La Pasión según San Marcos
The Passion 2000 Project
How did the Jewish Golijov come to write a monumental work about Christ's death based on the Gospel of St. Mark? For this unlikely occurrence, we have conductor Helmuth Rilling and the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart to thank. In commemoration of the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach's death in 2000, Rilling and the Bachakademie commissioned four composers to each write a Passion based on one of the four Gospels: Tan Dun for St. Matthew, Wolfgang Rihm for St. Luke, Sofia Gubaidulina for St. John, and Osvaldo Golijov for St. Mark.
While Bach's celebrated St. Matthew and St. John Passions are awe-inspiring expressions of a devoted Lutheran, the Bachakademie's Passion 2000 project was pointedly inclusive, both ethnically and spiritually. Gubaidulina, raised in the Soviet Union and now living in Germany, readily imbues her music with her Russian Orthodox faith; Tan Dun, a Chinese-born American, has described himself as "swinging and swimming freely among different cultures"; and Golijov, a Jew raised in Catholic Argentina who studied in Israel before moving to the United States, is perhaps the prototype of today's cross-cultural composer. Arriving in a year that represented not only two and half centuries since Bach's death but also two millennia of the Christian calendar, the all-embracing Passion 2000 commissions embody what music historian Richard Taruskin has called a "new spirituality" in contemporary music.
About La Pasión según San Marcos
Golijov considered his "outsider" perspective an advantage, in the same way he believes Rembrandt's paintings of Jews express the subjects' souls in a way Jewish painters never could. His Pasión is driven not by the death of Jesus itself, but by the composer's fascination with his childhood community's devotion to Christ in Catholic Argentina. The choir in La Pasión therefore often (but not always) takes on the role of Jesus himself, and the work's setting fuses the actual Passion story with a retelling that is motivated by present-day street processionals in South America.
Bahia, a state in Eastern Brazil characterized by a distinct African cultural imprint, provides the most direct inspiration. Golijov's use of the samba, along with his integration of capoeira (a dance that arose from martial arts practices of African slave descendants) and Afro-Brazilian instruments such as the berimbau (a single-stringed percussion instrument), all point to Bahia's vibrant cross-pollinated culture. But the Pasión's influences extend well beyond this, with several numbers adopting a popular Cuban style, and others the Spanish flamenco. And all the while, the Western Classical tradition provides a structural backbone-the commission is, after all, strongly connected to Bach—that bubbles to the fore via Gregorian—inspired chant, French Baroque-inspired melodies, and contemporary orchestration techniques. The panoramic influence is apparent even on the introductory page of the score, which calls for vocal soloists in the style of Brazilian jazz, light early music, Babalawo (the chieftain in the Yoruba culture brought to Brazil from West Africa), Muezzin (a mosque's prayer-caller), Celia Cruz (the Cuban-American "Queen of Salsa"), Beny Moré (a Cuban popular singer), and Mercedes Sosa (an Argentinean folk singer).
The infusion of the vernacular style suits Golijov's intention to focus on the believers' relationship to Christ's death rather than the death itself-we are presented not with the official music of a church or of a rarefied tradition, but with the music of the people. Likewise, aside from key moments that use non-biblical text, La Pasión is recited in a decidedly "common" Spanish, with Golijov drawing the words from popular bibles that, he explains, "they give you for free in the churches of the very poor, or that handicapped vendors sell on the trains in Argentina." Always the globalist, Golijov colors the Spanish delivery with a more African rhythmic structure, ending phrases with an accent on the final syllable to match the percussive nature of the music.
A Closer Listen
The 34 numbers in La Pasión según San Marcos take us through the final episodes in the Gospel of St. Mark, from Jesus's warning of his imminent arrest to his death upon the cross. The work opens, however, with two moments outside of this sequence: "Visión" is an instrumental representation of Christ's flashback to his baptism while on the cross, and "Danza del Pescador Pescado" ("Dance of the Ensnared Fisherman") visually recounts the story of an ensnared fisherman in the form of a capoeira dance-an image inspired by the fishing boat in Dali's famous painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
In "Primer Anuncio" ("First Announcement"), the choir enters as the voice of Jesus, a role subsequently taken over by a Cuban-style alto in "Por Qué?". In the ensuing number, a Latin American guitar carries the melody over a bed of violinists playing on the bridges of their instruments; the lack of voice in this so-called aria represents Mary's silence as she anoints Christ.
In "Quisiera Yo Renegar" ("I Wish to Forswear"), the soloist (as Judas) intones a melody based on a pre-existing flamenco song-here and throughout the work, Golijov associates the theme of betrayal with flamenco music. For "Eucaristía" ("Eucharist"), the choir morphs into Gregorian chant, a fitting style for a ritual so central to the Catholic liturgy.
Golijov sets texts from fragments of psalms in "Demos Gracias" ("We Give Thanks"). The choir here acts as an actual chorus of people giving thanks to the Lord; perhaps more than any other moment in La Pasíon, "Demos" expresses Golijov's acknowledgement of the unwavering faith of Catholic Latin Americans in the face of centuries of economic and political hardship.
In "Cara a Cara" ("Face to Face"), one singer nimbly switches between the roles of Peter and Jesus, while in "Agonía," the agony of Jesus is portrayed by three different soloists who sing to the sleeping apostles as if they are children. In the following three numbers, the dramatic events of the arrest and trial unfold, as events often do in this work, through a lively choral number driven by a vamping rhythm section. In "Soy Yo" ("I Am"), the vamping is amplified (and the tension magnified) by several quitiplás, a Venezuelan percussion instrument made of bamboo.
For Peter's disowning of Jesus ("Lúa Descolorida"), Golijov substitutes a 19th-century Galician poem for the biblical text, and the soloist and instrumental ensemble perform in a style reminiscent of the sacred works of French Baroque composer François Couperin. The mood of "Amanecer: Ante Pilato" ("Dawn: Before Pilate") stands in stark contrast-the composer has noted that the nasal sonority of the choir here symbolizes the unforgiving morning sun on the day of the crucifixion.
Golijov then pairs a "Comparsa" (a funky Afro-Cuban dance) with a rousing Brazilian samba ("Danza de la Sábana Púrpura) that depicts the crucifixion. As Christ dies ("Muerte"), the soloist exclaims "Elohí" ("my God"), outlining a melody foreshadowed by the trumpets at the opening of the work.
The meditative, tranquil character of the closing number is reminiscent of the ending of Bach's St. Matthew Passion; but while the sense of repose in Bach's masterpiece evokes Christ coming to rest with little hint of the resurrection to come ("ruhe sanfte," Bach's choir sings-"rest softly"), Golijov offers the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead that focuses not on what has ended, but on the supremacy of faith and the transcendence of life.