Sofia Gubaidulina: a deeper silence and a darker abyss

A few days ago our CEO Chandler Branch alerted me to an interesting article in the Observer newspaper by Fiona Maddocks entitled ‘Women composers – notes from the musical margins’ (Sunday March 13). The author comments (correctly, of course) that the whole history of Western classical music has militated against female composers for a complex combination of mostly non-artistic reasons, a situation that is gradually changing, though not as quickly as might be desired. Her assessment of the current state of affairs is mixed; on one hand, music written by women remains shockingly under-represented at major concert series such as the BBC Proms, but on the other, it is a fact to be welcomed that they are at last being given their due chance in terms of composer residencies with established orchestras.

Augusta Read Thomas

Here the Observer’s piece cites examples such as Anna Clyne in Chicago, Unsuk Chin with the Philharmonia Orchestra or Roxanna Panufnik with the London Players, to whom we might add names such as Augusta Read Thomas (also Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an SDG commissoned composer), Jennifer Higdon (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras) or Lera Auerbach (Russian National Orchestra). However, towards the end of her article Fiona Maddocks makes a comment that I for one found puzzling:

‘So now that the alibis and inequalities have gone, all doors are open. Still we cannot escape the unanswered, unfashionable and, certainly, uncomfortable question: for all the many good, even excellent women composers, why has there not yet been a great one? Where is the possessed, wild-eyed, crackpot female answer to Beethoven, who battled on throught deafness, loneliness, financial worry and disease to create timeless masterpieces?’

The answer, and I run for cover even raising the matter, may lie in biology or even psychopathology.’

In response to this extremely surprising remark, two points immediately come to mind.

Firstly, it seems to me that what needs to be questioned is not so much the quality of women’s contribution to the art of musical composition as the uncritical acceptance of Beethoven (and a caricatural Beethoven at that) as the paradigm for musical greatness. I may be misinterpreting here, but Fiona Maddocks seems to be suggesting that if there is to be a genuinely great female composer, that person will essentially need to be an Alpha Male! It is surely such assumptions that are psychopathological; I would be more inclined to think that the problem lies in our society’s non-recognition of the greatness of ‘feminine’ values (which of course have a biological basis but which can and should equally well manifest themselves in men) such as receptivity, contemplation, intuition, emotional subtlety etc. It is not that our admiration for Beethoven’s heroic struggle is faulty, but that the daemonic cannot reasonably be made the exclusive norm of compositional achievement. Why, after all, do we consider that his immortality lies more in the hammer-blows of the Fifth Symphony rather than in, say, the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata (the piece that first attracted me to Beethoven’s music) or the soaring violin solo in the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis, both of which can arguably be seen as exquisitely ‘feminine’?

In a philosophically dense and thought-provoking essay for the Journal of the American Musicological Society entitled ‘Beethoven’s other humanism’, my friend Daniel Chua has subjected the idea of Beethoven the Hero to a probing critique that seems relevant in the present context. His basic contention is that the habitual equation of Beethoven’s quintessential contribution to culture with his ‘heroism’ (with the Eroica as the archetypical work) is ripe for re-evaluation. He for instance argues that there is something very ambiguous in the way that the finale of the Ninth Symphony is repeatedly dragged out to celebrate the achievements of the human spirit, whether at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the Twin Towers in 2001 (immediately after which it was hastily inserted into the programme of the Last Night of the BBC Proms in London). If we feel that the Ninth epitomizes the nobility of Western culture it is not only because we and Beethoven share its admittedly lofty ideals; our legitimate admiration for the work can easily slip into an acceptance of the ‘Promethean’ pathologies of self-sufficiency and the will to power which it can be made to serve. When we are celebrating Beethoven, we are celebrating ourselves in a way that ought to make us think twice:

‘If Beethoven’s Promethean defiance can tear down the walls of tyranny in Berlin, if its twin tenets can rebuild the twin towers of New York, then it is likely that its ethics will continue to speak for the epochal events of the future. The hero will survive as he is programmed to do so. The question is whether this demythologizing hero is an adequate definition of humanity and its ethical task in the twenty-first century.’[1]

