Updated: Oct 17, 2021
Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina was born October 24, 1931 in Chistopol, an administrative town east of Moscow in what is now the Republic of Tatarstan during early Stalinist rule. Despite both her parents having full-time jobs, her mother a school teacher and her father an engineer, life was incredibly hard and she was often hungry as a child. When Sofia was around the age of seven months, the family left for the city capital of Kazan in search of better working and living conditions. Sofia would begin to develop her love of music at only age five, with her sister Vera at the piano experimenting with the possibilities of sounds combinations and instrumental boundaries, eventually diving head-first into composition.
Her parents fostered her love of music by buying a worn-out Schlosser piano for the house. And so with her sister, they would spend hours at the piano, testing out different ways of manipulating the drums, wires, keys, peddles, and the general acoustics of the piano in order to make the most interesting sound combination possible. Sofia would begin playing piano by herself one year later. Further, despite the poor living conditions and financial insecurities her parents faced, the young Sofia was enrolled her into Children's Music School № 3 where she began to formally study music.
Training and Education
After studying as a child, in the late 1940s she continued to the recently created Kazan Conservatory, founded in 1945, studying composition and piano with prestige Russian faculty. Due to her devotion to Russian Orthodoxy during her childhood, while enrolled she began noticing that music had almost supernatural powers to instill hope, courage, and reassurance in listeners. Through her works, she came to find out that she had the power to provide a moment of release from difficult circumstances, reassuring her listener’s in the faith that a world beyond the immediate, mortal realm exists.
She quickly befriended many from the Jewish population within the Conservatory, going so far as to accept her as one of their own. This fellowship provided her room to deepen her knowledge of spiritual philosophies like Mysticism and Esoctericism, concertizing her personal views regarding humankind’s relationship with God and potentiality for divine reconnection. This eventually spilled into her musical study and she started gravitating towards figures such as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven due to the conjunction of masterful technical skills, evocative symbology, and biographical aura.
However, overly spiritual and religiously-minded content and beliefs were frowned upon by the Soviet state.Not only were spiritual themes discouraged, but Western music scores and materials were also heavily regulated, or even outright banned. Although access to some like Stravinsky and Bartok were open, gaining access to more avant-garde and modernist composers like John Cage and Charles Ives was much more complicated. So, she kept her interest in human enlightenment under wraps and out of public view while studying in Kazan.
After graduating from Kazan University in 1954, one year after the death of Stalin, she enrolled at Moscow Conservatory and began studying with the westwardly unknown composer Nikolai Peiko, a former student of celebrated 20th-century composer Dmitry Shostakovich. During this time, international relations with the West began to recover, unintentionally leading to an increased presence of Euro-Western culture, materials, and sensibilities within the previously confined country known as a period called the “Khrushcev Thaw.”
In the late 1950s, after having been introduced by Pieko, Sofia would begin a close relationship with Shostakovich, both as a mentor, friend, and compositional ally, while also studying with Peiko until 1959. She would then switch to another seminal, albeit westwardly unknown, Soviet composer who was a close friend of Shostakovich, Vissarion Shebaldin.
As a consequence of her interests into the human psyche and experimentalist pursuits into tuning and orchestration, much of her music was considered irresponsible and criticized regularly by faculty during her study. Sofia’s affinity for alternative tuning, exploratory instrument pairings, polytonal and polyrhythmic tastes, and especially her psycho-spiritual beliefs led many students and faculty members to tell her she was following the “wrong path.” In response, Shostakovich supported her unsupported, musical experiments and encouraged her to continue finding her a-typical style. After having played for him her graduating project, her First Symphony, an experience Sofia describes as going very badly, she notes he offered his support and told her saying, “I wish you to follow the wrong path.”
