The Many Colors of Sofia Gubaidulina

The Many Colors of Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced so-FEE-uh  goo-bye-DOO-lee-nuh) is a contemporary Russian composer who creates a world of swirling colors that excites our imaginations and inspires our creativity.

This magical world of shimmering sound is full of the unexpected.  In this first piece, violins and flutes and marimbas create a winding path of downward moving notes that beckons us to follow.  Glass and bamboo chimes turn five dancing double basses to a flow of dark silver.  A tiny triangle sparkles through horns, trumpets and trombones.


Listen and watch this segment of Gubaidulina’s “Glorious Percussion”, played by the Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Gustavo Dudomel.  Don’t miss the wonderful cymbal player at 1:55 – here is someone who truly loves her work!

Another wonderful piece by Gubaidulina is her Fairytale Poem.  Let’s first focus on her instrumentation.   Composers and other listeners, notice how she combines instruments to create a weave of sound.   See if you can identify the various instruments and their combinations, then consider the questions related to this piece. 

Fairytale Poem Listening Questions:

1.  What orchestration does she use?   See if you can tell by listening, without looking up the answer!

2.  Give three examples of places where she combines instruments to create a unique sound.  Give the time on the recording in your answer.

3.  What is the form or structure of this piece?

4.  Does this piece seem to tell a story or paint pictures?   Describe the story or picture you hear in the music.

Once you’ve answered all the questions, compare the story or pictures you heard in the music to the actual description written by the composer.  She was commissioned to write the music for a story about a piece of chalk!  Here’s the story, as she tells it:

The main character is a small piece of chalk used for writing on school chalkboards. The chalk dreams that someday it will draw wonderful castles, beautiful gardens with pavilions and the sea. But, day in and day out, it is forced to write boring words, numbers and geometric figures on the board. The children grow with each day, but the chalk becomes smaller and smaller. The chalk gradually becomes despondent and loses all hope of ever having a chance to draw the sun and the sea.

Soon it will be so small that it will no longer be used in the school classroom and will end up being thrown away. Then the chalk once again finds itself in total darkness and thinks that it has died. What it thought was the darkness of death is actually the inside of a boy’s trouser pocket. The boy pulls the chalk out of his pocket and in the light of day begins to design castles, gardens with pavilions, and the sea with the sun, on the asphalt.
The chalk is so happy that it does not notice how it meets its end while drawing this beautiful world.

Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina was born 24th October 1931 in Tschistopol, a small town on the Volga in the Tartar Republic of the USSR.  Today she is one of the most successful and beloved contemporary composers in the world.  One of her most exciting compositional tools is her use of orchestration to create a world of colors!

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