern were the major names in her musical universe. It is clear that she worked fundamentally to reach her very own personal musical language:

“First I studied all the technical forms that have existed in the history of music. It was necessary to delve into the technical forms and styles of the old masters. I was particularly interested in the strict style of the sixteenth century and I was very preoccupied with the composers of that period. But I actually began with the German classics that my teacher recommended: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The last of these has been at the centre of my activities throughout my life.”

© Anders Beyer 2018.

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina 

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina (b. 24.10.31 in Chistopol). Diploma in piano from the Kazan Music School in 1949 and from the Kazan Conservatory in 1954, with piano as her major subject, composition as her minor subject. In 1959 she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with composition as her main subject. Since 1965 she has earned her living as a composer. She was a co-founder of the improvisation ensemble Astreja in 1975, and has lived in Hamburg since 1991.