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The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina was born in Chistopol in the Tatar Republic in 1931. She studied the piano (with Grigory Kogan) and composition, and graduated from the Kazan Conservatory in 1954. Until 1959 she studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory with Nikolai Peiko, Shostakovich’s assistant, and then did postgraduate work under Vissarion Shebalin. She has been active as a composer since 1963. In 1975, together with Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, she founded the ‘Astreya’ Ensemble, which specialized in improvising on rare Russian, Caucasian, Central Asian and East Asian folk and ritual instruments. These hitherto unknown sounds and timbres and ways of experiencing musical time had a profound influence on her creative work. After an interval of several years, Sofia Gubaidulina and Viktor Suslin revived the idea of the ‘Astraea’ Ensemble in the 1990s. In 1992 Gubaidulina moved to Germany, and now lives near Hamburg. Since the early 1980s, and especially as a result of the support and encouragement given to her by Gidon Kremer, her works have been performed widely in western countries. With Schnittke, Denisov and Silvestrov, she is now seen to be one of the leading representatives of the New Music in the former Soviet Union. This is reflected in numerous commissions from the BBC, the Berlin Festival, the Library of Congress, NHK, The New York Philharmonic and other institutions, and in the availability of a large number of CDs. Sofia Gubaidulina is a member of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, of the Freie Akademie der Künste in Hamburg, of the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm, of the German order ‘Pour le mérite’ and Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was honoured with numerous awards and prizes. Sofia Gubaidulina was nominated ‘Capell-Compositrice’ of Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden for the concert seasons 2014/2015 and 2016/2017.

Although Sofia Gubaidulina’s education and background are Russian, it is important to bear in mind the significance of her Tatar origins. However, she is not a Romantic nationalist. Her compositional mastery enables her to make use of contemporary techniques evolved by the European and American avant-garde, though in a wholly individual manner. Furthermore, oriental philosophies have had an influence on certain aspects of her music.

A striking feature of Gubaidulina’s work is the almost total absence of ‘absolute’ music. The vast majority of her pieces have an extra-musical dimension, e.g. a poem, either set to music or hidden between the lines, a ritual, or some kind of instrumental ‘action’. Some of her compositions demonstrate her preoccupation with mystical ideas and Christian symbolism. She has wide-ranging literary interests, and has set to music poems by ancient Egyptian and Persian writers and contemporary lyric poetry by Marina Tsvetayeva, for whom she feels a deep spiritual affinity.

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