Top ten of 2011

Da stand das Meer‘s Top Ten of new sacred music heard (though not necessarily composed) in 2011, listed alphabetically:

  • Eriks Esenvalds (1977-) Passion and Resurrection (Hyperion recording with Stephen Layton, Carolyn Sampson, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia)
  • Vladimir Godar (1956-) Mater (ECM recording with Iva Bittova, Milos Valent, Marek Stryncl, Solamente Naturali, Bratislava Conservatory Choir, Dusan Bill)
  • Galina Grigorjeva (1962-) Molitva for saxophone and organ (live recording with Virgo Veldi, Ulla Krigul)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina (1931-) In tempus praesens (Deutsche Grammophon recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra)
  • Betty Olivero (1954-) Neharo’t, Neharo’t (ECM recording with Alexander Liebreich Kim Kashkashian, An Raskin, Philipp Jungk, Lea Avraham, Ilana Elia, Münchener Kammerorchester)
  • Roxanna Panufnik (1968-) Tallinn Mass ‘Dance of Life’ (Estonian Radio broadcast with Mihhail Gerts, Patricia Rozario, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and chorus)
  • Arvo Pärt (1935-) Adam’s Lament (live performance with Olari Elts, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-) Mass (live performance with Michael Gläser/Netherlands Radio Choir)
  • Terje Rypdal (1947-) Lux Aeterna (ECM recording with Kjell Seim, Palle Mikkelborg, Iver Kleive, Åshild Stubø Gundersen, Bergen Chamber Ensemble)
  • Valentin Silvestrov (1937-) Sacred choral works (ECM recording/DVD-ROM with book To Wait for Music (Duh i Litera)) with Mykola Hobdych, Kiev Chamber Choir)


Sofia Gubaidulina at 80


Well, having missed Steve Reich’s 75th birthday by one day, I realized with alarm a few minutes ago that October 24, 2011 marks the 80th birthday of another composer who has been featured heavily on this blog – Sofia Gubaidulina. Although I’m sorry to say that I’ve failed to meet the deadline in Europe where she herself lives (my guess is that she celebrated the occasion by attending a Dutch performance of her violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter entitled In tempus praesens[1]), I console myself with the thought that for anyone who may be reading this on the U.S. West Coast I still have a couple of minutes to mark the date (and the luxury of a whole three hours for anybody who happens to be following this blog from Hawaii or French Polynesia).

tempus-praesens-score-coverI was alerted by a Facebook post by Eamonn Quinn of the Louth Contemporary Music Society (who hosted Gubaidulina in Ireland a couple of years ago) to an article on the website of Gubaidulina’s publishers Sikorski which contained a typically counter-cultural and outspoken comment recorded by the composer in a recent interview with the Ulmer Nachrichten newspaper:

“We are faced today with a completely different world that is unfortunately not necessarily a better one. People are becoming one-dimensional, since we are losing religion. This lost spirituality is dangerous for art. For the second dimension is the core of human life. Everything today is running according to nothing but the principle of cause and effect: earnings and eating, eating and earnings.”[2]

Sofia Gubaidulina’s work is predicated in its entirety on positing the existence of this ‘second dimension’, thereby flying in the face of materialism in both its Soviet dialectical and Western consumer versions.[3] At a moment of global financial crisis in which the cycle of ‘earnings and eating’ is clearly unravelling in a way that for many is forcing a radical probing of the destructive effects of self-enclosed economic systems, her words are nothing if not timely.


For those interested in reading more about Sofia Gubaidulina’s life and work, you can find three articles on her in the Da stand das Meer archive:

‘Sofia Gubaidulina: a deeper silence and a darker abyss’
‘Sermonizing rant or visionary spirituality? Sofia Gubaidulina and Maria Yudina’
‘The Passion according to Sofia’

For German speakers, Zeit-Online have a substantial article marking the composer’s 80th birthday which can be read by clicking here.


[1] Several video clips concerning the genesis of In tempus praesens (described by Anne-Sophie Mutter as ‘a piece which will change your life’) can be viewed on-line. The most compelling are definitely two trailers: i) the 5-minute trailer to Parsmedia’s documentary concerning the genesis of the concerto, including fascinating footage from Gubaidulina’s own compositional workshop where she shows sketch material detailing the structural outline and mathematical outworking of In tempus praesens and ii) a Naxos excerpt showing Gubaidulina’s meeting with the soloist. In a clip produced by the New York Philharmonic, Anne-Sophie Mutter compares the piece with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in terms of its combination of intellectual rigour and personal inspiration, while a Deutsche Grammophon promotional video focuses on the link between Gubaidulina and Bach, including extensive comments from the composer.

