Gubaidulina, Sofia (1931—)

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Gubaidulina, Sofia (1931—)

Russian composer, considered by some critics to be the most important woman composer of the 20th century and perhaps of all time, who chose her own course in creating music that is unique and increasingly appreciated. Name variations: Sofiya or Sofia Gubaydulina. Pronunciation: Goo-BUY-doo-LEEN-ah. Born Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina in Chsistopol, Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic, USSR, on October 24, 1931; daughter of a Tatar and a mother of mixed Russian, Polish and Jewish blood; studied at the Kazan Music Academy, Kazan Conservatory, and Moscow Conservatory; never married; no children.

Studied piano under Maria Piatnitskaya and theory under Nazib Zhiganov at the Kazan Music Academy (1946–49); studied composition at the Kazan Conservatory with Albert Leman and piano with Leopold Lukomsky and Grigory Kogan (1949–54); studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin, beginning 1954; composed more than 20 film scores in order to support herself; after years of working in obscurity, began to gain international attention in the 1980s and to have her works played by major orchestras outside the Soviet Union.

Principal works:

(orchestra) "Fazelija" (1956); Piano Quintet (1957); Piano Sonata; (harp, double bass, percussion) Five Studies (1965); (mezzo-soprano, male chorus, orchestra) "Night in Memphis" (1968); (piano) "Musical Tog"; (B, small orchestra) "Rubaiyant" (1969); String Quartet No. 1; (orchestra) "Fairy Tale"; (small orchestra) "Concordanza" (1971); "Music for Harpsichord and Instruments from the Collection of Mark Pekarsky"; (orchestra) "Intervals"; (cello, small orchestra) "Detto II"; (soprano, piano) "Roses" (1972); (cello) 10 Preludes; (percussion, harpsichord-cello) "Humore e silenzio" (1974); (double bass, piano) Sonata; (cello, double bass) Concerto; (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, two choirs, orchestra) "Laudatio pacis" (1975); (percussion, orchestra) "Percussio per Pekarsky"; (orchestra, jazz band) Concerto (1976); (7 percussion) "Misterioso" (1977); (organ, percussion) "Detto I" (1978); (piano, small orchestra) "Introitus"; (4 percussion) "Jubilatio"; (cello, organ) "In croce" (1979); (violin, orchestra) "Offertorium" (1980); (violin, cello) Sonata (1981); (3 trombone, 3 percussion, harp, harpsichord-cello, cello-piano) "Descensio"; (cello, accordion, string orchestra) "The Seven Words" (1982); (soprano, bass, 2 violin, 2 viola, 2 cello, double bass, tape) "Perception" (1983); (viola, bassoon, piano) "Quasi Hoquetus"; (7 percussion) "In the Beginning was Rhythm"; (unaccompanied chorus) "Homage to Marina Tsvetaeva " (1984); (accordion) Sonata (1985); (orchestra) Stimmen… verstummen (1986); String Quartet no. 2; String Quartet no. 3; (8 instruments) "Homage to T.S. Eliot" (1987).

Considered by her peers to be the world's most important woman composer of the 20th century, Sofia Gubaidulina was born on October 24, 1931, in Chsistopol, a town on the banks of the Volga River. Her heritage reflects the complex history of Russia, part of an ancient empire composed of many different peoples who were conquered and brought under the rule of the former tsars. Sofia's father was pure Tatar, Muslim by birth, and Sofia's paternal grandfather was a religious mullah. Her mother's family was of mixed Russian, Polish, and Jewish heritage, her maternal grandparents were practicing members of the Russian Orthodox faith, but descended from practicing Catholics and Jews. As proponents of the Revolution of 1917, Sofia's parents had forsaken religion, derided at the time as the "opiate of the people"; they had little sympathy for faith of any kind. Their daughter, however, had a spiritual bent, and throughout her life Sofia would reflect the many religions embodied in her heritage. When she decided to be a composer as a young girl, she went out into the fields near Chsistopol where she knelt and prayed, "Lord, make me a composer and I will endure whatever you might want me to suffer."

Sofia's musical talent was apparent from her early years, but her childhood was seriously disrupted by World War II, which killed tens of millions of Soviet citizens. In 1946, when she was 15, she went to Kazan, the capital of the Tatar Republic where she studied at the Kazan Music Academy from 1946 to 1949. After graduating from her studies of piano under Maria Piatnitskaya and theory under Nazib Zhiganov, Gubaidulina went to the Kazan Conservatory where she studied composition with Albert Leman and piano with Leopold Lukomsky and Grigory Kogan, from 1949 to 1954. Bright and talented, Sofia Gubaidulina became one of the select few students given the opportunity to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where she arrived in 1954 and remained until 1963.

