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Perfect Notes from a Lost Book

How does Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov blend classical music with other styles?

October 19, 2002

How does Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov blend classical music with other styles?

If there is a busier composer than Osvaldo Golijov at the beginning of the 21st century, that artist has yet to be found. Golijov is composing and arranging new works at a steady pace for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

His compositions are deeply-felt and imaginatively constructed works that are not afraid to tackle big themes and controversial topics.

Much of Golijov’s work has concerned the intersection of history and religious faith. He has composed a piece called “La Pasion según San Marcos” (“The Passion According to St. Mark”). It takes as its source Bach’s rendering of earliest biblical account of Christ’s crucifixion.

The piece is a tantalizing blend of unique instrumentation (including Latin American and African instruments) and a vigorous reassessment of Bach’s Baroque sensibilities.

Golijov has also written a number of works that touch upon his own Jewish heritage. They mingle the sounds of the klezmer tradition with more familiar compositional elements in order to tackle a range of fables and historical events.

“Lullaby and Doina” is a tender, melancholic piece that has its roots in Yiddish lullabies. A longer piece — “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” — is a fantasia for string quartet and klezmer clarinet that takes medieval Jewish mysticism as its theme.

Among Golijov’s best-known works, however, is his first major composition for string quartet Yiddishbbuk. In this complex meditation in three movements, Golijov attempts nothing less than a cycle of reclamation, mourning and celebration that links essential moments in 20th century Jewish art and music.

In the liner notes to the St. Lawrence Quartet’s recording of Yiddishbbuk (which also includes “Lullaby and Doina” and “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind”), Golijov writes that his piece has its roots in Czech writer Franz Kafka.

In his notebooks, there is an offhand mention of a lost collection of psalms. Among Kafka’s notes is a phrase that describes the sound of these lost psalms: “A broken song played on a shattered cimbalom.”

Golijov notes that his “inscriptions for string music are an attempt to reconstruct that music.” The piece’s opening movement begins with a haunting motif that attempts to echo just what that “broken song” would sound like — strings plunking and thudding arrhythmically, almost to the point of breaking.

It is an appropriate opening for the theme that Golijov chooses for the first movement of Yiddishbbuk — the poems and drawings of three young Czechs interned and killed by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp.

The shattered song is a perfect metaphor for the Nazi attempts to destroy Jewish lives and art during this horrifying period in Europe’s history.

As the movement continues, the thread of melody which represents the youthful talent of the children is reconstituted. Then, it is cruelly choked off after yet another frantic assault of strings. In this movement, Golijov’s music conveys a chillingly black finality.

Despite all this, one of the main themes of Yiddishbbuk is that art survives — and endures. The second movement of Golijov’s piece is dedicated to the Yiddish writer and 1978 Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Unlike the children trapped in the hell of Terezin, Singer immigrated to the United States in 1935. He thus escaped the horrors of the Holocaust that would have found him in his native Poland.

Yet far from assimilating or being transformed by its new milieu, Singer’s literary work continued to celebrate the Central European Jewish roots from which its author had sprung.

Singer continued to write his rigorously anti-modern tales — which blended the mundane and the mystical — in the Yiddish language throughout his entire life.

In the second movement of Yiddishbbuk, Golijov catches both the stubbornness and the spirituality of Singer’s work. The quartet reaches out to touch what is eternal in Singer's work — a cosmic architecture of demons and spirits and mystical beings.

Golijov’s choice for a theme in the third and final section of Yiddlishbbuk is — on the surface — even more surprising. The composer dedicates the movement to the noted American conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein's colorful — and often controversial — life seems far removed from the horrors of death camps and the Yiddish/Polish affinities of Singer.

Yet, it is not the Bernstein who composed Candide and West Side Story that Golijov celebrates in the final movement of Yiddishbbuk. Rather, it is the Bernstein whose passionately magical renditions of the work of another Jewish composer — Gustav Mahler — brought new legions of devotees to the compositions of that highly spiritual composer.

Golijov’s tribute to Bernstein and Mahler taps the deep and meditative qualities of Mahler’s work — a ferocity that is allowed to echo to the very limits of the ear before it is once again renewed.

The complex associations of Golijov’s work would disintegrate, however, if not for the brilliance of his composition. The connections that Golijov makes are not merely intellectual — but structural as well.

The broken cimbalom of the first movement appears again in the third movement — reminding the listener of the tragedy and the triumph of the 20th century Jewish art that Golijov takes as his theme.