[2] Wir stehen heute vor einer ganz anderen Welt, die leider nicht unbedingt besser ist. Die Menschen werden eindimensional, da uns die Religiosität abhanden kommt. Diese verloren gegangene Spiritualität ist gefährlich für die Kunst. Denn die zweite Dimension ist der Kern des menschlichen Lebens. Alles läuft heute nur noch auf das Prinzip von Ursache und Wirkung hinaus: Verdienst und Essen, Essen und Verdienst.“

[3] Ever an unfashionable philosophical Idealist committed to the primacy of the invisible, Gubaidulina’s programme note to In tempus praesens makes a similar point about the intersection of ‘ordinary time’ and ‘lasting present time’ as an experience of eternal reality:

Art is always situated between sleep and reality, between wisdom and folly, between the statics and dynamics of everything that exists.

In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future.

And only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.

I think that musical form serves this very function: during its course it undergoes many events. A few of these turn out to be most important. (I call these architectonic nodes of form.) And they can make a kind of generalized shape, the shape of a pyramid, for example. (The episode of ritual sacrifice stands at the pinnacle of the pyramid of “In tempus praesens.”) The integral experiencing of this pyramidal form produces lasting present time. (In tempus praesens, programme notes reprinted on-line at )

The Passion according to Sofia

In the third part of this series on Sofia Gubaidulina we will be taking a closer look at her St John Passion, the work that she herself regards as her opus summum (together with its companion pîece St John Easter), and on which I already touched in the post ‘Expressing the Inexpressible’ when discussing the Passion 2000 project launched by Helmuth Rilling and the Stuttgart Bach Academy.

There can be no doubting the centrality of the Cross in Gubaidulina’s output; it is apparent that for her it constitutes more than a symbol recalling the death of the historical Jesus, being rather a disclosure of the fundamental nature of reality linking life and death, heaven and earth. At the heart of her theology of the Cross is kenosis, the notion of self-emptying, which can be related to what Gerald McBurney and Dominic Gill have termed her ‘Poor Music’, Gubaidulina’s habit of composing with what might appear the most meagre material, ‘the way she generates enormous energy and concentration using the frailest wisps of sound, breath-like sighs and moans, scraps of Russian Orthodox chant, gigantic but extremely simple unisons, shudders and tremblings like the merest moments of tension from a film score, the simplest common chords.[1] This approach is philosophically very similar to the ‘voluntary poverty’ of Arvo Pärt’s radically stripped-down tintinnabuli works or Silvestrov’s ‘voluntary disarmament'[2] in pieces such as as his Silent Songs; with all three figures, despite the stylistic differences between them, there seems to be a shared appreciation that truth and authentic personhood in art as in life can only be attained by dying to self.

This is apparent in the work that first brought Gubaidulina to attention in the West, the remarkable violin concerto Offertorium, written for Gidon Kremer; her comments on the genesis of the piece indicate the way in which hearing Kremer’s violin playing immediately suggested to her that artistic ‘self-sacrifice’, an ek-static giving of oneself entirely to the music, acts as a pointer to the self-giving character of God:

“In this union of the tip of the finger and the resonating string lies the total surrender of the self to the one. And I began to understand that Kremer’s theme is sacrifice – the musician’s sacrifice of himself in self-surrender to the tone.”[3]

This connection between artistic self-forgetting and Divine kenosis can be found in the writings of the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), an author whose influence on Gubaidulina would merit an extended post in itself. For Berdyaev, ‘in his creative work the artist forgets about himself, about his own personality, and renounces hmself.'[4] He asserts that although creative activity may appear individualistic, and certainly does assert the priority of the creative ‘subject’ over the ‘object’, at another level it consists in going outside oneself:

‘it strikes at the root of the egocentric, for it is eminently a movement of self-transcendence, reaching out to that which is higher than oneself. Creative experience is not characterized by absorption in one’s own perfection or imperfection: it makes for the transfiguration of man and of the world; it foreshadows a new Heaven and a new Earth which are to be prepared at once by God and man.'[5]

In Offertorium this theme of self-sacrifice is played out on a number of inter-connected levels, as the composer comments: “The sacrificial offering of Christ’s crucifixion … God’s offering as He created the world [6] … The offering of the artist, the performing violinist … The composer’s offering”.[7] Musically this is embodied by Gubaidulina’s use of the ‘royal theme’ from Bach’s Musikalische Opfer, which ‘sacrifices itself’ during the composition as notes are successively taken away from its beginning and end during a series of variations, until only a single note is left (“you cannot be reborn until you have died”[8]).In the final lyrical Chorale, which Gubaidulina terms ‘Transfiguration’, the theme is recomposed, but in retrograde form, (“the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”[9]) as a symbolization of the life of the Resurrection in which there is both continuity with earthly existence and a profound discontinuity such that “nobody can recognize it”[10].

Gubaidulina’s St John Passion represents the consummation of this line of kenotic musical and theological thought as set out in In Croce, Offertorium and her powerful and disturbing Seven Words of Christ on the Cross for Cello, Bayan and Strings of 1982. The Cross symbolizes the intersection of the two dimensions of existence – ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’, the meeting of human history and an invisible, eternal divine realm. Textually this is reflected in the Passion in the interweaving of the narrative of John’s Gospel with passages from the Book of Revelation. Gubaidulina had already made such a connection in Offertorium, whose second section is devoted to images of the Cross and the Last Judgment, but in the case of the St John Passion and St John Easter the reference is no longer simply episodic, forming the governing structural principle of the piece as a whole:

‘John’s visions run vertically, as if time progresses in another direction. So I portray the gospel story as a horizontal timeline, and John’s revelations as vertical. I imagine that these two timelines create a cross'[11]

The composer claimed that this combination of the vertical and horizontal has precedents in visual art, having been been inspired by Giotto’s frescoes, including both Passion scenes and a depiction of the final judgment, in the Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua, which she saw in 1997:

“All I had to do in music was what had been done often and long before me in architecture and fresco painting. In my own work I have also tried to join those two texts in such a way that the two accounts, while always retaining their identity, cross each other – events on earth that take place in time (the Passion) and events in heaven that unfold out of time (the Apocalypse)”[12]

These dimensions are united by the Word who is God (John 1:1), whose death transforms the kingdom of the world into the kingdom of Christ (Revelation 11:15, quoted in section 9, ‘A Woman Clothed with the Sun’) and makes possible the outpouring of the Spirit (as the bass soloist narrates the piercing of Jesus’s side with a spear in section 10, ‘Entombment’,  resulting in the flow of blood and water, the choir sings ‘He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (John 1:33)). This emphasis on the coming of the Spirit as the one who effects the transfiguration of the world is of course a particular focus of Eastern Orthodox theology, which has always tended to view the Cross and the Incarnation more generally in ontological terms rather than ‘forensically’ as a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins.[13] What is primarily at stake here is the defeating of death and overcoming the barrier between the creator and what is created, so that the creation can be filled with the Divine life.

The in-breaking of the ‘vertical’ dimension of eternity into time implies a drastic revision of the relationship between past, present and future, as Gubaidulina seems to suggest by her superimposition of passages from the Apocalypse and from the Passion narrative. Indeed, she sees the goal of the act of composing as the awakening of the listener to a different sense of time which remains dormant in daily life:

“In my opinion, the most important aim of a work of art is the transformation of time […] “Mankind has this other time – the time of the lingering of the soul in the spiritual realm – within himself. But this can be suppressed through our everyday experience of time.”[14]

Comments by Gubaidulina explaining her vision of the Eucharist perhaps provide a clue to the ‘liturgical’ manner in which she perceives this ‘hour of the soul’ (employing the title of her setting of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva); in contrast to views of the Eucharist as simply remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial act, her understanding is more dynamic:

‘in the Orthodox Church the believer, in enacting the epiklesis, invokes the Holy Spirit to come and to transform in actuality the bread and the wine into Christ’s blood and body. […] And at the moment when the bread is broken, he actually experiences Christ’s death as if it were his own death, in order then to undergo true resurrection, the transformation of his human essence’ [15]

What we have in the simultaneity of Cross and Judgment in the Passion is effectively a Eucharistic conception of time writ large; as the pre-eminent Greek theologian John Zizioulas memorably puts it, working like Gubaidulina from the perspective of John’s Gospel:

