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The Light of the End

The name of the composition derives from the bright sound of the antique cymbals that bring the coda of this piece to a close.

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). Since 1992 she has lived near Hamburg, Germany. She wrote The Light of the End on a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the generous support of the Arthur P. Contas Fund for the Commissioning of New Works. The manuscript of the completed score is dated January 18, 2003. It was premiered by the BSO at Symphony Hall under Kurt Masur’s direction on April 17, 2003, with subsequent performances April 18 and 19.

The score of The Light of the End calls for 4 flutes (3rd doubling alto flute, 4th doubling piccolo); oboe, English horn, heckelphone, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, trombone, bass/tenor trombone, contrabass trombone, tuba, percussion (5 players: timpani, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, bar chimes, glockenspiel, crotales, antique cymbals, five suspended cymbals, crash cymbals, large tam-tam, and bass drum), harp, and strings (a minimum of 20 first violins, 18 seconds, 14 violas, 14 cellos, and 12 double basses). The Light of the End is about 20 minutes long.


The name of the composition derives from the bright sound of the antique cymbals that bring the coda of this piece to a close. But despite such an optimistic title, the overall sense of the composition is dramatic. The drama is caused by the conflict between the intrinsic character of instruments—brass instruments in particular—to produce the sounds of the natural overtone and the necessity of adapting them to the sounds of 12-tone tempered tuning.

For some time I have experienced this conflict as my own drama: the incompatibility, in principle, of these intrinsic qualities with real-life circumstances in which nature is neutralized. Sooner or later, this pain had to be manifested in some composition.

The conflict in this piece arises between a theme consisting exclusively of sounds from the natural overtones and a theme that uses the 12-tone tempered scale.

The duet of French horn and cello before the central expressive tutti sounds especially antagonistic: the horn and cello play one and the same melody in different tunings, the natural and tempered. Great dissonance.

The piece concludes with the removal of this dissonance—as if by a tonic—in which the contrasts are resolved. The chromatic glissandi of the strings remove the fundamental conflict; these sounds are contained both in the natural overtone scale and in the tempered system.

—Sofia Gubaidulina, 2003

Sofia Gubaidulina’s discussion of The Light of the End reveals a fundamental confrontation in her work. On the one hand there is always, as for any artist, the necessity of concentrating on technical detail, on craft, on the mechanics of putting a work together. On the other hand there is the piece’s true purpose, its poetics, which can only be articulated in the end by the piece itself: the voice, the expression, of the composer in music. Sofia Gubaidulina’s music has from the beginning been a balance of these two, sometimes conflicting, goals of craft and expression. The solution to this balance is rarely, if ever, easy. While she was in the midst of composing The Light of the End, the composer explained,

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 grew up in Kazán, the capital of the Tatar state, where her family moved when she was young. She began learning the piano at age five, and almost as immediately began composing for herself. She studied piano and composition at the Kazán Conservatory, graduating in 1954, and moved to Moscow to attend the Moscow Conservatory in 1954. Like Alfred Schnittke and many other Russian composers of her generation, and with the outstanding precedent of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Gubaidulina made her living as a composer by writing for film, which allowed her to experiment with style, novel instrumental combinations, dramatic devices, and other tools of the contemporary composer. (Among her film credits are 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 formed, with the composers Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, an improvisational performance group, Astraea, through which she explored the performance possibilities of obscure Central Asian folk instruments as well as those from other traditions, such as the Japanese koto and Indian percussion. The Russian bayan, a kind of accordion, has long been a favorite. Gubaidulina’s preoccupation with instrumental timbre has led to many works for unusual configurations, such as her Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings; Early in the Morning Before Waking for seven kotos; several works featuring the bayan, and percussion works including Can You Hear Us, Luigi? Look at the Dance a Simple Little Rattle Is Performing for You, a percussion piece created entirely from a trove of non-traditional percussion instruments the 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 differing 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 principal 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 she mentions in her comments above, which is the conceptual basis of many of her musical forms, reconciles her spirituality and her works’ architectural needs.

Gubaidulina’s most abiding 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.

Offertorium, written for the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, was the work by which Gubaidulina’s music became known outside of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Kremer championed the piece throughout Western Europe and the U.S. Today it’s among the most frequently performed concertos of recent decades. With 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 she 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 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. Her most recent orchestral piece is The Wrath of God (2019), which was composed for the Salzburg Easter Festival and premiered in 2020.

The origins of Gubaidulina’s The Light of the End date back to the BSO’s performances of the composer’s Viola Concerto in April 1997, when BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg approached her about writing a piece for the orchestra. In spite of a schedule of commitments, she was so inspired by the sound of the orchestra in Symphony Hall that she agreed to the commission, with the understanding that the piece would not be ready for several more years. The Light of the End was completed in January 2003.

The large orchestra for The Light of the End features only one “odd” instrument, the heckelphone, a double reed instrument with a range falling between English horn and bassoon that fills out the range of the double reed section. The unusual sound-world of the piece is characteristic of the composer in that it incorporates microtones, or more accurately the friction between the standard, equal-tempered tuning of most of the orchestra and microtonally adjusted passages requiring natural harmonics in brass instruments. This schism mirrors others within the piece, for example that between the music of the winds versus the massed divisi strings of the opening, a texture that gradually inverts. These two passages, the one lyric, the other primarily textural, are the piece’s main generative material. Lyric melody, superimposed rhythmic patterns, transparent harmonies, and dense counterpoint emerge. The piece is the process of that material’s fragmentation, redeployment, and eventual dissolution, by turns austere, anguished, and beautiful.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.