Sofia Gubaidulina ‘Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons’: Unleashing Fantasy, Drama and Prayer

Welcome to Day ‘G’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! I have looked forward to this day as I have meant to write a blog about Sofia Gubaidulina for a long time! For this blog I shall be looking into her unique Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons. 

Sofia Gubaidulina was born and raised in the Kazan region of the (former) Soviet Union. Whilst growing up she was influenced by both Eastern and Western cultures due to her father being a Muslim, and her mother a Russian Orthodox. Whilst starting her musical studies as a pianist, under the tutelage of Grigori Kogan, at the Kazan Conservatory, Gubaidulina received musical and spiritual inspiration from the two main cultures in her life. Gubaidulina’s use of Western harmonies and forms, in contrast to her improvisation techniques and quarter-tone compositions highlight this clash of cultures in her life. After graduating in Kazan, Gubaidulina moved to Moscow and subsequently enrolled at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. There, she studied with Russian composers such as Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin. The conservatory recognised Gubaidulina’s musical talents, however, her beliefs, which subsequently bled into her music, brought difficulties for her.

Living through a turbulent time in the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina was subject to government pressures when it came to music – reflecting a similar situation to that of Shostakovich. Gubaidulina has also been referred to as one of the most important post-Stalin Russian composers since Shostakovich. Unlike Shostakovich, however, Gubaidulina’s musical voice was not muted, but instead she lost popularity at times. Again, this was due to her progressive music, and at times was deemed “irresponsible” whilst she was studying at the conservatory. Gubaidulina expressed her modernist tone in various film scores including On Submarine Scooters and Adventures of Mowgli.

The issues that Gubaidulina had whilst composing in the former Soviet Union regarded her associating her music with human transcendence and spiritualism. Being a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church, Gubaidulina’s abstract religious beliefs are resonant in her compositions. Furthermore, coupled with her modernist approach to composition, it makes her music idiosyncratic and progressive, even by today’s standards.

The twentieth century saw composers pushing boundaries with how they used instruments in compositions. New notation aided this cause, and the development of extended techniques for traditional instruments became more popular. The development of extended techniques for the bassoon resulted in a cluster of compositions for the instrument being published between 1962-1995, including works by George Perle, Christopher Weait, Bruno Barolozzi and Sofia Gubaidulina. Extended techniques for the bassoon included reed manipulations such as distortion, pitch-bending and glissandos, finger manipulations including multi phonics, quarter-tones and key-slaps, and tongue manipulations including tongue-slaps and flutter-tonguing. Gubaidulina took this further by incorporating air sounds, improvisation and mutes in her compositions (plus many more). Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons was composed in 1977, and is composed of complex rhythmic structures, unique harmonic language and varying textures which are built on articulations – all of which are atypical to Gubaidulina’s compositional style.

Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons can be read in two defining sections. The first utilises the quarter-tone, and the second emphasises the use of multi-phonics. The rhythmic structures in this work contrast between the parts, with both often being complicated – requiring the instrumentalist to be incredibly disciplined. The opening phrase is created like a prayer, with both of the bassoon part containing material which is representative of a chant. Gubaidulina’s use of the Western twelve-tone scale represents darkness for her, and she explains that “I understand it as a unification of two spaces: the first is the twelve-semi tonal space, and the second is another twelve-semi tonal space a quarter-tone higher. For me, this is a metaphor of the image and its shadow, or a day and a night.”

The work calls for a wealth of extended techniques including flutter-tonguing, growling and percussive effects. All of these techniques, together, creates a colourful variety of textures and timbres, which has become a strength and trend of Gubaidulina’s music. Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is dramatic in many different ways, and through this Gubaidulina was able to express her spiritual needs through these unusual sounds and structures. The goal for the performers of Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is to find their way through the piece, in order to fully express Gubaidulina’s elements of prayer and drama.

The work is atonal, meaning that the various phrases and sections are linked by melodic phrases, rather than normative key relationships. The irony of the work is that the structure emphasises that of traditional Western sonata form, however the music itself is a menagerie of unusual sounds, mainly created by extended techniques. This composition is certainly unique!

Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is a rigorous exercise for any bassoonist as it tests your physicality, stamina and technical dexterity. Gubaidulina’s compositional prowess is certainly present within this work, and I believe it is one of her finest chamber works to date. A progressive composition that places the spotlight on a wonderful instrument. Join me soon for Day ‘H’ of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

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