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The Wrath of God

Sofia Gubaidulina's powerful Wrath of God was premiered by the Vienna Radio Symphony in June 2020 and is dedicated “to the great Beethoven,” whose 250th birth anniversary was celebrated that year.

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina was born October 24, 1931, in Chistopol, in what was then the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Republic (now The Republic of Tatarstan within Russia). She moved to Germany in 1992. Der Zorn Gottes (The Wrath of God) is based on the seventh movement of her 2016 oratorio On Love and Hate (or the thirteenth movement of its 2018 expansion—on which more below). The orchestral The Wrath of God was written on a commission for the 2020 Salzburg Easter Festival, but its premiere was canceled by the pandemic; it was first performed as part of the Wien Modern Festival, livestreamed and without an in-person audience due to the pandemic emergency, in Vienna’s Musikverein on November 6, 2020, by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra led by Oksana Lyniv on November 6, 2020. The BSO's performances of the piece on April 25-27, 2024, led by Andris Nelsons, are the orchestra's first.

The score of The Wrath of God calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 Wagner tubas, tenor, tenor-bass, and contrabass trombones, 2 bass tubas, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, tubular bells, triangle, cymbals, large tam-tam, snare drum, tenor snare drum, bass drum), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The Wrath of God is about 18 minutes long.

Every composition is enormous labor for me. That joy and inspiration at the beginning is like a vertical sound of colorful, moving, clashing chords, completely mixed up and jumbled. It is wonderful and beautiful, but isn’t real. My job is to turn that vertical sound into a horizontal line. Those lines, horizontal and vertical, make a cross, and I think about that when I compose. It’s still incredibly difficult. It hasn’t gotten any easier, and it shouldn’t be too easy. Otherwise, why do it?
—Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina grew up in Kazán, the capital of the Tatar state, where her family moved when she was young. She had piano lessons from age five and began composing for herself around the same time. She studied piano and composition at the Kazán Conservatory, graduating in 1954, and moved to Moscow to attend the Moscow Conservatory. Like many other Russian and Soviet composers of her generation (and with the imprimatur of Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s work in the medium), Gubaidulina made her living by composing for film, which allowed her to experiment with style, novel instrumental combinations, dramatic devices, and other tools of the contemporary composer. (Among her later film credits is Scarecrow [1984], directed by Rolan Bykov, which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.)

In 1969-70 Gubaidulina worked in Moscow’s electronic music studio, and in the late 1970s she formed, with the composers Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, an improvisational performance group, Astraea, through which she explored obscure Central Asian folk instruments as well as those from other traditions, such as the Japanese koto and East Asian percussion. She also became rather enamored of the Russian bayan, a type of accordion, for which she has written a number of major pieces. Beyond her bayan works, Gubaidulina’s preoccupation with instrumental timbre has led to many pieces for unusual configurations, such as her Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings; Early in the Morning Before Waking for seven kotos, and percussion works including Can You Hear Us, Luigi? Look at the Dance a Simple Little Rattle Is Performing for You, a piece created entirely from a trove of non-traditional percussion instruments the sympathetic Italian composer Luigi Nono had provided to his colleagues behind the Iron Curtain.

Gubaidulina has also gone beyond the acoustic limitations of the traditional Western chromatic scale by incorporating microtones into her music, either melodically as part of a non-equal tempered tuning of the “pure” harmonic overtone series, or more texturally as a differently colored harmonic “pitch-field” (usually varying by quarter-tones) for a specific group of instruments among a larger group. She used a string quartet tuned a quarter-tone low among the standard-tuned orchestra in her Viola Concerto, for example.

Gubaidulina’s interest in the physical world of sound parallels a complementary interest in balanced but intricate musical architecture. Like Bach and many other composers and visual artists before her, she employs the so-called Golden Section in structuring her works, using this principle of balance as metaphor for spiritual perfection. The spirituality that infuses her most important works is rooted in Christianity, but rebels against many of the ossified tenets of the Church. The shape of the cross, which is the conceptual basis of many of her musical forms, reconciles her spirituality and her works’ architectural needs.

Gubaidulina’s most abiding musical influences are to be found among the great composers of the Western world, particularly J.S. Bach. Dmitri Shostakovich is another important touchstone, as is the music of Anton Webern. Bach and Webern are both explicitly part of Gubaidulina’s violin concerto, Offertorium (1980), which draws on the theme from Bach’s Musical Offering and refers to Webern’s orchestration of that piece. She wrote the concerto for the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who championed the piece throughout Western Europe and the U.S. and, more than any other single musician, brought Gubaidulina’s music to an international public. It has since become one of the most frequently performed concertos of recent decades. During the political and cultural thaw between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the late 1980s, Gubaidulina began to travel outside of the Soviet Union to hear premieres of her music. She made her first trip to the U.S. for performances of her String Quartet No. 3 in Louisville in the fall of 1987. The following spring returned for the American/Soviet Cultural Exchange “Making Music Together,” which took place in Boston. At that time Kremer performed and recorded Offertorium with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. In summer 1997 Gubaidulina was a composer in residence at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, during which several of her pieces were performed.

Gubaidulina’s music has entered the repertoires of every major U.S. ensemble. Among other works, her Viola Concerto was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and violist Yuri Bashmet, and her Two Paths: Music for Two Violas and Symphony Orchestra was a New York Philharmonic commission, first performed under Kurt Masur’s direction in 1999. She has written violin concertos for both Anne-Sophie Mutter and Vadim Repin. Gubaidulina was also one of four composers (the others being the Wolfgang Rihm, Osvaldo Golijov, and Tan Dun) commissioned by Helmuth Rilling and the Bachakademie to write one of four Passions to commemorate the millennium as well as the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. Her Johannes-Passion was premiered in September 2000. In recent years Gubaidulina has stopped accepting commissions, though she has responded to requests that pique her interest and offer new opportunities for exploration.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned Gubaidulina’s orchestra work The Light of the End following performances here of her Viola Concerto in 1997. A heavy schedule of commitments delayed that piece until 2003, and it was premiered by the BSO under Kurt Masur’s direction in April of that year. Andris Nelsons led performances of that piece in October 2019. Nelsons also led the premiere performances of another BSO commission, the composer’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and bayan in February 2017, as well as her Offertorium with violinist Baiba Skride in 2014. He also performed and recorded The Wrath of God with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, along with The Light of the End and, with soloist Vadim Repin, her violin concerto Dialog: Ich und Du.

Dialog: Ich und Du and The Wrath of God were written in parallel, and both originated in a much larger work, Gubaidulina’s 2016 oratorio for vocal soloists, two choruses, and orchestra Über Liebe und Haß (“Of Love and Hate”), which was premiered in a fifty-minute, nine-movement version in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2016 under Andres Mustonen’s direction. The piece was triggered by her encountering, in German, the text of a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “O Komm, Heiliger Geist” (“O come, Holy Spirit”), her setting of which is the final movement of her oratorio and which also exists as an independent work. Following the original premiere, Gubaidulina expanded the oratorio to fifteen movements over the next two years; the completed, 80-minute work was introduced in Rotterdam in 2018. The oratorio as a whole is primarily in German and Russian; in one movement Gubaidulina offers the chorus a free choice among German, Russian, French, and Italian simultaneously, reflecting the composer’s own prayer that superficially disparate cultures find common ground in their shared yearning for higher spiritual goals.

Written for a commission from the Salzburg Easter Festival, Wrath of God is a substantial expansion and amplification of the orchestral, thirteenth movement of Über Liebe und Haß (the seventh movement of the earlier version). The scheduled premiere in spring 2020 was delayed due to the pandemic; the first performance was by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra as part of the Wien Modern Festival. The livestreamed performance in Vienna’s Musikverein took place in an otherwise empty hall. Dedicated “to the great Beethoven” and premiered in his 250th anniversary year, Wrath of God invokes Beethoven’s fist-shaking confrontations with fate, specifically paraphrasing a motif from the finale of his String Quartet in F, Opus 135, which asks the question “Muß es sein?” (“Must it be?”) and answers it “Es muß sein!” (“It must be!”).

The dotted-rhythm motif (long-short) of Gubaidulina’s work brings to mind the stately solemnity of a Baroque overture, and also, in its melodic chromaticism, musically recalls at least two other works: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (itself a kind of Beethoven homage) and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Although Gubaidulina has mentioned neither publicly with regard to Wrath of God, their (potential) underlying presence resonates: Shostakovich, who encouraged Gubaidulina when she was a student, stands for artistic integrity in the face of political oppression, and Britten’s anti-war work, famously, was conceived for soloists representing Russia, England, and Germany, opposing forces in World War II, in a gesture of reconciliation echoed in Gubaidulina’s multilingual text settings.

Wrath of God, though, is at first more warning than reconciliation. The low brass and strings of the opening are edgy and growling, and their ponderousness dominates the music in the opening passages, gradually expanding upward to fill the orchestral space. The dotted-note motif rises in a series of steps and culminates in a chaotic, percussion-heavy climax. Returning briefly to the lower regions of the orchestra, the dotted-note motif returns; its attempts to rise are balanced at the end of this first episode by a falling, scale-like idea, suggesting a failure to transcend.

From these opening passages, the piece unfolds like a set of variations: the basic musical ideas are transformed through sometimes radical changes in instrumental color and by pushing further away from the shapes of the original motifs. The second section begins high in the orchestra, more gently, woodwinds and strings in counterpoint, falling versus rising. The trajectory through the following section is toward lightness of texture, with solos for trombone, woodwinds, violin, and the otherworldly sound of glockenspiel. The dark opening returns abruptly, almost verbatim, but with added percussion. The critical cross-juncture, the primary golden section moment of the piece, is marked by a snare-drum punctuated whirlwind. The next episode inverts the earlier falling-scale idea to introduce an intense contrapuntal return of the opening motif, and the final episodes maintain this intensity in a series of codas, finishing in fanfares with bells and a sonically unambiguous final cadence.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.