Sermonizing rant or visionary spirituality? Sofia Gubaidulina and Maria Yudina

In my last post, I concluded with some remarks about Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce; as we move through Lent towards Holy Week I have made it one of my personal projects to wrestle a little with her unique and disturbing Passion music, given that Gubaidulina is both one of the most important figures working today and one of the most enigmatic. While she has been the recipient of countless prestigious awards since coming to international prominence in the 1980s, her work – like that of the Russian avant-garde more generally – can still provoke a great sense of critical bemusement, if not outright hostility. The reaction of the British Guardian newspaper’s reviewer Tim Ashley after the 2007 BBC composer weekend devoted to Gubaidulina typifies this ambivalence:

‘Deeply religious, Gubaidulina has been likened to Dostoevsky in her ability to illuminate extremes of despair and elation, though such states also seemingly constitute her sole mode of perception and expression. The overall effect is wearing: you feel you’ve been in contact with sermonising rant rather than visionary spirituality.’ [1]

The extremism of much Soviet and post-Soviet music is certainly something to which it is hard to remain indifferent, but whether or not one sympathizes with it intuitively, it is clear that it cannot be understood in isolation from some appreciation of the historical context. Reading Michael Kurtz’s extremely thorough biography of Gubaidulina, I was struck (just as I had been by Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich and Stalin, a book which guided my research as I was writing my orchestral piece Pursued by Bronze Horsemen for the Shostakovich centenary in 1906) by the truly shocking radicalism of the whole Soviet project, whose aim was nothing less than the generation of a new and supposedly ‘higher’ species of human being, homo sovieticus. Western aesthetic criteria are effectively powerless to evaluate the cultural production of this closed universe where all values were systematically re-defined, and all notions of ‘normalcy’ rendered meaningless.

Maria Yudina, 1922

I find it particularly intriguing that a key rôle in Sofia Gubaidulina’s spiritual development was played by the legendary pianist Maria Yudina (1899-1970). One of the greatest performers of the twentieth century, Yudina was a woman of extraordinary cultural breadth, associated with figures such as the Orthodox philosopher and theologian Pavel Florensky or the poets Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. Always appearing in a long black dress resembling a nun’s habit, frequently adorned with a large pectoral cross, she has however also been viewed as the embodiment of the Russian cultural archetype of the yurodivy or ‘Holy Fool’.  Solomon Volkov’s recollection of her is typical:

‘Yudina was a personality given to exaltations. Many people, including Shostakovich, who had the greatest respect for her musical talents, found her behavior affected and pretentious. But I always believed Yudina’s extravagant gestures manifested the same fierce temperament that surged in her performances. She violated one convention after another. She never married, wore sneakers even in winter, and could spend weeks sleeping in the bathtub.'[2]

Yudina’s repertoire, somewhat like that of that other great pianistic eccentric Glenn Gould,[3] eschewed the staple diet of Chopin and Rachmaninov beloved of Russian audiences, concentrating on Bach, the Viennese classics and modern works (by composers such as Prokofiev, Hindemith, Krenek, with Yudina’s tastes even extending to Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen). Her metaphysical approach can be judged from her writings on music such as her liner notes to a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzi released in the late 1960s, whose exalted style the reader may either find inspired or ridiculous. Yudina’s allusions on the genre of the ‘elegy’ are encyclopaedic, ranging from the 8th century theologian John the Damascene, through Botticelli, Dürer and Holbein, Novalis, Pushkin and Lermontov to Mahler, Shostakovich, Akhmatova and Pasternak. Her comments on the E flat minor Intermezzo Op. 118 n. 6 are characteristic:

‘Its theme is a passage from the medieval “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”). We hear the despair of soul and human fate about the destiny of the passing life in the variety of rhythmic shifts, in movements of the center of gravity, in the pile-up of foreign harmonies. The wrongs of the sinful past tear the soul and heart apart. However, the torn soul, its broken pieces, or rather its sawdust, is picked up by the calming gigantic wings of archangels in the enormous arches of chords through the whole keyboard, in the unthinkable range of swift modulations. The fragments of nearly late repentance are collected in the treasury of Forgiveness in the minor, in the depression of the minor, in the pianissimo at the very end of the “Universal Drama.'[4]

It is extraordinary that Yudina survived at all in the atheistic climate of the Soviet Union; although she was evicted from several prominent teaching positions on account of her religious views, and banned from playing outside the USSR, she bizarrely seems to have been Stalin’s favourite pianist. According to Solomon Volkov,[5] this fact is only comprehensible in the light of the Russian tradition of a symbiotic relationship between power and the yurodivy (as exemplified in Boris Godunov), a relationship resembling that of Ahab and Elijah or Herod and John the Baptist. In an environment of paranoïa where rules of social conduct are governed by the desire to appease an arbitrary and malevolent dictator, the only person who is allowed to speak the truth is the wild-eyed (and therefore untouchable) prophet, whom the despot simultaneously despises, admires and even fears. Being a mystic with a direct access to God, the yurodivy has a right to judge the Tsar and call him to repentance. Volkov’s claim that Stalin was well aware of this tradition seems quite plausible; he was after all not only a former seminarian but also highly superstitious.