I am the place where East and West meet.

—Sofia Gubaidulina

During those nine years, composition was her main focus. Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin were her principal teachers. Her background and the fact that she was a woman made her a unique student in several respects. "Nobody took much notice of me," she said. "They could always dismiss what I did as simply female eccentricity."

During Gubaidulina's early musical career, the arts, like all aspects of life, were strictly controlled. Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the USSR as Communist Party secretary, mistrusted artists as potential troublemakers, and as a result many perished in the Soviet prison camps known as the Gulag. Although it was never an easy task, performers, composers, and teachers toed the party line in order to survive. As a student in Moscow, Gubaidulina experienced surveillance by musical bureaucrats, but her teacher there was Nikolai Peiko, a broad-minded liberal. An assistant to Dimitri Shostakovich, the modern composer much admired in the Soviet Union and throughout the world, Peiko invited Shostakovich to hear some of Gubaidulina's pieces. Shostakovich listened to her compositions, along with several other musical bureaucrats who admonished the young composer for taking a "mistaken" path. Later, Shostakovich came up to Gubaidulina, shook her hand, and told her, "I want you to continue along your mistaken path," advice she continued to follow for the rest of her life.

After the death of Stalin in 1953, a new spirit of freedom swept through the Russian musical world. Gubaidulina entered the Moscow Conservatory at a time when many restrictions had been lifted, and the prejudice she now faced generally centered more on her gender than her political ideas. Even in the West, after all, music has never been an easy field for women, despite the fact that St. Cecilia was the patron saint of music. For centuries, the discrimination that women faced was due in part to the influence of the church, where they were prohibited from performing in public—a prohibition taken to extreme lengths. In 17th-century Europe, young boys were castrated before their voices changed in order sustain their roles as male sopranos. For two-and-a-half centuries, the sexual mutilation of thousands of young boys, known as castrati, was considered preferable to having women fill the soprano roles. Although this prejudice in the vocal world was extreme, women also had an equally difficult time in the instrumental field and were prohibited in some countries from playing certain instruments. Until the late 19th century, for example, Swedish law forbade women to play the pipe organ, and no major orchestras included women as players or conductors until the 20th century. It is not surprising, therefore, that although women have always composed music, few major female composers emerged in such an atmosphere.

Faced with discrimination as a woman, isolation as a modern composer, and lack of opportunities as a Soviet musician, Gubaidulina nevertheless managed to turn these limitations to her own advantage. Ignored as she was, she could write what she pleased, rather than compose the patriotic drivel so many Soviet composers wrote in order to gain recognition. She also ignored the tortuous path of the refusenik, which some termed the "burden of Shostakovich" because the subject of his compositions was always dictated by his suffering under the repressive Soviet system, a theme which some felt limited his art. Instead, Gubaidulina devised a uniquely new music, returning to themes popular in tsarist Russia but expressing them in a more modern way. Her spiritual nature also asserted itself, producing works which have "eclectic mysticism" as a central theme. Titles of her compositions—"Introitus," "Offertorium," "De profundis," "In croce," "In the Beginning Was Rhythm," and "The Seven Words" among them—often have a religious theme.

Some have felt that Gubaidulina's work reflected music written by Alexander Scriabin, the Russian composer who experimented with quarter-tone music with mystical themes. "Rejoice!" typifies Gubaidulina's work. It consists of five titled movements inspired by the "spiritual lessons" of Grigory Skovoroda, the 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher. This work, which features the violin and cello, calls for utter mastery of these instruments. At times, the listener has the impression that two works are being played simultaneously. Although spirituality is a constant theme of Gubaidulina's work, she did not express herself as a traditionally religious person. "For me," she said, "composition is an intuitive, meditative type of existence. Music in itself is a spiritual art form."

Sofia Gubaidulina chose not to teach, a traditional occupation for composers. In search of work to support the practice of her art, she wrote the musical scores for more than 20 films produced by the Russian film industry, work she considered totally separate from her classical compositions. "Working for films is a nerve-wracking job, better suited to a man or for thick-skinned people," she said. "When I write for films, I feel very different from a man; yet when I write my own music, there is no sense of gender involved."

