Sofia Gubaidulina, “Offertorium” Part II

Crucifixionby Sarah Perske

In my last post, I discussed the suffering-redemption narrative of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” and explored the influence of this narrative on Gubaidulina’s approaches to pitch, dynamics, register, and orchestration. This suffering-redemption narrative is equally influential in Gubaidulina’s approach to form. “Offertorium” is, on its most basic level, a set of variations on the royal theme of Bach’s Musical Offering (a theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great). However, Gubaidulina departs far from traditional variation form – which generally reflects an additive process of embellishment – and re-interprets it as a subtractive process in which pitches are gradually removed from the theme “to symbolize the idea of sacrifice.”[1] Gubaidulina’s comments suggest that she thinks of the gradual “death” and eventual “resurrection” of the theme as the defining principle of the form:

“The first section consists of several variations, where the theme “offers” itself, “sacrificing” one note from the beginning and one from the end in each variation. In the climax, just one (central) note of the theme is left. Frederick’s theme gradually returns in the third section (the second section is devoted to images of “cross suffering” and the Last Judgment). The main event of the concerto, the Transfiguration, is in the coda: Frederick’s theme appears in its complete shape, but in retrograde motion, and nobody can recognize it.”[2]

Gubaidulina’s description, though it certainly captures the main action of the piece, remains a somewhat incomplete portrait. While the appearances of the varied theme are of great structural importance, they actually comprise a fairly small percentage of this nearly 40-minute piece, as the “sacrificing” of the theme necessitates its gradual replacement with other materials. Furthermore, the soloist’s role is somewhat removed from this process, as the solo violin does not play an assertive part in stating the theme until the third section of the piece. For these reasons, I hear this concerto as an interweaving of three different structural threads: the gradual transformation of the theme, the distinctive repeated materials of the solo violin (derived from the theme), and sections of orchestral music that often use material from the theme and/or the solo violin material, but are generally most notable for their presentation of sweeping, dramatic gestures that recur throughout the piece.



For the first five minutes of the piece, the listener can easily track these individual threads. The theme (pictured above), though gradually diminishing with each repetition, appears at 0:012:46, and 4:50 in recognizable and increasingly dramatic statements. The solo violin has its own distinctive material (first introduced at 0:19), varied appearances of a repetitious lament derived from the descending chromatic scale and final half-step motive of the theme. The orchestra, for its part, supports the soloist in these moments and then takes over, offering commentary on various motives of the theme and finishing with a dramatic gesture, often involving glissandi or chromatic scales (1:20, 4:21, 5:26). Gubaidulia presents these three elements in a clearly demarcated manner until 4:50. Following this third statement of the theme, it becomes difficult to distinguish between statements of the increasingly amputated theme and the fragmentary appearances of related materials that Gubaidulina has interspersed from the beginning. With the exception of the violin cadenza at 15:44, the three threads remain more closely woven together for the remainder of the piece.

Each of these threads plays a vital role in making the form comprehensible; the gradual death and resurrection of the theme forms the structural backbone of the concerto, while the other two elements serve to unify and support that structure throughout the gradual disappearance of the theme. The soloist’s material helps us to hear a cohesive narrative even in the midst of the chaotic middle section of the piece, partly through its use of thematic material and partly by virtue of a symbolic connection to the suffering-redemption narrative; Gubaidulina’s initial inspiration for the concerto was “the total surrender of self to the tone” that she perceived in the playing of violinist Gidon Kremer, and her remarks on the subject suggest a parallel with Christ’s “surrender” on the cross.[3] Similarly, recurring descending gestures in the orchestra contribute to thematic and symbolic unity by recalling the descending chromatic motion of the theme. These gestures denote suffering both through their traditional association with “sighs” or “falls,” and through the symbolism of chromatic material (associated with darkness or suffering) mentioned in my previous post. These gestures appear throughout the piece in miniaturized, understated versions (like those at 5:26 and 28:42) as well as a number of larger, more dramatic versions (like those at 1:20 and 37:00) that serve as structural pillars; such a gesture at 27:55, for example, signals the close of the second section and the beginning of the long journey back towards a resurrected theme.


The coda is one of the most interesting moments of the piece for me. Here, Gubaidulina brings the three threads together: the theme returns at 36:06, but now it is stated by the soloist, presented in retrograde, and subjected to embellishment, repetition, and octave transpositions (image above). Rather than simply end the piece with the transfigured theme, Gubaidulina unites the theme and the soloist with the third element, engaging the entire orchestra in a final chaotic downward sweep (37:00). This moment fulfills an expectation set up by earlier uses of this gesture, and complicates the expected trajectory of the suffering-redemption narrative in an interesting way; Gubaidulina emphasizes the ultimately redemptive character of the narrative by letting the solo violin’s high D continue through the chaos to emerge as the last sound we hear, but the dramatic descent seems to remind us that we still await ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’


[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.

[2] Ibid., 26-27.

[3] Michael Kurtz, Sofia Gubaidulina: a Biography (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 194.


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