Symbolism in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Spiritual Music

Today’s program of FOCUS festival Alfred Schnittke’s World features a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931, Russia), In Croce (1979). Gubaidulina’s music is  symbolic and imaginative, employing unusual instrumental combinations and extended techniques. The symbolism behind the sounds often carries spiritual connotation; in 1998 the composer stated that all her works were religious, which in her understanding is not related to the church. This is one of the reasons why some of her music was unwelcome in the USSR and some works were not performed until its fall.

Gubaidulina is one of the most spiritually inspired composers of our time. The belief in the religious purpose of art has deep roots back to her childhood and was strengthened during her youth when she encountered the writings of Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev and met one of the most brilliant pianists in the USSR Maria Yudina, who maintained her strong religious commitment despite political repressions. Gubaidulina’s first engagement with music-making in 1937 coincided with a spiritual experience of significant impact: at the age of six, when she began to play the piano, she came across an Orthodox Christian icon. As Michael Kurtz quotes her in his monograph: “Music naturally blended with religion, and sound, straight away, became sacred for me.”

The connection between Christian commitment and artistic creativity was further strengthened during Gubaidulina’s philosophical quest when she learned about Berdyaev’s idea of linking the inner and spiritual realm to the perception of time: “Creativity… is the flight into the infinite… [an activity] which transcends the finite towards the infinite. The creative act signifies an ek-stasis, a breaking-through to eternity.” The sacredness of art is a completely natural phenomenon for Gubaidulina, and her aesthetic statement is not that of a style, but of art’s relationship with religion through the re-linking of everyday life with vertical inner nature of human perception:

What is religion at all? For me this concept is literal, re-ligio – a ligature that connects horizontal line of our life and vertical line of our divine presence. Anyone who creates, for example a poem, enters this vertical realm. Such a person is capable of perceiving, at least a little bit, what exists in this dimension. (Interview with Aleksey Munipov, 2012)

Gubaidulina believes that daily routine may lead a person to lose the connection with the inner world, and therefore people need creative activity as an inspiration to get outside of everyday life: “Life interrupts this connection: it leads me away, into different troubles, and God leaves me at these times… This is unbearable pain; by creating, through our art, we strive to restore [the link between us and God] (interview to Vera Lukomsky, 1998). In the same vein, art transforms the horizontal time of everyday life into a vertical time of inner, spiritual existence: “A person may not be conscious of it, and creativity can be … of any sort, but the shape of the outcome turns out as a staircase, vertical.” (Interview with Munipov)

In Croce was originally composed for cello and organ, later arranged for cello and bayan, but tonight will be performed in its original version. The piece belongs to the period when Gubaidulina began to consciously construct her compositions on the basis of philosophical or spiritual symbols that shaped the form and the sound of the piece frequently requiring unconventional performance or extended instrumental techniques. In her biography by Michael Kurtz she explains the symbolism behind her choice of instrumentation and the form in In Croce:

In that particular combination I imagined the organ as a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath. The cello, on the other hand, with its sensitively responsive strings, is a completely human spirit. The contrast between these two opposite natures is resolved spontaneously in the symbol of the cross. I accomplished this by criss-crossing the registers (the organ takes the line downward, the cello upward); secondly, by juxtaposing the bright major sonorities of natural harmonics, played glissando, and expressive chromatic inflections.

Erlena Dlu

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One thought on “Symbolism in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Spiritual Music

  1. Pingback: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Symbolic Sonorous World | Avant Music News

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