Upon graduating from Moscow Conservatory in the early 1960s, Sofia Gubaidulina worked as a freelance composer, most particularly for film. This allowed her the space to test new compositional effects and instrumental pairings with relative freedom, while also earning a much-needed income. In addition, for ten years starting around 1960, Sofia was employed at the Moscow Experimental Electronic Music Studio, where she worked alongside other experimentalist composers, including two who would come to form the post-Shostakovich troika [trio] to which Gubaidulina is now associated. This included the “non-conformist” Edison Denisov and the well-known Soviet-German composer Alfred Schnittke.
In 1975, after having found her voice and amassing hands-on experience with electronics and experimental sounds, she formed the neo-folk “Astreja Ensemble”. Despite being directly influenced by Slavic cultures and their traditional instruments, folk sounds, and natural improvisational aesthetic, Soviet critics were incredibly hostile due to the group’s novel style. After attempting to have some of their pieces performed at music festivals in the mid-70s, by 1979, Sofia, along with six other Soviet composers, were put on a no-performance blacklist due to the perceived distasteful nature of their work.The treatment of the group, infamously called “Khrennikov’s Seven,” was close to how Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Myakovsky were treated in 1948, although without the same threat of death. Despite this setback, Sofia would continue developing her wholly unique style, seeing her ban as a fiercely positive thing because she was free to experiment without censure.
In the early 80s, Sofia’s had her first blush with atypical music-theory principles like using numerical series such as the Fibonnaci and Lucas Series. She would go on to use these to determine “rhythmic proportions”, which in-turn was thought to create a more self-sufficient musical form. It wasn’t until 1980 that Sofia would skyrocket to international notoriety. Prompted by the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer to write a violin concerto, Sofia would go on to write one of her best-known works to date. Inspired by Kremer’s candid and organic playing technique, a “total surrender of the self to the tone,” the concerto would take on a religious angle in both form and musical theme.
Entitled “Offertorium”, an allusion to the ecclesial offering of bread and wine during the Christian Mass, this harrowing concerto - whose musical life features bombastic flair-ups, sporadic putters, and everything in between - sampled from Sofia’s three main inspirations: Webern’s technique of intensifying a melodies texture called Klangfarbenmelodie or ‘Sound-Color Melody,’ Bach’s instigative theme from his 1740s keyboard compendium “The Musical Offering,” and Russian Orthodox hymnody. Sofia’s monumental work premiered in Vienna in 1981 by Kremer himself, despite difficulties getting the score out of the Soviet Union to Austria. After its premiere, Sofia's life and legacy would never be the same.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, the Iron Curtain, a metaphorical barrier between the East and West, along with its physical version called the Berlin Wall, fell and travel was subsequently re-allowed to foreign countries outside Russia. After years of increasingly distressing unhappiness with the landscape Soviet Russia had set up for students and composers alike, including state bribery for stylistic complacency, she decided she needed to leave. Stated in a 2007 interview she had said in remembrance of this trying time, “Maybe the youth won, but our generation was sacrificed.”
After having received a state-sanctioned compositional travel scholarship, in 1991 Sofia settled in the small town of Appen-Unterglinde in Schleswig-Holstein, South Germany with not much money to her name. However, after her allotted nine-months trip was up, through the help of various friends and close colleagues, she scrambled to sell most of her work in order to raise the money for a meager room, eventually outfitted with a Steinway by seminal Russian emigre composer Mstislav Rostropovich, a radical step-up from the used Schlosser she grew up with.
Since 1991, she has called South Germany her home and has fully integrated herself into the international landscape of contemporary music. From the early 2000s to the early 2010s, she was involved in everything from music festivals and large-scale commission projects, to film features, concert highlights, world-tours, and legacy celebrations. One of her most impressive achievements has been the creation of her large-scale, orchestral “diptych” on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the works of Johannes Passion and Johannes-Ostern. The former was written in 2000 for the “Passion 2000” Project, complimented a year later by the latter.