‘What we experience in the divine Eucharist is the end times making itself present to us now […] the penetration of the future into time. The Eucharist is entirely live, an d utterly new; there is no element of the past about it. The Eucharist is the incarnation live, the crucifixion live, the resurrection live, the ascension live, the Lord’s coming again and the day of judgment, live. […] ‘Now is the judgment of the world’ (John 12:31). This ‘now’ of the Fourth Gospel refers to the Eucharist, in which all these events represent themselves immediately to us, without any gaps of history between them'[16]

Giotto, Crucifixion, Capella degli Scovegni, Padua

Giotto, Universal Judgment


It is undoubtedly the primacy of the theme of judgment which is the most intentionally troubling aspect of Gubaidulina’s Passion setting. Although, in accordance with Eastern Christian tradition, she emphasizes that the Cross can only be understood in the light of the Resurrection (significantly sketching St John Easter before embarking on the Passion), she makes no attempt to mitigate a general atmosphere of metaphysical dread, which is heightened by the passages from the Book of Revelation. Between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the piece, Gubaidulina somewhat cryptically remarks,’ runs the double helix of advocacy and accusal'[17]. Fathoming what she means by this is not straightforward, but it would seem that her theological intention is to communicate that God in Christ (as implied by her emphasis of the Logos-God unity stated in John 1:1) is somehow – incomprehensibly from a human point of view – simultaneously the world’s judge and advocate, since it is humanity’s accuser, the Devil, who is ‘thrown down’ (as Gubaidulina has the soprano sing in the ninth section entitled ‘A Woman Clothed with the Sun’), conquered by the blood of the Lamb.

Here we are confronted by a disturbing ambiguity in the composer’s thought; on one level, her quotation of the words ‘for the devil has come down to you with great wrath’ (Rev. 12) might be taken as an indication that the terrifying violence of sections of the St John Passion such as the opening of the seven seals in the sixth movement is not divine in origin. On the other hand, it is clear from the work’s climactic eleventh movement, ‘The Seven Bowls of Wrath’, that Gubaidulina also wants to emphasize the future outpouring of God’s anger against humanity. This ending, in which visceral dramatic impact and a sense of (dark) mystery prevail against a sense of false closure or premature reconciliation, is as surprising as it is unnerving:

‘I sensed that the narration of Jesus’s earthly life path must in no case be allowed to end with a “solution of the dramatic conflict;” after such a dramatic process, there could only be one thing – a sign from the Day of Judgement. This meant an extreme dissonance, a kind of cry or scream. And following this final scream, only one thing was possible – silence. There is no continuation and there can be no continuation: “It is finished.”[18]

It is evident that Gubaidulina’s use of the Book of Revelation at this point derives from her apocalyptic view of the contemporary world as much as from a reading of the Passion narrative itself. Although I have tried to suggest a Christological rationale for her importing of the words of the Johannine apocalypse, the impression left by her St John Passion is not that she is interpreting the visions of Patmos as simply a fully-realized symbolization of Christ’s suffering. Instead Gubaidulina is prophetically insistent that herein lies the fate of the world. Defending her decision to conclude with the ‘Seven Bowls of Wrath’ in an interview in 2001, Gubaidulina explained that she regarded the oratorio’s finale as a personal ‘answer to Ivan Karamazov’ (presumably meaning his famous rejection of the idea that a ‘higher harmony’ in a future existence could somehow justify the suffering of the innocent in this one). For her it is evident that ‘man should have to experience divine wrath for having chosen evil instead of good’ and that the message of John about the primacy of the will of the Father is crucial in our times when the world is ‘on the verge of extinction'[19]

The apparent bleakness of the message of this work, like that of other post-Soviet choral masterpieces such as Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokojanen or Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance, is no doubt unfashionable. The fact that Gubaidulina’s Passion setting has so far received very little by way of critical reaction to her theology seems to me to be indicative of a certain unwillingness to face up to its challenging content; indeed it might be argued that it has been best understood by those critics who have taken offence to it, rather than by those who have paid lip service to its purely aesthetic qualities while evading the thorny moral and spiritual issues it raises. I would certainly like to know whether I am not the only one to feel that substantial works of contemporary art such as Gubaidulina’s are seeking and merit a deeper level of substantive discussion than they tend to receive at the hands of critical opinion which largely views music in terms of the realization of career rather than as the expression of a higher imperative. In listening to Gubaidulina’s St John Passion it seems obvious that we have exceeded the boundaries of mere aesthetics. We are rather confronted by the scream of Golgotha which we would rather avoid, but which we must face in our lives if we are to progress beyond religious sentimentality to genuine faith.

