Osvaldo Golijov: Pasión según San Marcos

When Helmuth Rilling approached Osvaldo Golijov regarding the Passion 2000 project, he had a specific idea in mind. “When I spoke to him at the beginning of the commissioning process, I tried to interest him in something to do with Passion processions. I once experienced one in Spain and it was so different from the British or German tradition.”

golijov-passionIt was quite important to Golijov that he present a dark Jesus to as a contrast to the white Jesus that dominates the Western art and music canon. Growing up Jewish in an officially Catholic country left Golijov with a burning curiosity about the dichometric nature of institutional Christianity. In an effort to relate the Passion through the icons of Latin America, Golijov dispenses with the traditional Western orchestra and replaces it with a reduced Latin horn section, accordion, guitar, percussion six violins and six celli. Along with a full choir, there are several male and female soloists, each specialising in a particular sort of Latin singing.

Golijov chose St Mark’s Gospel because he, “knew always that St Mark was safe for the Jews.” St Mark is thought to be the first of the Gospels to be written and used as a reference by the other writers. Like St Matthew, it only contains one of the Seven Last Words from the Cross and is rich in narrative detail. There are some obstacles to be overcome when setting St Mark however. The story is not laid out as one linear event but rather as individual episodes thus making the grouping of events somewhat challenging. To combat this, Golijov has divided the text into thirty-four episodes, the shortest of which lasts a mere thirty-six seconds.

Although Golijov did not model his composition on any existing Passion, his work begins, like Bach’s St Matthew, with an instrumental prelude. The texts that accompany the prelude are taken from the bookends of Jesus’ ministry and illustrate his highest and lowest points. The first text is from his baptism at the very start of his ministry and the second is his last words on the cross.

It is the excerpt of Lamentations however, that is particularly poignant. It is almost certainly a reference to the horrors experienced by Latin Americans at the hands of dictatorial regimes fully endorsed by the Catholic Church. Mothers all over the continent are united with Mary by the grief brought on by torture and murder of their sons.

nina-de-los-peines.jpgIn addition to the biblical interpolations, there are four others that use material from Latin poets and musicians. The first one, I wish to forswear (Aria of Judas) is a passionate flamenco sung by Brazilian jazz contralto. Judas remorse is not mentioned in St Mark’s version but Golijov uses an anonymous text and a flamenco melody is based on a song by Spanish singer Niña de los Peines to illustrate it. The second interpolation is a hymn of thanks for the Eucharist and is a set of choral variations based on Psalms 113-118 scored for women and drums.

rosalia_de_castro.jpgThe next interpolation is a poem by Galician writer Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885), called Lúa descolorida (Colourless Moon) This section is subtitled Aria of Peter’s Tears because St Mark writes that after the cock crew, Peter overcome by guilt and remorse and broke down and wept. Once again, grief is expressed by a female soloist. The hauntingly lyrical solo line is supported by the string section and one is reminded of the oratorio arias of Handel.

“I cannot finish it with his last scream&I just cannot do it&so I need a sense of transcendence. It has to be something that makes sense out of all those hallucinatory few days“. Golijov struggled to come up with an appropriate ending to his setting but eventually settled on the Kaddish

There is an interesting bit of scoring in the section where Jesus is betrayed. The narration is divided between four tenor soloists and set to a Cuban swing rhythm. The choir repeatedly interrupts the narration after each clause with the phrase, “Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he!” drawing attention to the fact that Judas used the most intimate of gestures, one reserved for close friends, to identify Jesus to his enemies. The swing rhythm seems somewhat out of place here as it lends a sort of party atmosphere to the scene. Perhaps it would not seem so to those of Latin origin, but it is difficult to associate the disappointment of betrayal and frenzy of the crowd with a score marked funky.

Golijov’s decision to Jesus sentencing as an instrumental movement is somewhat perplexing. The crowd is in a complete frenzy at this point, shouting for Jesus to be crucified and demanding that Barabbas the thief be released instead. One would think that this point of the story would be rife with opportunities for lively rhythms and interesting manipulation of text but instead Golijov chooses to write less than two minutes of uncomplicated rhythm at a moderate tempo with no aural text.

Throughout his setting of the Passion, Golijov tried to write the way Bach would have if he had lived in 20th-century South America. He adopts very little of traditional German Passion writing in terms of form, style or harmony but keeps the spirit of the early Protestants alive by writing a Passion that connects with people in their own language. Pasión según San Marco is truly a passion of the people and although it questions the behaviour of the Church as an institution, it is ultimately about hope and the will to continue despite hardship.

Visit the resource page to see video of a performance and interviews with Osvaldo Golijov.

Tomorrow’s installments are Wolfgang Rihm Deus Passus and Sofia Gubaidulina Johannespassion

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