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Program Notes: Bruckner's Seventh

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Saturday, February 15, 2020 at 8:00PM

Sunday, February 16, 2020, at 3:00PM

Rafael Payare, conductor

Baiba Skride, violin

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA Offertorium BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 in E major


Music as Religious Experience

Religious faith is inextricable from the visions of both composers of this program. Sofia Gubaidulina’s body of work represents an ongoing spiritual-musical odyssey, where the sounds an instrument can make and the technical challenges a musician faces are connected to philosophical and even mystical ideas. The distinction between staccato (short) and legato (long) tones, for example, prompts Gubaidulina to reflect on the promise of faith as redemption from everyday reality. In a kind of credo, she states: “I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word as ‘religio,’ that is to say, the restoration of connections, the restoration of the binding-together, or ‘legato,’ of life.”

Her violin concerto Offertorium, which paved the way to Gubaidulina’s international recognition, illustrates this way of thinking about music. The piece makes a “sacrificial offering” of a theme taken from the music of J.S. Bach. The result movingly combines a remarkably original and modern sensibility with echoes of music’s timeless ritual significance.

A reserved, deeply pious man from a small village, Anton Bruckner came off as an eccentric in the competitive environment of 19th-century Vienna, a city teeming with colossal egomaniacs. Bruckner’s Catholic faith—which he practiced in part by keeping obsessive records of how many times he recited certain prayers—provided solace in the face of persistent rejection of his musical projects, which cut against the grain of established opinion.

Not unlike Gubaidulina, Bruckner endured marginalization for following his own artistic path. But his Seventh Symphony proved to be a game-changer with the public, paving the way toward more widespread appreciation of his unique symphonic genius.

Composer Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Gubaidulina


Born October 24, 1931, Tschistopol, Russia


Sacrifice and Rebirth in a Violin Concerto

For Sofia Gubaidulina, the raw physicality of musical facts—pulses, breaths, tunings—provides the material through which the transcendence of the spirit can be conveyed. Style and substance are integrated in her music. Its striking originality echoes the ancient purpose of music as a sacred function. Dmitri Shostakovich gave the young Gubaidulina advice that has guided her throughout her long, extraordinary career: “Don’t be afraid to be yourself. My wish for you is that you should continue on your own, incorrect path.”

Before she moved to Moscow to study, Gubaidulina came of age in the great crossroads city of Kazan on the Volga River in the Tatar Republic, then a part of the Soviet Union. Her background blends Eastern and Western ethnicities: Tatar heritage on her father’s side, Russian on her mother’s. Gubaidulina became part of the wave of Russian diaspora composers after the collapse of the Soviet Union, settling near Hamburg in 1992, which remains her home.

Although she grew up in the atheist culture of Soviet Communism, Gubaidulina converted to the Russian Orthodox Church as an adult. Her faith might be seen as another facet of unwavering independence from State-prescribed behavior, along with her musical independence. It’s not surprising, then, that Gubaidulina shows a strong gravitation toward the legacy of Bach, whose music was similarly grounded in his faith. Despite the ultimate optimism of both composers’ belief systems, a profound sense of humanity’s fallen condition resonates through the music of Gubaidulina and Bach alike.

Gubaidulina’s view of the human condition involves acknowledging a state of pain and suffering that keeps us searching for harmony and redemption—for a way of being “recomposed.” This concept lies at the heart of Offertorium, Gubaidulina’s first concerto for violin. It was inspired by the religious symbolism she associates with the act of performance. “An instrument is a living being,” the composer has noted. “All the echoes of our subconscious are invested in it. When a finger touches a string or a bow touches the bridge, a transformation occurs; a spiritual force is transformed into sound.”

It was an encounter with the pioneering Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, whose style of “self-surrender to the tone” Gubaidulina admired, that prompted the idea of writing Offertorium. In the late 1970s, the two chanced to share a cab ride, and the violinist asked the composer to write a concerto for him. Kremer subsequently became one of Gubaidulina’s principal champions, winning her international attention after many years as a marginalized artist in the Soviet Union. The score of Offertorium initially had to be smuggled out to the West for its premiere in Vienna in 1981.

Offertorium contains multiple layers. The title immediately alludes to Christian liturgy, when the Eucharistic bread and wine are brought to the altar. At the same time, it also refers to The Musical Offering, the complex instrumental collection that Bach, near the end of his life, created using a theme provided by the Prussian King Frederick the Great. The same musical theme provides the central material for Gubaidulina’s concerto. The theme plays the role of “sacrificial victim,” dramatizing a purely musical Passion story as it is “offered” up in the course of the concerto, only to be resurrected and transformed into something astonishingly new.

Listening guide

Offertorium is designed as a single, vast movement in which three sections are joined seamlessly together. Stated at the outset is the “King’s theme,” the theme invented by Frederic the Great—except that it is missing its final note. At precisely this point, the solo violin enters, fixating on the unfinished cadence. Gubaidulina then offers the theme by methodically paring it down, shearing away one note from either end as the theme cycles through a series of variations.

The successive shrinking of the theme continues until only one note is left. Along with these transformations, Gubaidulina focuses great attention on orchestral timbre. Changes in the coloration and density of the sound become just as important to the musical development.