There is no doubt that composing from a perspective of post-Easter hope without neutralizing the horror of Good Friday represents an extremely difficult task with which all modern composers from Penderecki to James MacMillan have had to wrestle. In a candid and as far as I can see untranslated Russian interview from November 2000, Gubaidulina expressed her reservations about the other three Passion 2000 works commissioned by the Stuttgart Bachakademie in terms of their approach to the problem:

‘The first one [Wolfgang Rihm] doubts, a second amuses himself [Osvaldo Golijov], a third wants to re-invent everything anew [Tan Dun]. And to all, except for me, it seems that the reaction to the crucifixion of Christ should be one of rejoicing and well-being. There you have it – the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. From my standpoint that’s frightening.'[20]

What is frightening to Gubaidulina is the sense of false security (which she finds expressed in Rihm’s Deus Passus) contained in the idea that Christ’s suffering in our place has annulled the reality of approaching Divine Judgment; her St John Passion is a deliberate attempt to dispel what she sees as such false consciousness.

Whether Gubaidulina has overstated the case in her Passion in her concern to emphasize the contemporary relevance of the theme of divine judgment is a matter for debate. Maybe I am simply being squeamish, but at times it is difficult not to feel that the terror is so unremitting in the work that even the entirety of the St John Easter is unable to counterbalance it, despite the ecstasy of its peroration ‘I saw a New Heaven and a New Earth’. This is perhaps partly a question of harmonic/melodic idiom, in that the relative weight accorded to chromatic and diatonic passages is skewed so heavily in favour of the former that Gubaidulina’s music never attains the harmonious clarity of, say Arvo Pärt [21].  This is not merely a technical issue, however, as it seems to stem from Gubaidulina’s overriding theological concept. In her ‘double helix’ running between heaven and earth, ‘accusal’ of humanity seems to take aural precedence over ‘advocacy’ for humanity. Although the concept of the Logos as uniting the human and divine certainly provides the overarching textual framework to the piece, it is hard to avoid the impression of at least a residual polarity between the human realm and an inscrutable, vengeful divinity which is only nominally reconciled by the God-Man Jesus Christ. There are hints of this in other places in Gubaidulina’s output; for example, in the work In Croce written back in 1979, Gubaidulina had conceived the organ part, in contrast to the warm humanity of the ‘cello, in terms of ‘a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath'[22]. Something similar can be felt in her Seven Words or in the furious organ clusters in the finale to the St John Passion, and the thematic concept begs some worrying questions. Is this ‘mighty spirit’ divine or diabolical? If it is indeed God the Father who is being symbolized by the organ,  is there some threatening kind of commingling of light and darkness in Gubaidulina’s musical (if not theological) concept of the Godhead?

Questions such as these make listening to Gubaidulina’s St John Passion a fascinating but deeply disturbing experience. Nonetheless, whatever one may think of Gubaidulina’s verdict on her peers and her own apocalyptic reading of the Gospel narrative, her point regarding the need to take in the full measure of the crucifixion without spiritual complacency is well-taken.  The central message of her gripping work is surely a valid and urgent one; the joy of Easter Sunday cannot be be authentically experienced if we are not prepared first of all to look seriously at our world – and at ourselves – with a sobering measure of fear and trembling.



[1] McBurney writes of the striking “poverty” of the surface of Gubaidulina’s music, the way she generates enormous energy and concentration using the frailest wisps of sound, breath-like sighs and moans, scraps of Russian Orthodox chant, gigantic but extremely simple unisons, shudders and tremblings like the merest moments of tension from a film score, the simplest common chords. Gerald McBurney, ‘It pays to be poor’, The Guardian, August 12, 2005, available on-line at

[2] See David Fanning’s review for the International Record Review reprinted at

[3] Valentina Kholopova and Enzo Restagno, Sofia Gubaidulina: Zhizn’ piamiati [A life in memory] (Moscow: research monograph, 1996), 79-80, quoted in Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 149.

[4] Quoted in E.J. Tinsley, ‘Kenosis’ in Gordon S. Wakefield, ed. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 238.

[5] Nikolai Berdyaev, Dream and Reality, 210, quoted in Carnegie Samuel Calian,The significance of eschatology in the thoughts of Nicolas Berdyaev (Leiden: Brill, 1965), 63n.

