Duo-Sonata (1977) by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1932)

Sofia Gubaidulina was born in 1931 in Russia.  She studied piano and composition at the Kazan’ Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory.   Her compositional style reflects a western style influenced by concepts of “dichotomy, opposition, antinomic principles of Greek tragedy, the philosophy of Kant, and 20th century linguistic theory.”1  J.S. Bach and Webern were the composers Gubaidulina felt most influenced her work.2  While going through graduate school, she was labeled “irresponsible” because her compositions did not adhere to the Soviet Social Realism.  Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) believed in her view of composition and encouraged her to “continue along [her] mistaken path.” After completing graduate school in 1954, Gubaidulina produced film music where the stringent Soviet guidelines for what music should be were more relaxed and she worked at the Moscow experimental studio for electronic music.  As she gained notoriety in the West, she increased her output to include many classical compositions and during the 1990s was sought after for new works.  Despite the popularity Gubaidulina has gained in the West, many of her works are still unavailable in Russia.3

Music was an escape from the oppressive Russian society for Gubaidulina.  Religion plays a strong role in many of Gubaidulina’s works.  She tried to capture the desire for the “soul of humanity” to locate “its true being” with her compositions. Often these ideals are captured through unusual sonorities and uncommon instrumentation.  An example of this unusual instrumentation is Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings, written in 1975.

Gubaidulina’s compositional style is heavily comprised of varying rhythmic systems, texture by articulation, and a unique harmonic language that includes quartertones (an interval ½ as wide as a normal semitone), multiphonics (an instrument that usually plays only one note at a time playing multiple notes at one time), and glissandos (sliding between pitches).  She used the physical realm to express the musical idea, as illustrated in Galgenlieder (1963) where the score is designed like a fish, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Text from Galgenlieder displayed to look like the outline of a fish5

 The use of silence in her compositions is also extremely important.  In Slïshu…umolko (I hear…silence) (1986) the conductor performs a cadenza with movements that include drawing a Christmas Tree shape in the air to focus the audience’s attention to the silence.6  Despite the unorthodox techniques for composition, Gubaidulina believes that “rhythm of the form” is essential to her works, even if the audience may not hear it as such.3

Gubaidulina’s compositional techniques have often had her classified as “avant-garde.”  She disagrees with the term when applied to her, saying:

I have hated the word “avant-garde” for a very long time.  When we were young in Moscow, the authorities called us “avant-garde artists” to curse us.  And at that time I did not have a reason to rebel.  But now it sounds not like a curse, but like encouragement: “Oh, the avant-garde composer! How wonderful!”  I do not like such praise.  My desire is always to rebel, to swim against the stream!  To swim against the stream for me means to introduce seriousness in art.

I think that the “avant-garde,” if it is chosen as a criterion of “what is good,” is actually harmful for art.  We (composers and musicologists as well) need to protest against it!  We must worry about the incarnation of our idea, about meaning and formation.  The contemporary artist is faced with an extremely important task: finding a correlation between intuition and intellectual work.3

Despite not believing herself to be “avant-garde,” Gubaidulina expressed emotion through a new musical language.  Many of her compositions incorporate the use of quartertones.  Standard western music uses 12 pitches to create compositions (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#).  A quartertone is a pitch halfway between any two of the standard 12 pitches.  Gubaidulina said she was drawn to the quartertone because:

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 quartertone higher.  For me this is a metaphor of the image and its shadow, or a day and a night.  From my point of view, in the twelve-tone compositions of the twentieth century, everything is as in the day-time; everything is enlightened and rationalized; there is no place for “night.”  “Night” existed as a supplement of the diatonic system: the diatonic sphere was “day,” whereas the chromatic sphere was “night”: one could go there and return.  That blessed situation gave us classical and romantic composers.  In twelve-tone compositions we lost “night”: everything became “day.”  But within the twenty-four tone scale, we may have not only “a day,” but also “a night.”3

Duo-Sonata for two bassoons was written in 1977.  The work utilizes many of the compositional techniques synonymous with Gubaidulina.  The work is in two sections.  The first section uses numerous quartertones to produce an ethereal feel.  On the bassoon, quartertones are accomplished using additional keys or by increasing or decreasing lip pressure while using a standard fingering.  The second section uses multiphonics to alter the mood and again requires different fingers that are often assisted with a non-traditional embouchure position (either relaxing or biting) to create the sound.

Duo-Sonata contains many contrasting rhythms between the two players.  Some of the rhythms call for a gradual accelerating of a stream of notes in one performer’s part while the other part continues with a similar rhythm before and after.  Figure 2 shows an example of the top part playing a passage of sixteenth notes (semi-quavers) that both accelerated and decelerated during the passage while the bottom part continues to play the similar glissando figures that it has both before and after.

Figure 2: Excerpt from Duo-Sonata7

At other times in the piece, the players will play completely different rhythmic figures.  For example, Figure 3 shows the top part playing constant quarter notes (crotchets) while the bottom part plays groups of 5s against it.

Figure 3: Excerpt from Duo-Sonata7

Many articulations are employed in Duo-Sonata.  One unusual articulation technique used is flutter-tonguing, a technique where the performer executes an alveolar trill while playing a pitch to have a “grr” in the sound.  Flutter-tonguing on bassoon is accomplished by having the uvula in the back of the throat vibrate, similar to making a purring sound or rolling an “r” with the back of the throat and not the tongue.  The percussive effect of flutter-tonguing is utilized at different points throughout the piece to heighten emotion.  Many times through the piece contrasting articulations between the two parts are used to create varying textures.  Figure 4 shows an example where the top part gradually increases the speed of a line of sixteenth notes (semi-quavers) while the bottom part flutter-tongues two groups of triplets, then has two groups of slurs in a legato and glissando feel, followed by more fluttered-tonguing.

Figure 4: Excerpt from Duo-Sonata7

All of these complicated rhythmic figures and precisely varied articulations make performing the Gubaidulina Duo-Sonata a challenge that requires total concentration.


1.    Kholopova V. Gubaydulina, Sofiya Asgatovna. In: Sadie S, Levy M, eds. The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians. Vol 10. Second ed. London; New York: Macmillan; Grove; 2001:490-492.

2.    Lukomsky V. Hearing the subconscious: INterview with Sofia Gubaidulina. Tempo, New Series. July 1999;20:27.

3.    Lukomsky V, Gubaidulina S. My Desire Is Always to Rebel, to Swim against the Stream! Perspective of New Music. 1998;36(1):5-41.

4.    Lukomsky V. The Eucharist in my fantasy: Interview with Sofia Gubaidulina. Tempo, New Series. 1998;206:22.

5.    Morgenstern C. Galdenlieder: California Press; 1963.

6.    Artist: Sophia Gubaidulina. Answers.com [http://www.answers.com/topic/sofiya-gubaydulina. Accessed 14 May, 2009.

7.    Gubaidulina S. Duo-Sonata. Hamburg: Musikverlag Hans Sikorski; 1998.

Read other program notes