Sofia Gubaidulina is a remarkable modern composer. Although she has composed music since the age 5, and professionally since 1959, her music was virtualy unknown until she was over fifty years old. Born in 1931 Gubaidulina was raised in the town of Chistopol, in the Tartar Republic of the Soviet Union. She spent most of her childhood years in the multicultural city of Kazan. Her father was a land surveyor, and her mother a schoolteacher. Gubaidulina's family lived under the weight of Soviet persecution. Her father was the son of a Muslim Mullah which created an unending stream of prejudice and government persecution. Gubaidulina remembers waiting up on more than one occasion, fearing her father's arrest. Having grown up in such a fashion it is remarkable that she went on in her adulthood to blaze her own daring musical trail despite its contradiction to the nationally accepted Soviet Socialist Realism.
Gubaidulina began her formal musical training in piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory. From there she went on to study composition with Nikolai Peiko at the Moscow Conservatory. Gubaidulina ran into difficulties at the Moscow Conservatory when she rejected Soviet Realism in her compositions. It almost cost her acceptance into the graduate program. It was Dmitri Shostakovich, then a professor at the conservatory that defended her vigorously, playing an instrumental role in her eventual acceptance. Shostakovich was Gubaidulina’s earliest champion. Peiko took her to meet with Shostakovich on several occasions. Towards the end of their acquaintance, Shostakovich encouraged her with words she would always remember. He said that he wished her to “continue on your mistaken path”.
Interestingly, Gubaidulina never faced challenges regarding her gender. Where many women composers in the Western European countries found their greatest challenge to be gender discrimination, in the Soviet Unions it was not an issue.
Gubaidulina explains simply “It was never a problem. The government was not interested in whether I was male or female. I certainly had a difficult time, but not because I was a woman. The difficulties were ideological ones.”1
Gubaidulina graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1959. Her first years after her studies were difficult. She made ends meet, sometimes barely, by composing musical scores for films. Unwilling to compromise her creative vision to the dictate of the state, Gubaidulina began to face the same persecution her father had faced because of his religious background.
Because of heavy censorship, Gubaidulina’s work remained largely unnoticed and unperformed until 1985, when she was first allowed to travel outside Russia. It was Gidon Kremer who first brought Gubaidulina's work to Western Europe with her Concerto "Offertorium". "Offertorium" is a concerto for piano and chamber orchestra based on Bach's piece "A Musical Offering". Kremer's performance of "Offertorium" quickly gained critical attention for Gubaidulina. In 1987 she made her first trip to North America for the Louisville “Sound Celebration”. By the mid 1990s she had received numerous awards and commissions from festivals in Europe such as the Berlin and Holland festival to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
Gubaidulina explores a variety of styles and techniques in her music. Frequently enountered when listening to her music are quarter tone music,2 religious symbolism 3, mathematics such as the fibonacci number series 4 and more recently, color 5 She draws on influences from eastern and western Europe as well as Asia. In her piece "Rubaiyat" (1969) for baritone and chamber ensemble, Gubaidulina uses verses from the poetry of Persian mystics Omar Kayyam, Hafiz and Khagani Shirvani which are intermittently sung, spoken and whispered.
Whatever form an individual composition takes, Gubaidulina's music is at once musically complex, and universally accessible. The most common term used by musicologists for her music is avant garde, a term Gubaidulina strongly dislikes. In a reversal of traditional thought Gubaidulina accuses the musical elite of falling into a cliche in which "avant garde" becomes not a true representation of exploding old musical patterns into new realms of creativity, but rather a desire to create something new for the sake of newness-a purpose Gubaidulina finds unpardonably shallow. It is the public which she credits with the discerning desire, a perhaps subconcious impulse towards musical depth, not superficiality. In an interview with Vera Lukomsky, Gubaidulina makes her opinion clear.
You think highly of critics and underestimate the public! Within the public there is a wonderful elite! I am against those artists who state that "the public will eat anything; the public are fools."
Maybe a difference of opinion arises because critics embrace the convention that music needs more and more of the new. They forget that at a certain point innovation might become harmful. The public strives for active spiritual work. And it applauds composers and performers for presenting something that allows people to experience a state of concentration, to bring themselves into a state of wholeness, to cure themselves from the state of dispersal and disconnection that they suffer in everyday life. Listening to a musical composition, like reading a book, helps people restore themselves, even though critics might give a negative evaluation because "there was nothing new in this music."6
Gubaidulina currently resides in Hamburg, Germany where she moved in 1992. Her music continues to be performed in Europe, Asia and the United States.
1 Vera Lukomsky. “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My desire is always to rebel, to swim against the stream!’” In Perspectives of New Music (1998, Winter) 3.
2 Examples of quarter tone compositions include "Quarternion" (1995) for four cellos and "Music for Flute and Strings" (1995).
3 "In Croce"(1979) and "Seven Words" (1982) are two examples of multi-layered symbolism on the cross and crucifixion.
4 Fabonacci's Numbers used in "Stimmen…Verstummen"(1996)symphony in twelve movements.
5 Colored lights are used throughout the symphony "Alleluja"(1990)
6 Lukomsky, Vera Perspectives of New Music Winter, 1998.
Other resources: Ford, A. (1993) Composer to composer: Conversations about contemporary music Great Britain: Quartet Books Limited