Other achievements have included her involvement in founding the annual Concordia International Festival of Contemporary Music held in Kazzan, the creation of The Center for Contemporary Music in her childhood home, and her steady accumulation of international awards and honors such as the prestigious Goethe Medal (2011) and an honorary Doctorate from Yale University (2009).
As of 2021, her compositional output includes well over 100 works and spans over half a century.
As a self-professed adherent to the modernist style called Sonorism, a mid-20th century movement which prioritized expanding sound vocabularies of traditional and non-traditional instruments, testing the boundaries of musical characteristics and experimenting with the concepts of form and functional harmony, Sofia’s style, heavy on a-typical rhythmic plans, derives itself from a mission to produce transcendent experientiality rather than adhering to conventional dichotomies such as consonance or dissonance. Utilizing unique mixtures of Anglophile and Eurasian instruments, mixed with electronics and elements of aleatoricism, Gubaidulina blurs the amorphous line between planned versus spontaneous sounding “events,” an allegory for the imminent awakening of the dormant, human consciousness to the celestial plane. Inspired by her late third-husband, the famed Musicologist and conductor Pytor Meshchaninov, her works operate outside of the 12-tone, octave tuning system many consider the compositional norm, instead using a polychromatic 72-tone octave system, commonly called 72-TET.
A major part of her artistic credo is her dissatisfaction with standard modes of rhythmic metre to devise long-range form. Instead of using externalized, rhythmic forms she calls “temporal ratios,” another name for standard usage of time signatures, she utilizes proportional schematics and numerical patterns to tie together micro and macro structures within her music. She calls this theoretical system “cell multiplication,” where fluid aspects of the musical texture are coalesced with stationary alternatives to create constantly fluctuating atmospheres of sound. She also utilizes quarter-tones, excessive slides between notes known as glissandi, post-tonality [but not a-tonality], unique intervallic motion, and inventive manipulations of the harmonic series in order to create environments that seem to never completely finish their sonic path. Another theoretical structure she has created follows in the Weberian auspices of Klangfarbenmelodie, that being what she calls the “Parameter complex,” a categorical system of “expression parameters'' like timbre, articulation, metre, rhythm, texture, melody, all which fall onto a continuum from dissonant to consonant. Using this as a guide, her affinity for both small-form, intensely chromatic “cells” and piece-long usages of only one or two “expression parameters” imbue her works great and small with a quasi-meditative sentimentality.
Sofia Gubaidulina’s religious affiliation with Russian Orthodoxy is not hard to find within her spiritually-saturated works and personal philosophy about life, art, and the purpose of music itself which is, for her, about “reuniting mankind with God.” Right from the beginning, music was a consecrated act for Gubaidulina, holding the subconscious power to infuse the monolinearity and mechanicality of mortal existence with a “vertical” sense of time beyond time, a dimension which lied outside immediate, human cognition. This would eventually lead her to the writings of Carl Jung and Nicholas Berdiaev, taking from the former his thoughts on the subconscious mind and human soul while from the latter, notions of the innate relationship of the “finite” to the “infinite” in the search for the Enlightened “eternity.” In this way, the genuine creative act itself, what she calls “True art,” involves “collaborating with God,” every detail like the space between notes and the poly-directionality of bowing, being an act of deep, psychological significance.
Within the turbulent borders of Soviet Russia, composing was her reprieve from the stress and anxiety of her everyday life. It was her way of intimately communing with a divine power greater than her immediate surroundings. This urgent need to release into a sacred totality, understood by Scriabin as the Pleroma, fuels her every musical gesture. Having said that, her religious expressivity is just as personal as her musical style, as she defines her relationship with God as “re-ligio,” defined as mankind’s eternally unsuccessful attempt to permanently reunify with the Absolute. In Gubaidulina’s words, “the re-tying of a bond and restoring the legato of life.” Her music reflects her controlled depiction of the cacophony that is the angry duality of the conscious and subconscious in its plea to ascend from its confined entrapment.