Jul/Aug 2001

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Music, Text, Meanings

Gubaidulina, Sofia. And: The feast is in full progress. Concerto No.2 for cello and orchestra
Ten Preludes for violoncello
David Geringas, cello.
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Helsinki. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor,
col legno WWE 1CD 31881


Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) is one of the most impressive woman composers of the twentieth century-right alongside Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lili Boulanger, and Elisabeth Lutyens. Furthermore, of the group that emerged to international prominence after the break-up of the Soviet Union, she, Kancheli and Schnitke have garnered the most attention and most recordings. Many of them were in the Shostakovich circle, and it is to his credit that he was attracted to bold talents and not imitators, supporting each in her or his independent journey of development. There is no "school of Shostakovich."

Gubaidulina, however, has made one of the longest and most surprising journeys of any of this group. During Soviet times, she innovated a Tartar national style and wrote operas and film scores. Privately, however, she was developing a more individual and exploratory approach to music. These works, plus works written during the last two decades, have shot her into international prominence.

Often called a religious mystic, her frequent references to Christian texts ground her music in extra-musical ideas that make full understanding problematic. The musical procedures are of tremendous innovation, but do not automatically invite or insist on integrating with their textual/religious contexts; but to ignore these contexts is to betray Gubaidulina's fundamental gestures as a composer. Furthermore, even musically, she has evolved musical symbols with religious referents. For instance, playing above the bridge on stringed instruments symbolizes heaven whereas below the bridge is earth. In this respect she reminds one of Bach, for whom one can be deeply engaged in music for its purely musical values, structures, arrangements, patterns, and the like, even as Bach himself obsessively interlaced ever note and phrase with religious symbols, often with textual referents. Music, text, meanings, as with Bach, constitute the fundamental problematic of Gubaidulina's developing oeuvre.

Gubaidulina's second cello concerto (1993) is entitled And: The feast is in full progress. According to liner-notes writer, Dorothea Redepenning, "the title comes from a poem by Gennadi Aigi. This Chuvashian poet is little known here. His puzzlingly hermetic poetry, which is filled with religious and pantheistic symbols, inspired Sofia Gubaidulina to a song cycle with the title Roses as early as the 1970s. In the piece Now Always Snow for chamber choir and chamber orchestra (1992), a work commissioned for the Schoenberg Ensemble of Amsterdam, she turned to Aigi once again (38)."

As with many Gubaidulina works, the listener is racked between a desire to listen to the work as absolute music, unburdened by textual referents, and a desire to absorb as mush of the hypertextual intentions of the composer as possible in fidelity to the composer's full vision. In the case of the second cello concerto this second desire is fraught with indeterminacy and complexity. But the first option leads to listener hubris. As Redepenning goes on to explain:

And: The feat is in full progress: this title is confusing even in the original Russian, since it does not refer to a normal festival, but rather to a "feast during the plague" (as Pushkin titles one of his Minor Tragedies) or to a "dance on volcano" (to use a phrase from the time of the French Revolution and the title of a German film from 1938). Aigi's poem depicts a vision: a human throng, as if in a dream, unconscious and blind, streams toward the gates of the Last Judgment; they do not comprehend what they are doing or what is happening to them, then—flayed, bloody, anonymous, unsuspecting—they perish in blazing flames. This poem about the end of the world was written in October 1968; several disguised references to Communist symbols suggest that it was also a reaction to the incursion of Soviet tanks into Prague. In 1970 Aigi added a postscript that made the poem more concrete through stylized Czech works and a reference to Moscow. In a second postscript in 1976 a confession to God adds a reconciliatory touch. (38-9)

Let's sort this out a bit:

· Gubaidulina writes a purely instrumental work in a genre grounded in the high Romantic tradition that represents the solo instrument as heroic protagonist but bases her piece on a poetic text.

· However, unlike Berlioz's Harold in Italy (another concerto in all but name based in poetry), Gubaidulina's music is not explicitly programmatic, narrative nor redolent in pictorial descriptions.

· The poem itself has a history of reception that is deeply politicized in a late Soviet-era context of oppositional discourse.