This peculiar dynamic is exemplified by the most famous of the many legends surrounding Maria Yudina. Dating from the time of the Second World War, one whose authenticity is sometimes disputed but which was widely circulated among the Russian intelligentsia. Stalin apparently once heard a broadcast performance of Yudina playing Mozart’s A major Concerto n.23 (KV 488) and ordered a copy of the (non-existent) recording from the radio station. Terrified at the prospect of what might happen in the event of being unable to fulfil the Supreme Leader’s request, they spent the whole night assembling an orchestra and three petrified conductors, opening the pressing factory specially in order to make a single-issue recording with Yudina. On receipt of the disc, so the story goes, Stalin sent the sum of 20000 roubles to the pianist – at a time when the fees of leading artists such as David Oistrakh were generally in the order of 200 roubles. In return, Yudina sent a letter of thanks saying to Stalin that she would donate the money to her parish church and “pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country”[6] . Amazingly no action was taken against Yudina; indeed it was rumoured that her Mozart recording was found on the gramophone next to Stalin’s deathbed.

Sofia Gubaidulina, herself something of a yurodivaïa by natural temperament,[7] seems to have encountered Maria Yudina for the first time as a teenager in 1951 at an all-Beethoven recital given by the pianist in Gubaidulina’s home town of Kazan. According to Michael Kurtz, what stuck in her memory was not merely her playing but her (dangerous) pre-concert gesture of making the sign of the cross. Thirteen years later Gubaidulina began to visit an ailing Yudina in hospital in Moscow (where she was a parishioner at the church of one of the most well-known modern Russian martyrs, Father Aleksandr Men); the two women developed an intense friendship, with Yudina writing in 1968:

‘What is so captivating in Gubaidulina is her extraordinary purity in everything, her faith in her creative path, in people, in the beauty and truth of the world; she is absolutely full of honest and guileless intentions, evaluations, projects, deeds, words, and works. So, if I live I’ll soon perform one of her remarkable works composed quite recently.'[8]

Maria Yudina died before being able to realize this wish, but it was at the pianist’s suggestion shortly before her death in 1970 that the young composer decided to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. A consideration of the musical fruit of that decision will be the subject of the next instalment of this post.

Yudina with Igor Stravinsky, 1962

 

 

_________________

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2007/jan/16/classicalmusicandopera.albumreview

[2] Solomon Volkov, St Petersburg: a Cultural History (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995), 368.

[3] Yudina heard Gould perform Webern’s Op. 27 variations in 1957 on his visit to Moscow and subsequently added the work to her own repertoire.

[4] Темой его является фрагмент средневековой секвенции «Dies irae» (День гнева).
Во множестве ритмических модификаций, в перестановках центра тяжести, в перемещениях интонаций, в нагромождении чужеродных гармоний – мы слышим подобие отчаяния души и человеческой судьбы об участи своей утрачиваемой жизни. Неправильное, неправедное былое терзает память и сердце. Но этими огромными дугами аккордов через всю клавиатуру, в немыслимом диапазоне стремительных модуляций, – истерзанная личность, вернее, ее обломки, даже опилки, – подбираются примиряющими гигантскими крылами Архангелов. В миноре, в тоске минора, в pianissimo под самый конец «Вселенской драмы» собираются осколки едва не запоздавшего раскаяния в необозримую сокровищницу Всепрощения.’

English translation Lenya Ryzhik (http://www.math.uchicago.edu/~ryzhik/brahms.html)

[5] See Solomon Volkov, Chostakovitch et Staline (Paris: Editions du Rocher, 2004), 45-54. I reference the French edition as this is the only one presently available to me.

[6] Quoted in Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 1984), 107.

[7] An extended set of reminiscences by Sir Simon Rattle in Michael Kurtz’s monograph colourfully convey this side of the composer’s personality: ”When I got to know Sofia, I spoke no German and she no English […] I always had the impression that whatever she said in German sounded somehow crazy – even though I didn’t understand it. When I began to understand German a little better, I noticed that indeed it was crazy…She is a really crazy woman, of course in a completely positive way, like my first view of a Russian icon with Judy Garland’s hairdo.” (quoted in Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a biography, translated Christoph K. Lohmann (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 228).

[8] Ibid., 87. Another composer whose penchant for the absurd has sometimes been assimilated to the yurodivy tradition is Alfred Schnittke (see Edward Rothstein’s 1994 New York Times review of Schnittke’s Seventh Symphony, reprinted on-line at  http://alfredschnittke.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/review-by-edward-rothstein-3/

Темой его является фрагмент средневековой секвенции «Dies irae» (День гнева).

Во множестве ритмических модификаций, в перестановках центра тяжести, в перемещениях интонаций, в нагромождении чужеродных гармоний – мы слышим подобие отчаяния души и человеческой судьбы об участи своей утрачиваемой жизни. Неправильное, неправедное былое терзает память и сердце. Но этими огромными дугами аккордов через всю клавиатуру, в немыслимом диапазоне стремительных модуляций, – истерзанная личность, вернее, ее обломки, даже опилки, – подбираются примиряющими гигантскими крылами Архангелов. В миноре, в тоске минора, в pianissimo под самый конец «Вселенской драмы» собираются осколки едва не запоздавшего раскаяния в необозримую сокровищницу Всепрощения.

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