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Length: 38 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, chimes, crotale, glockenspiel, guiro, marimba, side drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, temple blocks, tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, whip, wood blocks, xylophone), 2 harps, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
As a woman, and as an artist under Communist rule, Sofia Gubaidulina has lived and worked at the nexus of personal and political identity in the twentieth century. She was born in Chistopol but grew up in the Tatar city of Kazan, where she quickly proved her extraordinary talents; she then trained in Moscow under Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin Once censured by repressive authorities for the “mistaken path” she was following, she found support from Dmitri Shostakovich, who told her: "I want you to continue along your mistaken path." "I'll never forget those encouraging words," mused Gubaidulina in 1997. "It is very difficult for a young person to hear only criticism. Shostakovich encouraged me to be myself, no matter what everybody else said, and I am very grateful for that." She was first allowed to travel to the West in 1985 and now lives in Germany.
Such a background might well have turned her creative eye toward topical issues. But Gubaidulina looks beyond the immediate, tackling deeper questions through her music: “It is the business of newspapers, journals, to be interested in news. But art should be interested in all the other things.” For her, the “other things” are spiritual: “The whole world is threatened by spiritual passivity, an entropy of the soul, a transition from more complex energy to a simpler form ... amorphousness. What puts the brakes on that process is the human spirit, and in part, art, and that is a matter for serious music."
The 1980 Offertorium is a multi-dimensional work. On one level, it is a set of variations – or perhaps more accurately, an extended meditation — on the thema regium of The Musical Offering, which explains one aspect of the title. Gubaidulina was inspired by both Bach and Webern; she describes them as “the two personalities who have produced, in the history of music, the greatest impression on me.” On another level, Offertorium is a violin concerto composed for her champion Gidon Kremer in 1980. And as in all her works, there is a deeper level of symbolic meaning connecting the work to the “other things” that her art is concerned with.
Offertorium is built of three large sections; although there is no formal division into movements, the overall structure is that of a standard three-movement concerto. The introduction presents the theme almost in its entirely – missing only the last note, at which point the soloist enters. Each succeeding variation drops an additional note and works with the interval created by the last two notes. Thus the theme plays out one meaning of the work’s title, literally “offering itself up.” The second section is freer, more rhapsodic. In the last part, the theme is rebuilt, note by note, but from the middle outward. The last full statement of the theme is backward; as Gubaidulina puts it, “built on the idea of conversion.”
Within this structure, Gubaidulina opens up an entire soundscape for the violinist to move around in. The theme begins on a solo trombone – a nod to Webern? – but is immediately picked up by a succession of solo winds. The entrance of the violin, with its trill and repeated semi-tone, “stabs” the theme and leads into the first variation. The theme is progressively shortened and the variations based on shorter fragments, losing the sense of thematic coherence and creating a somewhat obsessive quality. As the piece unfolds into the second section, both soloist and orchestra make excursions based on thematic fragments; occasionally the soundscape recedes for extended violin cadenzas. Only in the last full statement of the theme on solo violin does the listener regain any stability.
Throughout Offertorium , Gubaidulina draws on a fantastic – at times grotesque – orchestral fabric, evocative of her national roots. Like her Russian predecessor Tchaikovsky, she exploits the full capabilities of the orchestra: harmonics, glissandos, and extended instrumental techniques co-exist with a large orchestra including a full raft of percussion: piano, marimba, gong, celesta (an instrument first used by the earlier composer in his ballet Nutcracker.) She rebuilds the theme in the last section with an elegiac, sweeping string chorale, ending with an orchestral shimmer created from each section divided into 12 parts. Just before presenting the last full statement of the theme, the solo violin returns to the trill with which it began; the “conversion” of the theme is then both a return and a departure – both times achingly lonely. What better way to portray the conversion experience?
— Note by Susan Key