Russian composer wins 400k award

Russian composer wins 400k award


norman lebrecht

February 15, 2017

Sofia Gubaidulina, 85, has been given the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Madrid. It carries a rize of 400,000 Euros.

Past winners include Steve Reich, Boulez and Sciarrino.

It may not be strictly accurate to call her Russian, though that is her nationality. Her father was Tatar, her mother is believed to be Polish-Jewish.


  • Simon S. says:


    By the way: In Russia, they use the quite helpful distinction between “russky” and “rossysky”. Both can be translated as “Russian”, but the former refers to ethnicity and language, the latter to state and citizenship (the term “nationality” is somewhat ambiguous). So, Tatars are rossysky, but not russky.

    • AnnaT says:

      This is very good information on the understanding of identity in post-imperial, post-Soviet territories (though not post-imperial ambitions, clearly). Thanks!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Nice spiky invention, using the notes that Bach left-out.

    But with all due respect, I never understood why this lady has been taken so seriously as a composer. It does not sound ‘bad’, but terribly pretentious, while presenting non-fitting snippets of music (from elsewhere?) with great pathos:

    Apart from some isolated moments where the music seems to become coherent, much of it is like someone wanting to say something ‘important’ but getting stuck in stammering, and then filling the void with nice tinkling, or like an attempt to lay a puzzle without the original picture at hand, and then it appears that the pieces are from more than one puzzle. Is it supposed to reflect our contemporary predicament? or the state of mind of Russian society? Or is it a personal version of ‘progress’?

    • Michael Spudic says:

      “Durch nichts bezeichnen die Menschen mehr ihren Charakter als durch das, was sie lächerlich finden.” (“there is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they scoff at.”)

      Die Wahlverwandtschaften II, 4. Aus Ottiliens Tagebuche, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      • John Borstlap says:

        Nice try. But I did not make Mrs G ‘lächerlich’. I sincerely wonder what people find so great in her work. The same with Ulstvolskaja, of which I once attended a première of chamber music that could only be described as the loud screaming of someone being molested. Probably such aesthetics want to tell something about the Russian soul, but I thought that Shostakovich had said the last thing about that.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It has been modernist strategy to label any critique upon new music (and here we are talking about a very old lady) as character flaws of the one who dares to raise objections, as being conservative, or lacking any understanding (as if understanding inevitably would lead to acceptance), or bourgeois, or Biedermeier, or whatever coems at hand as long as it is ad himunom – o yes, antisemitism is also part of the repertoire (Saint Schoenberg is Holy). Such reactions are interesting because they demonstrate the lack of arguments on the ‘modernist’ side, and the dishonest strategies with which critique was always treated. A very influential postwar Klangkünstler, I won’t say who to avoid further frustration of his fan base, said: ‘I am 300% leninist’. Lenin was one of the most criminal minds in history, responsible for numerous innocent deaths and the murder of the entire Russian royal family. These are the enemies of human civilization.

    • Alexander Davidson says:

      I remember hearing her Offertorium at the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago with Gubaidulina in the audience, and I have to say I instantly liked it. I don’t have a lot of time for many composers of my own lifetime, e.g. Harrison Birtwistle, but Gubaidulina is one whose music I feel will have enduring appeal. Equally, I suspect that there are those who feel that Birtwistle will enjoy an enduring legacy.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I think you spotted a harsh truth: in comparison with Birtwistle, mrs G is a great composer. (Harsh for HB, I haste to add.)

        • Alexander says:

          …. haste to add 😉 that the word “Russian” had been used in pre-Soviet era in Russia to name all citizens’ state belonging. The Soviets used “rossiyan” as Simon said. Now there are a lot of voices who raised that issue to call all Russians as it was before. So, Norman is right. The nearest sample – Albina Shagimuratova – Russian soprano, tatar in her origin … etc … any way Russia linguistically is exoglossic and non balanced ( as the UK, the same standing).

          • John Borstlap says:

            Contemporary globalization turns the identity question into a labyrinth of signifyers with lots of people waving flags. The more the modern world threatens to become bland, grey, pop and egalitarian, people want to fall back upon bits that seem to offer emotional stability and security, and many of them vote for rightwing extremist parties, alas. Interestingly, when the Soviet Union folded itself up, former republics dug-out their pre-soviet local culture and went backwards into history as a process of modernization, i.e. of taking their independent, identified place in the whole of international nations. That seems to be one of the reasons that in eastern Europe, rightwingers feel that they defend European culture against Western, bland and corrupt fake policy, and so it is in Russia who therefore pays rightwing parties in W-Europe like the French FN. The mind boggles.

          • Alexander says:

            remember my being in France years ago… stayed with the family of a noble descend … they praised Le Pen much talking about his brilliant mind, kind and wonderful people they were from my memory … nationalism as a national idea can be considered as an alternative view to failed transition views from values of surviving to values of postindustrial society… post-soviet countries have failed to make that transition…. maybe they be more lucky in their future …. time will tell …. that’s all I can say in regard to your interesting ( for me , of course) passage … I was never interested in politics and will hardly be interested in it … so I just live as I live 😉

  • Salty Dog says:

    What is the relevance of the composer’s ethnicity to this award or to the article, for that matter? Even the nice russky vice rosysky distinction looks like a way to denigrate someone for a lack of “racial purity”, or to label someone as “less than”.

  • Erik Abbink says:

    I have great respect for Sofia Gubaidulina’s oeuvre. Well deserved!

  • Alberto Aparicio says:

    I find these prizes to be shameful. Why giving money to someone who already has money, an international career, and commisions for new pieces? Giving a prize to those with great marit is OK, but giving them 400000 EUR? BBVA (a component of the Euro Stoxx 50 stock market index) could, if really cared about music, could use the money of the prize to help music competitions in Spain that have closed down because of lack of founding, to the spanish orchestras that can’t pay for enough commissions, to the foundations that run youth orchestras, or to the public system of pre-college music schools etc.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely agreed. These people ony want to enhance their image, by picking a ‘well-known’ name. In fact, they are giving the prize to themselves.