· The poem has an evolving text with an initial situation of the Prague invasion, but with additions made after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

· The musical work is written on commission for the Festival de Musica de Canarias in 1993 and premiered with tremendous fanfare in Spain in 1994—long after the Prague events but relatively close to the collapse of Soviet power.

· The text is explicitly about a religious concept, intended to be read as such, but with allegorical resonance to political meanings. The post-Prague additions, according to Redepenning, veer toward religious readings and away from the original political ones-a revisionist gesture. To which text does Gubaidulina mainly respond? Original? Revised? Both?

· The text delineates a subtle epistemological awareness rich in indeterminacy and paradox, for the feast of the throng on the way to Judgment is not a hedonistic act of vainglorious defiance because the throng knows not its imminent end in judgment and perdition. The poem's irony (as I understand it from the liner-notes) is perceived by teller and auditor of the tale but not the throng whose story is told. In fact, for them their Feast may be read as genuine, authentic, celebratory and joyful. Or, as desperate and anxious. Or, as some poised double consciousness joy in anxiety and anxiety in joy.

· In any case, without the text of the poem provided, one speculates, based on title alone, that Gubaidulina's psychological attention is on "feast" and not "judgment." In other words, the music in some ways is about the fraught, indeterminate, possibly ironic joy and/or desperate anxiety of a humanity whose spiritual and/or political universe(s) occur in a blindness/ignorance that nevertheless expects action.

· In this respect, one could argue that the musical problem is quintessential Existentialism in its classical formulation; and of course, this is a domain of "knowing" well beyond what absolute music can deliver, and rides heavily an the hypertextual references outlined in this list.

With all this said, what can I tell you about the music?

I have often found Gubaidulina's music to be interesting in its premises and materials but never fully absorbing auditory experiences—a sort of intellectual shadow falls between idea and act (for me). To my delight, And: The feast is in full progress grabbed my full listening attention from the first and has grown in my auditory imagination with numerous follow-ups. This is wonderful music.

The cello role is eloquent with soaring arcs of affective melody punctuated by the orchestra in dramatic but not oppositional blocks of big sound. This dual texture in various formulations drives the work forward climbing and battling to a thrilling mid-point climax (mid-point temporally and psychologically) at which a huge percussion battery explodes and overwhelms the somber and longing cello melodic arcs. This explosion gradually abates and the second half of the work gropes toward cadential resolution. This turns out to be a fascinating and lengthy process (ten minutes or so of a twenty five minute long work) during which the typical musical gestures of resolution as exploited in a 200 year long tradition of protagonistic solo concertos (triumph, despair, resignation, defiance, apocalypse, transcendence, etc.) seem to be offered, found inadequate and abandoned. Instead, the work works towards its ending in an indescribably ambiguous manner. Perhaps the fascination of follow-up listenings is for me to try to find words that speak the work's ending. Indeed, there is a sense of resolution and stasis achieved-no open-ended suspension, no apocalypse, no sobbing despair. And yet no specific emotion seems to describe this stasis, neither hopeful nor hopeless, neither triumphant nor defeated.

The spiritual and political Existential dilemma of the work's textual formation seems to find an Existential musical resolution that is achieved, despite all the hypertextual accoutrements, as a purely musical achievement in the most absolute of musical terms.

Gubaidulina therefore draws a lifetime of philosophical, religious, psychological, and political awareness into the musical materials and sound world of this remarkable concerto giving musical voice to the Existential paradoxes of action in the domains of despotic political power and culpable human frailty before ultimate providential accountabilities.

After over a decade of tepid reactions to Sofia Gubaidulina, I am now a delighted convert. This work is magnificent. David Geringas from whom the work was conceived projects total conviction and power supported by a conductor and orchestra that are fully at home with the work's complex ambiguities.

The Ten Preludes for solo cello that fill out the disk are study pieces that would make effective recital works for advanced cello students and recitalists but fall on the ear as anticlimactic and merely academic in the aftermath of the concerto which is placed first on the CD. Why do CD producers often seem oblivious of how listeners might foreseeably pace themselves within and among a CD's contents?


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