Sofia Gubaidulina's compositions were often inspired by other musicians and composers. Mark Pekarsky, the brilliantly wayward percussionist who also lived in Moscow, was an especially strong influence. The compositions "Music for Harpsichord and Instruments from the Collection of Mark Pekarsky," written in 1972, "Percussio per Pekarsky," written in 1976, and "Jubilatio," written in 1979, all reflect their close association. Pekarsky collected musical instruments from Africa, India, and China as well as from the Asiatic and Caucasian republics in the Soviet Union. Using these instruments, he created a percussion ensemble which inspired Gubaidulina's compositions. During the same time, she began a close association with the composers Viktor Suslin and Viacheslav Artiomov, and the three founded the improvisational group, Asteria. Although Asteria gave occasional concerts, its main purpose was to provide its three collaborators with the opportunity for private experiment, playing their own compositions using rare Russian, Caucasian and Central Asian folk instruments. Around the same time, Gubaidulina made forays into jazz, writing a score backing the scat singing of the gypsy (Rom) singer Valentina Ponomareva . The influence of Pekarsky, Suslin, Artiomov, and Ponomareva brought more graphic imagery and syntax to Gubaidulina's music. When she returned to classical symphonic composition, she brought this diverse experience to "Offertorium," written in 1980 and her first work to find an international public.

By the mid-1970s, years of non-recognition, composing movie music, and struggling to have her music performed were taking their toll on Sofia Gubaidulina. No modern music was taken seriously in Moscow, making reception of her work more difficult still, although she had worked outside the establishment and remained uninfluenced by current trends. "Up until about 1975, things were very negative," she said. "I became depressed and disturbed. Finally I went to the Composers' Union and explained my position. For some reason—I'm not sure why—things got a little better."

The mid-1970s were a turning point in Gubaidulina's musical career and over the next 15 years, she would cease to be viewed as a minor musician, moving into the front ranks of the world's composers. In 1979, some of her pieces were included in the Moscow Autumn Festival, and not long afterwards La Maison de Radio in Paris gave a performance of her violin concerto. In 1984, the New York Philharmonic performed her "Offertorium." As major orchestras began to play her compositions, others followed suit. Unfortunately, travel restrictions and lack of funds still prevented the composer from leaving the Soviet Union. Under ordinary circumstances, the exposure of her works would have led her to be a featured speaker at international music conferences which would have further advertised her work. Asked if she would come to the United States to hear her music performed in the mid-1980s, she replied, "It is doubtful that I would be allowed to come to the USA, but still, an official invitation would be most welcome."

Four years later, in 1988, at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev's administration had lessened travel restrictions, the official invitation arrived. The American conductor Sarah Caldwell , sponsored a festival called "Making Music Together" which featured Gubaidulina's work, and the Russian composer was invited to hear her work performed at Boston's Symphony Hall in April. Caldwell's introduction of Gubaidulina led to recording contracts, making her music available to classical radio stations as well as numbers of music lovers throughout the world.

Hearing the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, international music audiences recognized an important new talent. Wrote Alfred Schnittke:

From her first pieces, Sofia Gubaidulina revealed in her music an unusual stylistic unity, a highly original spiritual world and an unbending composer's will. The stylistic evolution she has undergone since then has merely enhanced the expressiveness of her music without in the least affecting its character. Her extreme self-criticism compels her to spend much time on polishing the most minute details—which, however, leads not to superficial elegance but to strict asceticism. Her music is well integrated and devoid of all compromise. Such is the composer herself.

When young Sofia knelt in the field to pray that she might become a composer, she took on a greater burden than she knew. Nevertheless, her career marks an important turning point in the history of music. When audiences listen to her works, they do not hear the gender of the composer. They hear only her marvelous creation.


Jacobs, Arthur. "Eclectic Mysticism," in The Listener. Vol. 123, no. 3168. June 7, 1990, pp. 36–37.

McBurney, Gerard. "Encountering Gubaydulina," in The Musical Times. Vol. 129, no. 1741. March 1988, pp. 120–123, 125.

Polin, Claire. "Interviews with Soviet Composers," in Tempo. No. 151. December 1984, pp. 10–16.

Rockwell, John. "Sofia Gubaidulina. A Soviet Composer Awaiting Discovery," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1988, pp. 110–111.

Steinitz, Richard. "Gubaidulina, Sofia," in Contemporary Composers. Edited by Brian Morton and Pamela Collins. Chicago. IL: St. James Press, 1992.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia