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She has never been a good girl

· Listening to the Russian Orthodox composer Sofia Gubaidulina ·

 In the Soviet Union, thankfully, a composer could receive a death threat for their style of musical composition. In 1936 a performance of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Dmitri Shostakovich took place. A month later, “Pravda” took the work to pieces calling it “chaos not music", in an anonymous article, attributed by some to Stalin himself who was present at the performance. Not that one should be nostalgic for such events, but a head of state who goes to a concert would today already be considered to be news. So it was not because the music was considered to be something serious. The composer had a social role, like any other artist or intellectual. And power, therefore, was in their hands.

This is the environment in which Sofia Gubaidulina is born in 1931 in Chistopol’, in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. An exceptional composer, who had never been a good girl. Indeed, she had vigorously pursued her intent to walk down the “wrong path”. She was also given advice by Shostakovich, another genius who is said to have perhaps written the Fifth Symphony, greatly simplifying the language in order to make it appear to Stalin to back the models of Socialist Realism, but encountering a talent such as that of Gubaidulina he did not even dream of advising her to limit her creativity, and instead pushed her in the opposite direction.

Paradoxically,therefore, in just such a culturally narrow environment, which had labelled her as "irresponsible" for her alternative explorations, the original and vitriolic art develops of one of the most innovative and representative composers of the twentieth century.

"I am a religious person, Russian Orthodox, and I consider religion, in the literal sense of the term, as something that binds, which restores a bond to life. Music does not have a more serious role than this”. Gubaidulina defines herself in this way, just as she also defines her artistic and existential path. However to do this in music one must choose precise criteria, clear to listeners.

She appealedprincipally to the aspects of the symbolic. “What does a symbol mean? In my opinion, it is the greatest concentration of meanings, a representation of the many ideas that exist outside of our consciousness. The multiple roots that lie beyond human consciousness are also shown through a single gesture."

But Gubaidulina does more and rereads the same sound in a symbolic way. For example, the first movement of the sonata for violin and cello Gioisci is based largely upon the transition from material sound to harmonic sound (from concreteness to levity). This effect is achieved by reducing the pressure of the finger on the string. The higher the finger rises - “ascends” the more the sound becomes lighter, more celestial, the tone is transfigured. One cannot be clearer than that.

But yet this is still not enough and so the composer takes another step forward. She bases her symbolic world on unusual instrumental combinations, using a saxophone quartet and percussion (inErwartung), or by combining the koto (an instrument typical of Japanese music instrument) with the orchestra.

Sometimes she evokes indirectly Russian folk music, such as in cases where she uses the bayan, a chromatic accordion with buttons that had rarely before been used in cultured productions. Gubaidulina understands the extreme power of expression and uses it often, especially in a song considered by many to be a masterpiece, Sette Parole, 1982, for cello, accordion and strings.

Even the choice of evoking the last seven words of Christ on the cross without using a text gives a measure of the degree of symbolic abstraction in a piece in which the cello represents the victim, the God-Son the accordion is the God - Father and the bow the Holy Spirit. But the symbolism is above all in the gestures and sounds. Sometimes it is clear, other times more hidden, but it is always present up until the end, where the cello bow moves gradually downwards until it reaches the bridge, at the time of death. Here, the sound becomes violent, clumsy and rough. But the process is not yet finished, the arch passes beyond the bridge, to a place where the strings produce a high-pitched sound, far away, very little in tune. It is the transfiguration, the transition from one state to another.

Gubaidulina is a woman who was not afraid to cross the bridge. One cannot be clearer than that.

Marcello Filotei




St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 18, 2019