[6] The theological idea that the Divine act of creation itself should be seen kenotically, particularly developed in a Western context in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Jürgen Moltmann (whose Trinity and the Kingdom of God draws significantly on Berdyaev), has become a key concept for many thinkers involved in the faith-science dialogue such as John Polkinghorne.

[7] Quoted in Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina, 149.

[8] Ibid., 150.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Vera Lukomsky and Sofia Gubaidulina, “My Desire Is Always to Rebel, to Swim against the Stream” in Perspectives of New Music, Vol 36/1 (Winter, 1998), 5-41:27.

[11] CD booklet to Hänssler Classic 98289 (September 2007), 64.

[12] International Bach Academy Stuttgart Passion 2000 brochure, quoted in Kurtz, 249. Again, there is a correspondence between Gubaidulina’s compilation of her libretto and the prophetic, eschatological dimension that Berdyaev sees in genuine creativity, ‘an upward flight towards a different world’, which in some way ‘signifies an ek-stasis, a breaking through to eternity.’ In opposition to what Berdyaev calls ‘symbolic’ creativity (‘to take symbols for reality is one of the chief temptations of human life’) which restricts itself to the realm of phenomena, he boldly posits the existence of ‘realistic’ creativity, which ‘would, in fact, bring about a transfiguration and the end of this world, and the emergence of a new heaven and a new earth.’ Artistic activity in this finite world inevitably falls back into the first type, but is fired by this ‘realistic’ creativity capable of genuine transformation of the cosmos, of which it provides us with a glimpse.  ‘The creative act, alike in its power and impotence, is eschatological – a prefiguration of the end of the world.’ (Dream and Reality, 209). See Carnegie Samuel Calian, The significance of eschatology in the thoughts of Nicolas Berdyaev, 57-67 and Kurtz, Sofia Guabidulina, 105.

[13] It should be stressed that although Gubaidulina does at times criticize Western theological categories, her aim with the Passion was to go beyond the East-West divide (it is significant that she should, like Arvo Pärt, have found particular inspiration in Italian sacred art):

“The chasm between the two systems of faith saddens me deeply. The early Christians did not have such a chasm in mind. Jesus lives in our hearts, not in dogmatic systems. That’s why I decided to write a work that transcends divisions over dogma” (quoted in Kurtz, 250).

[14] Quoted in Sikorski – Magazine 01/10, published on-line at

[15] Quoted in Kurtz, 250.

[16] John D. Zizioulas, ed. Douglas Knight, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics (London: Continuum, 2008), 155.

[17] CD booklet to Hänssler Classic 98289, 64.


[19] ‘По существу это мой ответ Ивану Карамазову. Человек должен пережить гнев Божий за то, что он выбирает зло вместо добра. Он должен это пережить. Вот моя концепция. […] Но эта версия для меня дорога – закончить именно гневом Божиим. Особенно сейчас, в этом веке это настолько актуально. Именно в тексте Иоанна, который настаивает на том, что самое главное – это воля Отца, заключена судьба всего мира, который сейчас на грани исчезновения. Мне кажется, что именно это Евангелие и Апокалипсис сейчас наиболее актуальны…’ (Interview for Deutsche Welle, 20.10.2001),,340677,00.html

[20] ‘Один сомневается, другой играет, третий хочет осмыслить все по-новому, и всем им, кроме меня, кажется, что реакцией на распятие Христа должны быть веселье и благополучие. Вот это — конец ХХ и начало XXI века. С моей точки зрения, это страшно.’ (Газета “Коммерсантъ”, №207 (2092), 03.11.2000, reprinted online at It should be said that elsewhere in the interview Gubaidulina does however acknowledge Rihm’s seriousness of purpose. Her assertion that he treats Christ’s suffering as finished business would seem difficult to uphold in the face of Rihm’s use of Paul Celan’s Tenebrae to conclude his Deus Passus, an ending which in its way is just as disconcerting as the ‘Seven Bowls’ in Gubaidulina’s work.

[21] To some extent the two composers can be said to represent two constrasting strands of Eastern Orthodox thought – Gubaidulina being closer to the religious philosophy of Berdyaev and the ‘sophiology’ of Soloviev and Bulgakov, Pärt to the ‘neo-patristic’ school and the monasticism of Mt Athos.

[22] Quoted in ‘The Fire and the Rose’, Louth Contemporary Music Society/Drogheda Arts Festival programme booklet, May 1, 2010, available on-line at




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





[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 (

[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

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.

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.