Born in 1931 in Chistopol, Tatar Autonomous Republic, U.S.S.R. (now Russia); daughter of a land-survey engineer and a teacher; married; children: one daughter. Education: Studied piano and composition, Kazan Conservatory of Music; graduated from Moscow Conservatory, 1959. Memberships: Deutsche Akademie der Künste (Berlin, Germany); Freie Akademie der Künste (Hamburg, Germany). Addresses: Publisher--G. Schirmer Promotion Dept., 257 Park Ave. South, 20th Flr., New York, NY 10010, e-mail:

Until the political situation changed in her native Russia, Sofia Gubaidulina struggled in obscurity as a composer. Her music was officially rebuffed by government-controlled cultural institutions for more than two decades after she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. It was deemed "unacceptable" in part because of the overtly spiritual themes Gubaidulina drew upon for inspiration, but that same emotional resonance in her music has brought her an appreciative international audience.

Gubaidulina was a relative unknown in the West until the 1980s, but her unusual compositions, which often deployed uncommon folk instruments, brought her renown. Her repertoire includes symphonic and choral works, concertos for string instruments, and works for percussion groups. Karen Campbell, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, asserted that Gubaidulina's is "one of the most original, powerful, and highly respected voices in the world of contemporary music." Although she now lives in Germany, Gubaidulina has been deemed Russia's greatest living composer, and in 2002 the Royal Swedish Academy of Music awarded her its esteemed Polar Music Prize in recognition for the years her career languished due to political tyranny.

Born in 1931, Gubaidulina was the daughter of a land-survey engineer who was of Tatar heritage. The Tatars were originally a Turkic-speaking group from East Central Asia; they intermarried with Mongols during the latter group's peak of power in the 1200s. Gubaidulina's grandfather was an Islamic mullah, as the Tatars had become Sunni Muslim in the fourteenth century. During the 1930s, religious tolerance in the officially atheist Soviet Union was so negligible that Gubaidulina's father faced the threat of jail merely for being the son of a member of the clergy. Her mother was a teacher by training, and Gubaidulina was the youngest of three daughters in a family that also maintained ties to their Russian Orthodox side as well.

Criticized by Professors

Gubaidulina has said that she dreamed of becoming a composer even as a child, and she often prayed that her goal would come to fruition. The years of World War II brought hardships, and she contracted a case of scurvy as a teenager. She studied piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory of Music and from there moved to the esteemed Moscow Conservatory for further study. There she began to encounter problems with the state-sponsored and politically driven musical establishment in what was then the Soviet Union. As she recalled in an interview with Perspectives of New Music writer Vera Lukomsky, "At that time in our Department of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory, I and some other student composers were the object of a severe critique. And although we were accepted to the graduate school, the Conservatory officials declared that, despite our giftedness and capacity for hard work, we had chosen the wrong way, or what they called 'a false way.'"

Gubaidulina received encouragement from an impressive source of wisdom at this time: the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose career had successfully negotiated changing Soviet political tides during the 1930s and 1940s. Shostakovich chaired the State Examination Committee and recognized the talent in Gubaidulina's submitted compositions for her graduate degree. He told her afterward that he had defended it against the critiques of other professors, and that "'Everybody thinks that you are moving in the wrong direction,'" Gubaidulina recalled in the interview with Lukomsky. "'But I wish you to continue on your "mistaken" path.'"

Tagged as Avant-Garde

Gubaidulina did just that, but she found little official recognition for her work. She was, however, able to earn a living as a composer for Soviet-made films, which gave her a degree of freedom to experiment. On the side, she wrote longer compositions, but they were often rejected for performance. In 1975 she founded an improvisation group, Astraea, with two other composers, Vyacheslav Artyomov and Victor Suslin. The trio used folk instruments from across the Soviet republics such as the bayan, a concert accordion. She was often tagged as a member of the Russian avant-garde. "Gubaidulina opposed the totalitarianism of Soviet ideology," Lukomsky explained. "Her predilection for mysticism and metaphysics, her religious spirituality and musical fantasy that often project images of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment, her preoccupation with musical symbols of crucifixion, resurrection, and transfiguration, did not, of course, meet the requirements of Socialist Realism."

Working in such a repressive atmosphere was difficult for her. "For an artist to be put in the position of restriction to what is 'correct' is terrible," the composer said in the Christian Science Monitor interview with Campbell. "In a free society, one feels absolute freedom as a danger. One has to establish one's own personal regulation to recognize innate potential. But in a totalitarian regime, we have the task of shedding the shackles of restraint in order to realize that potential." Some of her early works went unrecorded for years. Chaconne, dating from 1962, and Piano Sonata from 1965 were recorded by Vladimir Yurigin-Klevke for the Sony label only in 1995. American Record Guide reviewer Mark L. Lehman found that in the Sonata, Gubaidulina "by this time was evolving her personal blend of avant-garde techniques and religious connotations. It opens and closes with jazzily nervous violence, though the conclusion of the long first movement, with its bare liturgical fifths and upward aspiring melodic line, has a stately liturgical calm."

