Sofia Gubaidulina: Johnnespassion

sofia-gubaidulina.jpg Born in the Russian Tartar Republic in 1931, Sofia Gubaidulina (Gu-bai-DU-lin-a) studied piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory and then pursued graduate studies with Nikolai Peiko at the Moscow Conservatory. After her graduation exam in Moscow, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) encouraged the young Gubaidulina to “continue along her mistaken path.” She took this advice to heart and developed a highly distinctive and exploratory style despite or perhaps even in spite of criticism from Soviet officialdom. Her relationship with Russian officials was less tempestuous than the one of Shostakovich and her music was championed by a number of performers, most notably Valery Popov and Gidon Kremer. It was Kremer that helped to introduce the composer to international ears during the early 1980s with his staunch advocacy of her violin concerto Offertorium. She was permitted her first visit to the West in 1985 and over the last twenty years, her music has become immensely popular in contemporary music circles, especially so in the United States.

Gubaidulina’s music is truly her own and and defies comparison with existing material. When asked the influence of other composers on her style, she responded, “there were periods of attraction to Wagner, the Russian school, Josquin, Gesualdo and the Second Viennese School but the figure to whom I experience a constant devotion is JS Bach. His works are still a great source of learning for me.” Like her influencers, she is endlessly fascinated by numerology, the manipulation of mathematical sequences, most notably the Fibonacci series and deeply embedded religious symbolism.

It is this sort of abstract, almost mystical approach to faith that underpins of all her compositions. Gubaidulina firmly believes that music can and for that matter should, be of significant spiritual importance. She says, “the whole world is threatened by spiritual passivity, an entropy of the soul, a transition from more complex energy to a simpler form…amorphousness. What puts the brakes on that process is the human spirit and in part, art and that is a matter for serious music.

Much of her time is spent developing musical symbols to represent the religious ideas of the cross, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Transfiguration. In many ways, the Passion 2000 Project was tailor made for her as it gave her an opportunity to explore these ideas in conjunction with her interest in musical images of the Apocalypse and Last Judgment.

The intersection of the Passion story and the Apocalypse is relatively uncommon in music but has been much represented in art; most famously by Giotto in Padua (Capella degli Scrovengni) and Michelangelo on the dome of the Sistine Chapel.

Johannespassion is an immensely complicated work that showcases the composer’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Scripture, theology and the icons of the Russian Orthodox faith as well as her intense interest in symbolism at both the macro- and microcosmic levels. Gubaidulina’s fascination with mysticism and ritual is also reflected in the composition. There is not the space here to delve deeply and discover every nuance but a relatively general overview will at least provide some insight into her outlook of the Passion.

There were some difficulties involved in setting a Passion according to the rules of the Russian Orthodox church. The primary one was that Church does not allow instruments in church services or any ecclesiastical rituals. Custom avoids any reference to representation by persons or anything of a theatrical nature. Like Protestants, the art of direct experience takes precedence over the art of representation. Unlike Protestants however, Russians view music as an external, technical mediator between God and man rather than a facilitator of worship. This means, of course, that there is no tradition of Passion setting in the Orthodox church. Gubaidulina got around this by viewing the Passion not as a representation but rather a “markedly calm report performed with composure (as is only meet for an ecclesiastical ritual)

Gubaidulina regards Johannespassion as her magnum opus so it was conceived on a truly grand scale. The work is scored for full symphony orchestra plus auxiliary instruments in every family. It requires two choirs, one twenty-four voice chamber choir and a larger eighty-voice choir. Although there are five soloists, only the tenor and basso profundo are used prominently. Basso profundo is a typically Russian sound and Gubaidulina uses the soloist as a cantor throughout the piece. Despite the large forces, the orchestration is often sparse. The soprano soloist is only needed for one number out of the ninety-minute piece and the alto soloist gets only marginally more material.

Gubaidulina chose St John’s Gospel because it allowed her to present two texts of equal quality. She felt it was desirable to, “sense not only a single hand, but a single spirit in both texts.” The combination of St John’s Gospel, Revelation and various other passages of Scripture swell the libretto to 3000 words; three times the length of Water Passion.

The method used in previous chapters to discuss in extra-textual interpolations in the previous chapters is wholly inappropriate for Johannespassion. Gubaidulina uses fragments of texts from many different portions of the Bible and trying to sort out the meaning of each one in context of the Russian Orthodox faith exceeds the scope of this study.

The discussion of the key events of the Passion from previous chapters is also extremely difficult. The text is written in Cyrillic characters in the score and even though there is an English translation provided in the libretto, differences in syntax between the two languages make it impossible to decipher what is being sung at a specific point in time.

Gubaidulina clearly feels the weight of the material she is setting and tries to convey that through the ritual of the Russian Orthodox Church. The result is a slow, sombre affair that is prone to becoming bogged down by its own intensity. Even with the score in hand it is difficult to wade through the intricate layers of symbolism. It must have been massively overwhelming to try and digest the work in one sitting at the premiere.


  1. Maurizio2

    Your posts about unusual branches of old & new music are very interesting;
    I never have been particularly interested in lithurgical music, but your notes about the four contemporary Passions have moved something…..Thanks again!

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