A fantasia filled with cadenza-like passages for the violin unfolds at the center of the concerto. The theme, now deconstructed, or sacrificed, lurks as ghostly presence. Eventually, a process of rebirth begins that reverses what happened in the first part. Building outward from the middle, note by note, harps and piano present a new theme. It is the original “King’s theme,” but now played in reverse. Music reminiscent of a Russian Orthodox hymn provides the backdrop. In the final gesture, the solo violin comes to rest on a soaring high D—fulfilling the atonement Gubaidulina has enacted in Offertorium.

First performance: May 30, 1981, in Vienna, Austria, Leif Segerstam conducting the ORF Symphony Orchestra, with Gidon Kremer as soloist

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts

Scoring: solo violin, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, 5 bongos, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, snare drum, 3 suspended cymbals, tam tam, temple blocks, 5 tom toms, triangle, vibraphone, whip, 3 wood blocks, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings

Performance time: Approximately 40 minutes


Composer Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner


Born September 4, 1824, Ansfelden, Austria

Died October 11, 1896, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 7 in E major

A Dream and an Elegy

While Gubaidulina often works with elaborate theoretical frameworks, sometimes with complex numerical calculations, to structure her compositions, she also relies heavily on her creative intuition. Intuition played a particularly important role in the genesis of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, composed between 1881 and 1883. Anton Bruckner recalled to the conductor Hans Richter, one of his major advocates, that the Symphony’s luminous opening theme had occurred to him in a dream about his mentor from long ago, Ignaz Dorn.

A violinist, conductor, and composer, it was Dorn who encouraged Bruckner to compose symphonies and delve into the music of Richard Wagner, which he felt was the music of the future, and who quickly became a musical idol for Bruckner. In the dream, Dorn was playing a theme for him on the viola and advised the composer: “This melody will bring you success.” And so, according to Bruckner’s account: “I immediately woke up, lit a candle, and wrote it down.”

The prediction proved accurate. The Seventh Symphony marked a turning point in the reception of Bruckner’s music. For the most part, his adopted city, Vienna, had been indifferent to his symphonies; some of his premieres there were even humiliating failures. First unveiled in Leipzig, the Seventh was subsequently introduced to Munich, and there garnered an enthusiastic response that signaled a dramatic turnaround in Bruckner’s international reputation.

Yet another important intuition relates to the Seventh Symphony, a dark counterpart to the dream story of liberating creativity, centering around the intuition of impending death. In 1882, while attending the premiere in Bayreuth of Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, Bruckner met his beloved Wagner for the last time. He recalled the latter’s final words to him: “Be calm, Bruckner. Goodnight!!!”

While finishing the Seventh’s elegiac Adagio, Bruckner learned the news of Wagner’s death. The fact only confirmed what he had already felt. “One day I came home and felt very sad,” he later wrote. “The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and then the C-sharp minor theme of the Adagio came to me.”

Mere weeks after completing his Sixth Symphony, without even having heard that vastly different composition in performance, Bruckner started composing the Seventh. Bruckner’s outlook in the Seventh Symphony suggests a newfound sense of confidence, as demonstrated by the score’s richly varied orchestration.

Like Offertorium, the Seventh is abundant in knowing musical references. Their presence adds weight to one interpretation of the Seventh overall as an elegy for Wagner. Allusions to the Ring cycle extend to the orchestration: for the first time in his symphonies, Bruckner uses the mellow sonority of the so-called Wagner tuba (an innovation by that composer) to enrich the brass section. Another tack comes from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica.” If the Adagio corresponds to the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica, the entire span of the Seventh might be interpreted as celebrating a heroic life, the famous project of Beethoven’s Third.

Two more thematic groups follow. Bruckner explores these ideas from various angles, revealing new facets, as in the mighty darkening when the main theme is inverted and transposed to the minor. The coda reverberates with prolonged ecstasy.

Listening guide

Vast and spacious, the theme sounds as if it has always existed. Its aura is indeed dream-like, serenely beckoning the listener to cross a threshold into a different dimension.

The first movement, an enormous structure in itself, transforms the secular idiom we normally associate with the concert hall into a language that feels sacred. Against a brushing of strings, the Seventh begins with the theme imparted by Bruckner’s dream.

The theme spans a wide arc yet has a curiously airy lightness. Instead of building it piece by piece, Bruckner presents the theme whole and serene. It unfolds into a sense of enormous scale. Two more thematic groups follow before the main theme is developed and considered from a variety of angles, eventually returning to the home key in the coda.

Following the model of the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth with its structure of alternating variations, Bruckner contrasts the solemn, chorale-like opening with a lyrically flowing theme first played by the strings. At the climax of the movement, the opening music returns, transfigured into the blazing C major of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In the last pages—the music Bruckner wrote after actually learning of Wagner’s death—funereal grief resolves into calm acceptance.

The first two movements are built on a similarly monumental scale. Recalling the effect of the movement that follows the Funeral March in the Eroica, the Scherzo here pulses with life-giving energy. These are Bruckner’s elemental forces at their most playful. Though the music is in A minor, the effect is exuberant. The leisurely Trio at the center suggests a trip back home to the country. The finale, too, is relatively compact, yet it provides a satisfying sense of fulfillment by opening with an idea that mirrors the contours of the dream theme. That identity is radiantly affirmed in the final moments, when the first movement theme blazes forth one final time.

First performance: December 30, 1884, in Leipzig, Germany, Arthur Nikisch conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra

First SLSO performance: December 1, 1939, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 19, 2011, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, strings

Performance time: Approximately 1 hour and 4 minutes


Program Notes by Thomas May

Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to The New York Times and Musical America.


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