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Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)

Born in 1931 in Christopol in the former Soviet republic of Tatar, Sofia Gubaidulina was a pupil of Shostakovich and went on to become one of the most significant post-Schnittke modern Russian composers as well as one of today's best known women composers. Her work has a sense of great profundity, often drawing on her religious faith, reminiscent in some respects of the music of Arvo Pärt, but in other ways more complex and more dynamic. Her sound-world is serious, sombre and spare but in its pared-down beauty often moving. She regards her music as standing between the East and the West, as her birthplace does geographically, drawing on both in equal measure.

A keen pianist from the age of five, who also began composing at a young age, Gubaidulina began her professional musical studies in piano and composition in the regional capital of Kazan aged 17. She moved to Moscow where she studied with Shostakovich who encouraged her 'to continue along your mistaken path'. The violist Yuri Bashmet, for whom she wrote a concerto - the only female composer amongst the 48 dedications he has received - in 1997 went on to say,

'and at the end of this journey are nothing more nor less than the questions of human existence: Burton's death, love and hatred, beautiful and the oddly, good and evil -- as with Shakespeare, but in a different way. In the process she uses a whole range of expressive devices, including specific orchestral effects, and draws on an infinite number of sources such as religious things, the storehouse of more than 300 years of Tartar history and so on.'

Visits from Luigi Nono and Pierre Boulez to the Moscow Conservatoire were also influential for Gubaidulina and during the 1960s she explored a wide range of approaches including serialism and electronics. This can be heard in her first String Quartet, in which the musicians move back from the centre of the stage as the work progress - physically as well as musically 'fading out'. The music explores the concepts of 'connection' and 'separation'.

Her interest in innovative technical features of performance has continued. The most recent of her string quartets, Number Four (1993), involves simultaneous playing by a live quartet and a taped quartet, the pre-recorded and live music being a quarter of a tone apart. The sound of rubber balls being bounced on the strings of the instruments is also used. The composer says of this work:-

'Itís a quiet conversation between the real and the recognised, the unreal and the unrecognised, darkness and light. There's no crashing moment, no conflict or clash. It's an intimate conversation, serious and calm.'

Her string quartets all inhabit avant-garde territory but some of the other parts of her significant output of chamber music are more accessible for the listener despite their use of less conventional forces.

The theme of light and darkness recurs in the later work - 1994 - 'Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion'. This involves the string orchestra being divided into two halves, one half having their instruments tuned down a quarter tone. Gubaidulina has written several works for the flute, culminating in the recent concerto for the Israeli flautist, Sharon Bezaly, which I have reviewed previously here.

Like other Soviet composers, including her teacher Shostakovich and her contemporary Schnittke, Gubaidulina supported herself by writing music for films and for the theatre. Even in her purely musical works, a wide range of extra-musical sources play a significant part - religious texts, poetry, history, philosophy, mythology. T S Eliot's Four Quartets - which she set for an Octet at the request of Gidon Kremer, adding soprano voice - she describes as having a very profound effect on her when she first read them.

Traditional Russian music has also played its part in her musical activities; she has been part of a group, established to perform traditional music and in her concert works she has included writing for the bayan, a Russian type of accordion, notably in the Last Seven Words from the Cross and in the solo piece De Profundis.

A significant proportion of Gubaidulina's work is inspired by religious or spiritual sources: her cello concerto for Rostropovich, 'Canticle of the Sun', is inspired by a prayer of St Francis of Assisi; her recent flute concerto, The Deceitful Face of Hope and Despair has Ash Wednesday themes; the inspiration for the solo accordion work De Profundis is from the psalms; and the early piano concerto Introitus takes its name from a section of the mass. Although she has not composed music specifically for use in church, she has created a major choral setting of the St John Passion - a stark and haunting work for unaccompanied voices.

Championed outside the USSR by the violinist Gidon Kremer, Gubaidulina first visited the West in 1985. Shortly after this, she moved permanently and lives near Hamburg, Germany, remaining closely associated with Kremer and with the Lockhausen chamber music festival. This was followed by an intense period of creative output, with two string quartets, the vocal and chamber work Hommage à T.S.Eliot and a symphony, Stimmen .....Verstummen being produced in the following year.

Since then her international reputation has grown significantly and she has received a large number of commissions from European and American sources. These have included significant concerti for viola (q.v.); for cello, a beautiful and uplifting work dedicated to Rostropovich; and for flute (q.v.) as well a large-scale St John Passion which received its British premiere at the 2002 Proms. A major retrospective of her work formed the BBC's Composer Weekend in 2001.

Julie Williams


De Profundis

Introitus - Piano Concerto 1978

Offertorium - Violin Concerto for Gidon Kremer 1980

Last Seven Words from the Cross 1982

Stimmen .... Verstummen .. 1986

Hommage à T S Eliot (1987)

String Quartets 1-4 1971,1987, 1987, 1993

Music for Flute, Strings and Percussion 1994

The Canticle of the Sun - Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich 1997

Viola Concerto (for Yuri Bashmet) 1997

St John Passion 2002

Flute Concerto - for Sharon Bezaly 2004



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