Sofia Gubaidulina makes the earth tremble in ‘Der Zorn Gottes’

For Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), composing is anything but a frivolous affair: every note stems from a deep-rooted belief in man’s connection with the universe. This must be cherished, to protect mankind from degeneration.

On Friday 13 May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon will perform the long-awaited Dutch premiere of her orchestral work Der Zorn Gottes (God’s Wrath) in the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert. It is an arrangement for orchestra she made in 2019 of the seventh movement from her large-scale oratorio Über Liebe und Hass (About Love & Hate).

Tragic and profound art

‘Without tragic and profound art, entropy arises,’ Sofia Gubaidulina said in an interview with yours truly. ‘Everything in nature, including mankind, strives towards levelling and it is the artist’s task to resist that. I see it as my task to give a voice to the spiritual element’. Despite her advanced age (she turned 91 last October), Gubaidulina continues to work tirelessly to encourage mankind to reflect.

The Tatar-Russian composer is a convinced member of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is no exaggeration to say that each new composition is a tribute to God, just as it was for composers such as Bach and Bruckner.

Her works often bear religious titles and she has made acclaimed settings of the St. John Passion and St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, among others. In 2016 she composed her nine-part oratorio Über Liebe und Hass, on prayers and psalms in various languages, of which the Der Zorn Gottes formed the seventh movement.

Because she felt there was more to the material , she made a new version for orchestra in 2019, for the Salzburg Festival. The premiere fell through due to corona, but the piece was still performed at the Wien Modern festival in November 2020, as a live stream without an audience. A year later, it was released on CD.

Angry God

The seventeen-minute piece is dedicated to ‘the great Beethoven’ and opens with mighty, ominous upheavals of (very) low strings and winds, aptly evoking an angry God. The percussionists scourge their instruments with sledgehammer blows, while echoing bells and frenzied lines of high woodwinds and strings paint a picture of a crowd that fearfully ducks away.

‘In Der Zorn Gottes Sofia Gubaidulina has blown the Trumpets of Jericho. Only Beethoven could match such an intense song of rage that makes you prick up your ears.’

After a short, somewhat lighter passage, the dark, dissonant lows return. Flaring cries in the higher registers are contrasted with heavy, descending lines, intersected with ethereal rising motives from piccolo and solo violin.

Soon, however, we find ourselves in the same unfathomable depth with which the composition opened. From here, via constantly rising patterns, an impressive climax is built up. After a sudden silence and a short chorale Der Zorn Gottes ends in an apocalyptic finale.

Trumpets of Jericho

The press was wildly enthusiastic. ‘It is as if Gubaidulina has blown the trumpets of Jericho’, wrote one reviewer. The capricious lines […] recall the messianic emphasis of fear and terror in the face of the divine’, wrote another.

A third concluded: ‘Broad brass salvos are followed by such an intense song of rage that only a composer like Beethoven could have made you prick up your ears like that.’

Der Zorn Gottes makes the earth tremble and inevitably gets under your skin. It is the umpteenth masterpiece that Gubaidulina has given us, may many more follow!

Friday 13 May 2022 8.15 pm, AVROTROSVrijdagconcert TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht
Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Collon
Sofia Gubaidulina: Der Zorn Gottes, NL premiere, broadcast live on Radio 4.

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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