If an attenuated sense of the transcendent is a prominent condition of contemporary culture, we would expect to find that this condition is addressed in the works of any modern artists who might be concerned about such a condition. The history of culture and art often exhibits a pattern in which a typical form of value blindness in a particular age becomes the impetus for the thematic focus of works that are produced in response to that blindness and that endeavor to overcome it. The intensity of such an artistic response can be expected to be all the greater in cultural regions that most intensely display the peculiar blindness of the age.
Two new musical compositions that seem to mark a great culmination of the work of contemporary Russian (and Russian Orthodox) composer Sofia Gubaidulina (born in 1931) can be gratefully received in this light: her St. John Passion (2000, revised in 2006) and St. John Easter (2001, revised in 2006).1 A distinctive feature of the texts chosen by Gubaidulina for these works is the interweaving and sometimes overlapping of texts from John's Gospel and from Revelation. This selection of texts is meant to connect "the temporal-earthly 'horizontal' events of the Passion with the supratemporal [End Page 5] 'vertical' realm of the Apocalypse of St. John."2 In Gubaidulina's words, "I imagine that these two timelines create a cross, and between them runs the double helix of advocacy and accusal."3 The musical form developed by Gubaidulina is crafted with the specific intention of depicting the intersection of historical time and timeless truth.
Soviet repression of religion seems to have played a direct role in Gubaidulina's development as a composer. Her biographer recounts an episode from her girlhood when her family from Kazan in the Republic of Tartaria (formerly Tartarstan) was spending the summer in a small village outside of the city. There the young girl encountered an icon of Christ without knowing who was represented by the image. In a sudden flash of illumination, she connected her practice of praying at home in Kazan—"a completely irrational prayer"—with the icon she had unexpectedly found in the countryside. Her biographer quotes Gubaidulina's account of the experience: "Being naïve, I blurted out everything to my parents, and when they realized I was religious, they were horrified. This was forbidden! So I started hiding my emotional, religious life from the grownups, but it continued to thrive within me. Music naturally blended with religion, and sound, straightaway, became sacred for me."4
The repressive atmosphere of the Soviet Union continued to shape her artistic development. In a recollection of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who struggled for years against political oppression, Gubaidulina points to his significance for people of her generation: "We grew up at a time when everything around us became one unending question. We were obsessed with asking questions, because at the time there was a complete absence of information about everything from politics to art."5 Eventually Gubaidulina's teacher brought her to see Shostakovich, who listened attentively to a symphony she was then composing. His words of encouragement, she reports, were decisive in her following her vocation as a composer. She reports him saying, "Be yourself. Don't be afraid of being yourself. My wish is for you that you should continue on [End Page 6] your own, incorrect way."6 Shostakovich, of course, had struggled for many years against charges that his music was politically incorrect, and the phrase must therefore have been pointed.
Gubaidulina subtly reminds us that both her St. John Passion and St. John Easter emerge in the beginning of the twenty-first century from the religious persecution of the twentieth century. The second section of the St. John Passion, "The Washing of Feet," recounts from John's Gospel the story of Christ washing the feet of the disciples. As the bass sings the narrative from the Gospel, the chorus simultaneously thematically connects the washing of feet to a passage in Revelation 7:14: "They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. These are they who have come out of the great...