Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘Artists must fight the trivializing tendencies in society’

Sofia Gubaidulina © F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

Sofia Gubaidulina has become a real audience favourite in the Netherlands. She’s not only regularly featured by ensembles such as Asko|Schoenberg, but also by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and in the broadcasting series of Radio4.

The AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert presented the Dutch premieres of Glorious Percussion in 2011 and O Komm, Heiliger Geist in 2016. On Friday, 23 March 2018 the first Dutch performance of her Triple Concerto for bayan, violin and cello will be performed in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht. The concert is broadcast live on Radio4.

The Triple Concerto is dedicated to the Swiss accordion player Elsbeth Moser, now also performing with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Her fellow soloists are the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and the Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, who also played the world premiere in 2017 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The article below is partly based on an interview with Gubaidulina from 2011.

No small-talk

I meet Sofia Gubaidulina (Chistopol, 1931) at the Cello Festival in Zutphen. The night before the biennial event has opened with her Seven Words for cello, bayan and string orchestra. The moment we shake hands, she ignites in a glowing speech about the great performance and beautiful location.

This drive is characteristic: also in previous conversations Gubaidulina never engaged in small-talk. Her time is too precious and her mission too important. In-depth art must be made in order to counterbalance the trivializing tendencies in our society. It is her sacred duty to give voice to the spiritual.

Music in the basement circuit

The Tatar-Russian composer describes how difficult the situation was for independent minds and artists in the Soviet Union. ‘Everything was politically motivated. If you refused to praise the regime in socialist-realist style, it was almost impossible to survive. You got no performances, no money, nothing.’

‘But I couldn’t write such hymns of praise: we lived in a completely immoral society. Forced by these circumstanced my music was performed by brave musicians in the so-called basement circuit. They were my knights on the white horse. I am eternally grateful to them: without musicians there is no music, after all.’

Doors and windows swing open

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, Gubaidulina moved to Appen, a village near Hamburg. She is delighted to recall how decisive this has been for her. ‘I was already sixty years old, my life was largely over, but at last I was able to compose freely what I wanted. All doors were opened.’

‘In Russia, everything was totally locked up, now I could easily get in touch with musicians, critics, the audience. This interaction is of vital importance to an artist. For the first time I was able to set myself really large-scale goals and realize them; my production has increased considerably.’

A house with a tree

Yet her style has hardly changed in the West. ‘The outside world does not have much influence on my way of composing, because I listen to my inner voice’, Gubaidulina explains. I could hear this clearer in Appen, because I got a much better contact with nature.’

‘Appen is a hamlet with only two streets. There is a tree in front of my house and I have a little garden, so I am literally in nature. In Moscow I was stuck in a small apartment surrounded by housing blocks and factories; at night everything was bathed in light. I always dreamed of the outdoors.’

But did she not go on long hiking trips with her father on the steppes of Tatarstan as a child? ‘Yes, I did. My father was a surveyor and I was sometimes allowed to join him on one of his missions. But we lived in Kazan, just as much an industrial environment as Moscow. The bitter thing is that he often had to measure land where an airport would be built or something, so I was enjoying landscapes that disappeared shortly after.’


I suggest she could have moved to a village outside Moscow if she needed greenery so much. She starts at my suggestion, aghast. ‘That was life-threatening, there was an awful lot of crime in the countryside! Moscow was considerably safer. In the beginning I sometimes took the tram to one of the city parks, but also there crime increased sharply. That’s why I stayed in as much as possible during the last decade of Soviet rule. The fact that I now have a house with a garden and a tree is Paradise for me.’

Does she nowadays feel rather more German than Russian or Tatar? She eyes me penetratingly. ‘Nationality isn’t really relevant anymore. People all over the world are in contact with each other via the Internet and we are losing our national character. You can no longer make a classification according to nationality or race, as we did in the past.’


‘In the current spirit of the age other criteria apply, such as: honesty is naive, high art is naive. There is a gap between intelligent people and the majority of society, which is hostile to the intelligentsia and the arts. Almost to the point of becoming militaristic. The Spasskultur is forcing artists to lose out, but we must continue to resist the trivializing trend.’

Gubaidulina doubts whether this will be possible, however. ‘I see a new man coming into being who no longer knows what it is like to have real contact, as we are having during this conversation. They’re watching the screen of their computer or smartphone all day and react to the outside world like machines. I see this as a great danger for the future: life becomes empty, shallow and one-dimensional, all diversity disappears.’

Elsbeth Moser

Her own music is everything but shallow and one-dimensional, it always has a strong spiritual element; Gubaidulina is deeply religious. She is also a true sound wizard, whose musical imagination does not diminish even at an advanced age. This is all the more evident from her Triple Concerto for bayan, violin and cello, which was completed in 2016. The mere idea of having three soloists is a reference to Trinity, as are the many triads on which the work is based.

The idea for this large-scale orchestral work came from Elsbeth Moser, a great advocate of her music. In 1991 Gubaidulina wrote Silenzio for bayan, violin and cello for her. Struck by the beautiful interaction between the Russian button accordion and western strings, Moser asked her for a triple concerto.

Dark orchestral sound

A striking feature is the predominant use of the low registers of the orchestral instruments. The concerto opens with a chromatic tone cluster of the bayan, starting on a low E and ascending to E flat almost an octave higher. The cello also plays a rising line, the intervals gradually becoming smaller in its higher register.

The violin starts on the lowest string and also goes up, and thus the concert is set in motion. It is mainly made up of short motifs, which Gubaidulina effortlessly forges into a convincing unity. Partly thanks to a subtle use of dynamics – sometimes swelling to apocalyptic hurricane force.

The two solo strings play sensually interlocking lines, embedded in colourful chords of the bayan and dark orchestral sounds. Instruments such as contrabassoon, tubas, trombones and double basses are an ideal complement to the sonorous low register of the bayan. Also beautiful are the soaring lines of a horn rising from the depths and ascending to heaven. The dull swishing and sizzling sound of a large drum is truly impressive. Is it covered with steel strings, like a snare drum in pop music?

We’ll find out on Friday 23 March!

Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto is flanked by Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony

 spoke the three soloists for the live broadcast on Radio4. Unfortunately my reportage has been taken offline. 

My talk with dedicatee Elsbeth Moser can be heard on YouTube.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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8 Responses to Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘Artists must fight the trivializing tendencies in society’

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  7. theaderks says:

    I don’t agree, Gubaidulina weens her music from silence, which she deems an essential source for creating meaningful music. In my biography of Reinbert de Leeuw you read how he felt about performing the cadenza for conductor in Stimmen… verstummen…


  8. She is right that trivialisation has to be resisted, but what about her ‘solo’ for conductor in one of her pieces? A silent gesture while the orchestra pauses. That is another type of trivialisation.


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