Sofia Gubaidulina: Rejoice!
Sonata for Violin and Cello

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 3, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The music of Sofia Gubaidulina emanates from the inner reaches of the far out. Her pieces inhabit worlds of extreme timbres and veer off on eccentric tangents, but they are also deeply felt, rooted in the Russian musical tradition and in her spiritual convictions.

Born in 1931 in Chistopol, a town in the Tatar Republic of the USSR, Gubaidulina graduated from the Kazan Conservatory in 1954 and then studied at the Moscow Conservatory. There she met Dmitri Shostakovich, who in a defining moment told her, “my wish for you is that you should continue on your own ‘incorrect’ path.”

Though Gubaidulina came of age in the post-Stalin era, as Nikita Khrushchev relaxed artistic restrictions and allowed greater freedom of speech, the “incorrect” path was still a difficult one. This was especially true for a composer whose musical interests leaned toward the Western avant-garde and who found meaning in Russian Orthodox mysticism. She joined the Composers’ Union in 1961 and worked as a film composer while also delving into electronic music and folk styles. Her international fame grew through the 1980s, largely on account of her violin concerto Offertorium, and by the end of the Cold War she was among the most recognized living Russian composers. In 1992, she moved to Germany, where she now lives in the mountains outside Hamburg.

Rejoice! (Raduysya! in Russian, Freue dich! in German) was written in 1981 for Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman, a married violin-and-cello duo. The couple premiered a revised version in 1988 in Kuhmo, Finland. At first hearing, the piece would not seem to match the title’s exhortation, at least not in the way that might be expected by someone unfamiliar with Gubaidulina’s thinking. She explains, “it should not be assumed that I wanted to illustrate the theme of joy in my music . . . the religious theme is experienced metaphorically.” Specifically, she intends a musical metaphor:

A metaphor for the transition into an “other” reality through the juxtaposition of normal sound with that of harmonics. The possibility for string instruments to derive pitches of various heights at once and the same place on the string can be experienced in music as the transition to another plane of existence. And that is joy. Of course, the sounds of harmonics have been used a thousand times, and there is nothing special in it. But the idea is to experience them not as timbre or coloration . . . but as its essence, the essence of its form, as transfiguration.

Harmonics are played by lightly touching the string at certain points along its length (the nodes of the harmonic series), creating a higher, crystalline pitch different from the one produced by fully depressing the string at the same spot. As Gubaidulina points out, it’s an age-old string player’s technique, but here she makes novel use of it to suggest ascension through the physicality of its execution.

The titles of the five movements come from the teachings of Grigory Skovoroda (1722–1794), a Ukrainian philosopher and theologian. The first movement, “Your Joy No Man Can Taketh from You,” begins with a sighing motif in the violin, contrasting normal notes with piercing harmonics. The cello enters later, clamoring below before sliding upward to meet the violin. The second movement, “Rejoice with Them That Do Rejoice,” murmurs and buzzes urgently, while the third, “Rejoice, Rabbi!” features cello trills, harmonics, and pizzicatos, joined later by the violin. The fourth movement, “And He Returned to His Home,” brings a new clarity with sustained notes in the highest registers. The final movement, “Listen to the Small Voice Within,” is the most traditionally musical, with a recurring, gibing motif in the violin over uneasy cello lines.

Unlike Shostakovich, whose works often draw us into a frightening world, there is something removed and performance-like about the music of Gubaidulina. There is a sense of witnessing events from the outside that you struggle to understand—but it can be spellbinding to try to do so.