Sofia Gubaidulina

“I am a religious Russian Orthodox person and I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this.” — Sofia Gubaidulina

Like Giya Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina was a relative unknown in the West until the 1980s, but her unusual compositions, which often deployed uncommon folk instruments, brought her renown. Her repertoire includes symphonic and choral works, concertos for string instruments, and works for percussion groups. Karen Campbell, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, calls Gubaidulina “one of the most original, powerful, and highly respected voices in the world of contemporary music.” Although she now lives in Germany, Gubaidulina has been deemed Russia’s greatest living composer, and in 2002 the Royal Swedish Academy of Music awarded her its esteemed Polar Music Prize in recognition for the years her career languished due to political tyranny.

Born in 1931 in Chistopol, Tatar Autonomous Republic, U.S.S.R (now Russia), Sofia Gubaidulina struggled in obscurity as a composer. Her music was officially rebuffed by government-controlled cultural institutions for more than two decades after she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. It was deemed “unacceptable” in part because of the overtly spiritual themes Gubaidulina drew upon for inspiration, but that same emotional resonance in her music has brought her an appreciative international audience.

She studied piano and composition at the Kazan Conservatory of Music and from there moved to the esteemed Moscow Conservatory for further study. There she began to encounter problems with the state-sponsored and politically driven musical establishment in what was then the Soviet Union. As she recalled in an interview with Perspectives of New Music writer Vera Lukomsky, “At that time in our Department of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory, I and some other student composers were the object of a severe critique. And although we were accepted to the graduate school, the Conservatory officials declared that, despite our giftedness and capacity for hard work, we had chosen the wrong way, or what they called ‘a false way.'”

Gubaidulina received encouragement from an impressive source of wisdom at this time: the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose career had successfully negotiated changing Soviet political tides during the 1930s and 1940s. Shostakovich chaired the State Examination Committee and recognized the talent in Gubaidulina’s submitted compositions for her graduate degree. He told her afterward that he had defended it against the critiques of other professors, and that “‘Everybody thinks that you are moving in the wrong direction,'” Gubaidulina recalled in the interview with Lukomsky. “‘But I wish you to continue on your “mistaken” path.'”

On October 24, Gubaidulina marked her 90th birthday and it has been celebrated with high-profile events around the globe. Andris Nelsons and Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Germany, released a Deutsche Grammophon recording of “The Light of the End” and two more recent pieces: her third violin concerto, “Dialogue: I and You,” which suggests a fracture between the soloist, Vadim Repin, and the orchestra, and “The Wrath of God,” which begins with a blast of Wagner tubas and, 17 minutes later, ends abruptly.

At the Gewandhaus, where Nelsons is the music director, she is the featured composer through next season. Her music — already common on programs around the world — has also been played in cities including Moscow, where she lived for decades; Munich; Berlin; Cleveland; Tallinn, Estonia; Katowice, Poland; and Utrecht, the Netherlands, and this week Winnipeg.

And in her native Tatar region of Russia, some 600 miles east of Moscow, a festival in Kazan celebrated her with a week of chamber and orchestral works back in October. There, she studied piano and composition before continuing her studies in Moscow.

Gubaidulina has resided in Germany since 1992, making her residence outside Hamburg.