Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium,” Part I

Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium (1980), concerto for violin and orchestra

This is the first installment of a two-part exploration of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium.” This piece became a favorite of mine several months ago, and between the piece itself and what Gubaidulina has to say about it, there is quite a lot of fascinating ground to cover. Part II will follow in two weeks.

Part I

Some have described Sofia Gubaidulina’s unique sound as “polystylism” or “eclecticism.”[1] These are convenient, catch-all labels that attempt to explain Gubaidulina’s eccentric blendings of diatonic and fully chromatic elements, occasional Bach quotes, and timbres and forms that could only be imagined in the 20th or 21st centuries. In agreement with the composer’s own view, however, I would argue that works like “Offertorium” remain resistant to stylistic labels; Gubaidulina’s music is better understood from the perspective of the Christian mysticism that shapes her understanding of musical materials and forms.[2]

As its title implies, “Offertorium”  is the result of Gubaidulina’s contemplation of surrender, sacrifice, and the narrative of suffering and redemption (or death and resurrection) that is central to her Christian faith. A conversation with some of my colleagues in composition seminar last year made me realize that this type of suffering-redemption narrative is deeply engrained in Western culture, and particularly in the way humans have traditionally organized narrative structures in the Western world. In “Offertorium,” Gubaidulina seems to ask what this ancient narrative means in the 20th century, and how this story can be retold in a language unique to the era of the piece.

The suffering-redemption narrative shapes Gubaidulina’s compositional choices on the most basic levels of pitch, dynamics, and orchestration. Gubaidulina explains that she chose to use the royal theme of Bach’s “Musical Offering” (stated at the opening in an orchestration reminiscent of Webern’s orchestration of the Ricercar) not as a reference to a stylistic past, but “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.” [3] In this work, as in other Gubaidulina works, diatonic materials generally represent light (redemption), while chromatic materials represent darkness (suffering). Register and dynamics also appear to be endowed with symbolic significance in this concerto; very high sounds are often paired with primarily diatonic material, soft dynamics, and thinner textures (at 3:29, for example), while the lower register is most often combined with fully chromatic material, harsh dynamics, and dense orchestration. My favorite sounds in this piece are the loud, dramatic downward sweeps –representations of suffering – that Gubaidulina creates through string glissandi, rapid descending lines, tam tam and bass drum rolls, and other percussion (1:20-1:39 is an early occurrence; the most dramatic instance appears at 37:00).

My next post will examine how the suffering-redemption narrative influences form in this piece.

[1] Vera Lukomsky, “Sofia Gubaidulina: ‘My Desire is Always to Rebel, to Swim Against the Stream!’” Perspectives of New Music Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), 26- 27.

[2] Ibid., 27. Gubaidulina expresses somewhat amused impatience with musicologists who impose stylistic labels on her music. She explains that “in my case, it is never a stylistic issue. Musicologists do not know how to describe my music and just attach inaccurate labels to my music!” The composer goes on to remark that similar labels are imposed on the music of Bach: “…I protest against the label ‘eclectic,’ which musicologists pin on Bach…Bach did not care about style at all. He thinks about God, he talks with God in his music!” It can be inferred from these remarks that Gubaidulina sees her own music in a similar light.

[3] Ibid., 26.

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