Chua asserts that it is the moments where Beethoven refuses triumphalism, where question marks are allowed to remain in his music (such as the slow movements of the late Quartets or the ‘open’ ending of the Missa Solemnis), which point to an alternative conception of humanity. This ‘other humanism’ is based not on the logic of power and domination, but on allowing oneself to become vulnerable, in opening oneself to those whom suffering has excluded from the victorious firework display of the Ode to Joy, exhilarating though that may be. Ours is an age in which it is becomingly increasingly apparent that the Promethean spirit of the Enlightenment, for all its glories, has not brought universal happiness but the ‘heroic’ triumph of the ‘Age of Self’, marked by rampant individualism and ruthless exploitation. What we need more than ever, says Chua, drawing both on modern Christian theology (Gunton, Zizioulas) and the thought of seminal Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, is an ‘ethics without heroes’.

The second point with which I would take issue with Fiona Maddocks is her assertion that there has not yet been a great woman composer. To this I would simply reply with a name that, rather curiously, does not appear in her article at all: Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931), who surely has to be among the most important musicians of the last half-century, a cultural figure on a comparable level to the great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova (whose translations of ancient Egyptian poetry formed the libretto of one of Gubaidulina’s first major works, the cantata Night in Memphis (1968)).

It is true that it is easy to overlook Gubaidulina’s candidacy for greatness if what we are looking for is glamour or commercial success, although even in terms of worldly honours her biography cannot fail to impress , while YouTube video statistics for works such as her Viola Concerto (144,000 viewings of a performance by Yuri Bashmet) suggest that she her audience is larger than one might imagine  It is equally true that her music is frequently elusive, and makes no concessions to superficial gratification. Furthermore, being based on an essentially mystical approach to musical phenomena, often operating on the threshold between sound and silence,  it at times seems to function at a level of depth which defies intellectual analysis, making its critical discussion problematic. I can for example remember feeling completely lost on opening the score of Gubaidulina’s In Croce for organ and cello,  unable to make head or tail of the work’s mixture of fleeting fragments of diatonic melody, clusters and graphic notation. And yet, when practising and performing the work, I found the piece utterly compelling, a meditative gateway to another reality. I had the feeling that, precisely by its refusal to yield an immediate ‘meaning’, Gubaidulina’s music had taken me down into realms deeper than rational discourse is able to describe, but in which we are drawn closer to the mystery of the Cross which plays a central rôle in her output.

As a Russian Orthodox Christian (of mixed Polish-Russian-Jewish-Tatar descent, her grandfather having been an Islamic mullah), Gubaidulina is working within a tradition which has always recognizing the importance of unknowing (as theme I discussed in my post ‘Naming the Unnameable’), in which the humbling of the discursive intellect is essential to the life of faith. This should not however be seen as an exclusively Eastern stance; recalling my experience with In Croce reminds me of a passage in the section of the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale entitled ‘The Cross and Philosophy’ which puts the matter as well as words can. The unfathomability of the Divine kenosis , the self-emptying of God, shatters all philosophy’s pretensions to understanding:

‘Here God only fulfils himself and manages to satisfy his own desires by divesting himself of his essence and becoming man, in order, as man, ‘divinely’ to suffer and to die. If philosophy is not willing to content itself with, either, speaking abstractly of being, or with thinking concretely of the earthly and worldly (and no further), then it must at once empty itself in order to ‘know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (I Corinthians 2,2). Then it may, starting out from this source, go on to ‘impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification’ (ibid., 2,7). This proclamation, however, rises up over a deeper silence and a darker abyss than pure philosophy can know.'[2]

I will save a more detailed look at Sofia Gubaidulina’s work for another post; for the moment I will merely conclude provisionally by saying that, for me, her greatness lies not so much in her record of professional achievement as in her ability to make us feel both the depth of this silence and the darkness of this abyss.


[1] Daniel Chua, ‘Beethoven’s other humanism’ in Journal of the American Musicological Society, 2009, v. 62/3, 571-645:575.
[2] Hans urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: the Mystery of Easter, translated with an Introduction by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 66.


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