Sofia Gubaidulina, born October 24, 1931, Chistopol, Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic [now Tatarstan, Russia]), is the composer whose works fuse Russian and Central Asian regional styles with the Western classical tradition.
During her youth, Gubaidulina studied music in the city of Kazan, the capital of her home republic. She had lessons at the Kazan Music Academy from 1946 to 1949, and from 1949 to 1954 she studied piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory. She pursued composition at the Moscow Conservatory from 1954 to 1959. At first Gubaidulina’s works were rarely performed in the Soviet Union and were not recorded, and for a time she supported herself by writing music for movies, including scores for animated films. In 1975 she helped found a group that performed improvised pieces on rare Russian and Central Asian instruments. She first traveled to the West in 1985, and in 1992 she moved to Hamburg. Over the years, she gained notice through commissions from new music festivals, from institutions such as the Library of Congress and the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart, Germany, and from orchestras and individual musicians.
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Gubaidulina’s works exhibit a number of dualities—the traditional combined with the avant-garde, the East juxtaposed with the West, and the soloist vis-à-vis the group. Except for her earliest compositions, her works are polytonal (set in more than one key at once) and are characterized by strongly accented rhythms. Her use of folk and other nonstandard instruments, sometimes in unusual combinations, often produced strikingly colourful timbres. At the same time, she employed a number of traditional genres, writing orchestral and choral works, concerti for various instruments, and string quartets and other chamber music.
Among the earliest of Gubaidulina’s works to gain widespread recognition was Offertorium, a violin concerto composed in 1980. Her prominence as a composer increased during the ensuing years, and by the late 20th century she had become a well-established international figure. On April 29, 1999, the New York Philharmonic orchestra, under the direction of Kurt Masur, premiered her Two Paths, a work for two violas and orchestra; the two solo instruments represented the voices of the biblical Mary and Martha. On the same day, the NHK Symphony, the orchestra of the Japanese broadcasting system, premiered In the Shadow of the Tree, a composition featuring one soloist performing on three types of Asian zithers: the koto, bass koto, and zheng.
Major orchestras worldwide continued to commission, premiere, and perform Gubaidulina’s compositions in the early 21st century. Notable works from this period included St. John Passion (2000), a reconstruction of Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition; The Light of the End (2003) for orchestra; Feast During a Plague (2006), a piece inspired by Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1832 play; In Tempus Praesens (2007), a second violin concerto; Labyrinth (2011) for 12 cellos; Triple Concerto (2017) for violin, cello, bayan, and orchestra; On Love and Hatred (2016, rev. 2018), a composition that sets psalms and prayer texts to music; and Dialogue: I and You (2018) for violin and orchestra. Her orchestral composition The Wrath of God (Der Zorn Gottes) premiered in 2020.
Over the course of her career, Gubaidulina received numerous honours for her work, including the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for music (1998) and two prestigious Koussevitzky International Recording Awards (1989, 1993) for new music. She was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Robert Rauch / Source: Britannica