Fortunately, Gubaidulina found a champion in Gidon Kremer, a Latvian-born violinist with an international reputation. Kremer had lived in the West since the late 1970s, and he liked to perform Gubaidulina's work in his programs, especially a violin concerto titled Offertorium. The American premiere of Offertorium came in early 1985 when Kremer appeared with the New York Philharmonic. Time's Michael Walsh witnessed it and noted that "By Western standards, Offertorium may be tame, but given the governmental restrictions on the stylistic range of Soviet music, it shows Gubaidulina to be a fresh, challenging voice in her country."

Traveled to North America

Soviet authorities allowed Gubaidulina to travel to Europe in 1985, and in 1987 she came to North America for the first time to take part in the Louisville Symphony Orchestra's "Sound Celebration." The following year, she participated in a Boston cultural event, Making Music Together, aimed at highlighting improved American-U.S.S.R relations under reform-minded Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The events aroused interest in Gubaidulina's music and her plight behind the Iron Curtain.

By 1989, however, that Curtain was collapsing, and two years later the Soviet Union itself broke into several different republics, jettisoning its Communist government along the way. Gubaidulina was suddenly free to work and travel as she pleased. In the 1990s she took part in several international music festivals, and respected orchestras began commissioning works from her. The Kronos Quartet, for instance, premiered her String Quartet No. 4 in New York in 1994. Dancer on a Tightrope, a work for violin and piano in which the pianist strikes the strings at times with a thimble or a drinking glass, made its debut in Washington, D.C., that same year. Viola Concerto was performed with the Chicago Symphony by Yuri Bashmet in 1997.

Gubaidulina's Canticle of the Sun, based on the poems of St. Francis of Assisi, made its world premiere in Washington in 1998. It featured a solo cello, percussion instruments, and a chamber choir, and was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, the acclaimed Russian cellist. He performed its British premiere in early 1999. Gubaidulina's concerto, Two Paths (Dedication to Mary and Martha), for two violas and orchestra, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and enjoyed a critically acclaimed world premiere at Lincoln Center in April of 1999. Its theme centers around the two sisters of the biblical figure Lazarus. On that same day at Lincoln Center, another concerto from Gubaidulina was also heard by the audience for the first time ever: In the Shadow of the Tree, written for two Asian instruments, the Japanese koto and the Chinese zhen, and orchestra.

Gubaidulina often makes use of other unusual instruments or combinations of instruments. In Croce, written in 1979, features a cello and bayan. Quasi hoquetus, a work dating back to 1984, is a one-movement piece for bassoon, viola, and piano. Most of her works are highly modernist pieces. "Gubaidulina's composition emphasizes duration, timbre and serial polyphony and features pugnacious dynamics, rampant fragmentation and aggravated repetition," wrote Commercial Appeal critic Fredric Koeppel of her style. "As fearsome as these qualities may seem, her approach is deeply thoughtful, even introspective, qualities that draw, perhaps, upon her long and quiet opposition to the former Communist regime," as well as her Tatar heritage and Christian beliefs, Koeppel noted.

Milestone Birthday Honors

To mark her seventieth birthday, Gubaidulina was honored with a tribute by the Continuum ensemble in New York City in early 2002. That year, her St. John Passion was released on the Hanssler record label. A critic for American Record Guide, Philip Greenfield, found it impressive. "Staying true to her roots, the composer has crafted a work that tends toward dark austerity and an economy of expression," Greenfield declared. He singled out certain passages for praise. "The inexorable procession to Golgotha, complete with percussion, snarling brass, nasty choral sprechstimme, and evocations of the fire and hail of Judgement Day, is hair-raising."

Gubaidulina was honored with the Polar Music Prize in 2002 from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. A co-recipient that year was South African singer Miriam Makeba, and the Academy honored both--and bestowed one million Swedish kronor ($100,000)--because they had been "denied the right of public expression by their respective governments and political systems," according to a Billboard article.

Gubaidulina has resided in Germany since 1992, making her residence outside Hamburg. She was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to compose works for a 2003 program, and she planned for a joint project with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra for a 2006 premiere. With the death of Alfred Schnittke in 1998, Gubaidulina became the last living member in a trio of acclaimed postwar Soviet composers that once included the late Edison Denisov as well. She and Schnittke had once discussed the process of composing, and Schnittke explained that he derived his compositions from what he viewed as a single musical cell, which he then expanded upon. "In my case it's the opposite," Gubaidulina told Financial Times journalist Andrew Clark. "In the first instance, perhaps on a walk, I hear a huge, shapeless, multi-faceted sound, absolutely fascinating, with everything piled up together in a way you could never notate--something which exists outside time. It's like a present, and I consider it a duty to transform it from vertical to horizontal." To listen to her end result, she believes, is to reverse that process. Because of "the hidden power of memory," she told Clark, "the listener follows the horizontal form, and builds it back into the vertical."

by Carol Brennan

Sofia Gubaidulina's Career

Wrote music for films in U.S.S.R., early 1960s; founded improvisation group Astraea with composers Vyacheslav Artyomov and Victor Suslin, 1975; compositions first performed in the West, early 1980s; moved to Germany, 1992.

Sofia Gubaidulina's Awards

Prix de Monaco, 1987; Premio Franco Abbiato, 1991; Heidelberger Künstlerinnenpreis, 1991; Russian State Prize, 1992; the SpohrPreis, 1995; Praemium Imperiale (Japan), 1998; Sonning Prize (Denmark), 1999; Polar Music Prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 2002.

Famous Works

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