by Nathan Cornelius
Born in 1931, Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the leading Russian composers of the late 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, where she had spent most of her career, she moved to Germany, and her music became increasingly known in the West. Her music synthesizes Eastern and Western traditions and often has mystical or religious connotations, as in this piece, Repentance for cello, three guitars, and double bass.
Repentance struck me with its simplicity of materials above all else. Gubaidulina eschews sophisticated structures requiring deep analysis in favor of distinct, transparent musical objects which speak directly to listeners. Most of the melodies in the piece are simply chromatic scales or elaborations of them, with a strong ascending or descending trajectory. The only prominent harmonies which appear are major and minor triads, along with the quartal chord formed by the open strings of the guitar and the bass. The effect is like that of a drawing made up solely of points and lines, without subtlety and artifice of shading. Perhaps this music’s intentional simplicity symbolizes the spirit of humility and contrition necessary for repentance in Christian theology.
The piece begins with a prolonged and increasingly intense high B in all five instruments, ornamented with its neighbor notes A# and C, creating a strong sense of a pitch center. At 2:30, the cello causes the pitch center to shift to a low C, but its nervous, almost obsessive music is strikingly interrupted by a gentle, slowly sinking series of major chords played pizzicato by the guitars and the bass. This alternation between agitated, ascending chromatic lines and calm, descending major chords continues throughout the piece, with the chromatic music becoming more and more dissonant and chaotic. At 16:05, Gubaidulina creates a spectacularly jarring effect with all three guitars playing indeterminate chords with glass slides. In the end, the cello’s wildly soaring line glissandos down to come to rest with the low pizzicato object in the guitars and bass.