The ovation at the close of its premiere in Stuttgart was so raucous that people out on the street thought a pop concert was ending. In Boston the critics were ecstatic, one writing that at the end “the crowd made a sound that will echo in the musical world for some time.” The Wall Street Journal called it “visceral” and “explosive.” The New York Times said it was “wonderful . . . resound[ing] with Christian ardor,” and devoted a half page to the composer’s photo. A “miracle,” summarized the Los Angeles Times, which went on to praise its “irresistible religious egalitarian spirit.” It’s a virtual shoo–in for both the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer (the $200,000 musical equivalent of the Nobel Prize).
Not in anyone’s memory has a new piece of music received the kind of accolades that have been heaped upon Osvaldo Golijov’s Spanish–language setting of The Passion According to St. Mark, propelling the barely forty–year–old composer into the forefront of international musicians. The work has even garnered for Golijov a major commission from Soli Deo Gloria, the Wheaton, Illinois, based foundation dedicated to spreading “the message of God’s greatness and goodness through the most powerful music of our time.”
Funny that nobody noticed that some of the Boston Symphony musicians found the piece so unpleasant that they wore earplugs during their performance. And it’s hard to know where the “Christian ardor” is in a piece that at one point presents Jesus as a disembodied transsexual lunatic. While the work certainly has moments of undeniable brilliance, Golijov’s Passion is for the most part a noisy piece of insubstantial musical glitz. As for its relationship with Mark’s text, Golijov ignores much of its human and divine drama while at the same time deliberately distorting its theological message. So why all the cheers?
The piece was the brainchild of noted conductor Helmuth Rilling. To mark the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 2000, Rilling commissioned four composers to write major works evocative of the great composer’s sacred choral legacy. Sofia Gubaidulina, Russia’s leading composer, wrote a Russian and Slavonic St. John Passion. Tan Dun, the Chinese–American who won an Oscar last year for his score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, wrote a Water Passion after St. Matthew. The German Wolfgang Rihm wrote a St. Luke Passion. Golijov, an Argentinean trained in Israel and the University of Pennsylvania and now teaching in Massachusetts, was given the Markan account. His La Pasión Según San Marcos premiered on September 5, 2000 in Stuttgart and was again performed last February in Boston.
Golijov’s intent is to present a “Latin American” passion, and his models are the traditional music of Cuba and Brazil. Reducing his orchestra to paired trumpets and trombones with strings (without violas), Golijov then augments this ensemble with a large Latin–American percussion battery, piano, guitar, and accordion. The instruments are amplified electronically and sometimes also subjected to electronic manipulation (such as added reverberation and digital delay). Divided choruses and several soloists carry the text, and there are movements for dancers.
Although he makes use of chords built in fourths and fifths (instead of the traditional thirds), Golijov’s harmony is largely modal and unthreatening to even the most conservative musical tastes. His melodies often strike the ear as folk songs with their repetitions of simple intervals, but on occasion they become elaborate cantilations equally evocative of Arab and Spanish song. (The beautiful C major aria Lua Descolorida for mezzo soprano accompanied by paired violins and celli is perhaps the Passion’s best moment and will certainly have a concert life of its own.)
But it is Golijov’s percussion that provides most of the musical propulsion. Golijov recreates the rhythms of street festivals, and as anyone can attest who has ever heard the bells, claves, tom–toms, and ago–gos of the Brazilian carnival, these cadences can be intoxicating. For instance in “Bajá Jesú” Golijov writes a viscerally thrilling samba for the crowd’s strut to Golgotha. But the strength of these motor rhythms is also their weakness. It is easy for these kinds of devices to become a kind of musical wallpaper, of little real interest itself but useful for camouflaging holes in a composer’s imagination. If they go on too long they lose even the purpose of camouflage and become just an irritating din. In Golijov’s hands the percussion far too often becomes just that: a mind–numbing racket (hence the Boston musicians’ ear plugs).
But replacing music with noise isn’t the biggest problem of Golijov’s Passion. It’s what he does with the Markan text. Much was been made in the press about Golijov being a Jew and of the supposed curiosity of a Jew composing a setting of the Passion (when he was offered the commission Golijov said that he wasn’t all that familiar with the story and had to go read it). On one level his Jewishness has no more significance than the ethnicity of any other artist who deals with Christian themes without having any personal commitment to the faith of which they testify (such as Brahms, for instance).
But on another level Golijov’s ethnicity is noteworthy. Golijov diminishes Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death by editing out of Mark’s text most passages that present Jewish officialdom in a less than benign light. In Golijov’s Mark the high priest does not tear his clothes upon hearing Jesus’ ego emi, Pilate does not suspect envy as being the reason for the priests’ hatred of Jesus, the priests do not agitate the crowd, and they do not mock Jesus on the cross. Indeed, Golijov even excises Pilate’s offer of Barabbas and the mob’s cries of “Crucif.”
Golijov’s politically correct reworking of the Gospel text extends to his characterizations. Mark’s account is full of marvelous vignettes. There is the woman who washes Jesus’ feet, Pilate marveling at Jesus’ silence, the fury of the high priest, the mockery of the men crucified with Jesus, the centurion beneath the cross. Each of these should offer the composer not only opportunities for drama and but also for character illumination. But Golijov either ignores these figures or provides them with music that does nothing to illuminate their characters.
For instance, when Jesus stands silent before a Pilate who “wonders” at what he sees (Mark 15:5), Golijov has his chorus break out in a flamenco–like stomp. Bach, or in a secular context, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini, at such a moment would have used music to sharpen our understanding of Pilate. The music would have reflected and expressed the character’s psychology. (An excellent example is the accompaniment with which Bach sets Jesus’ “Thou sayest” retort to Judas in the St. Matthew Passion. In four beats of sorrowful music Bach shows us the depth of love Jesus had even for his betrayer.) But Golijov’s stomping chorus, while a spectacular theatrical effect, tells us nothing about Pilate or Jesus. It is simply part of the sonic wash on which Golijov floats a story. This absence of characterization robs Mark’s Gospel of the people who populate it. Golijov’s story isn’t about people. It’s about types.
This becomes most problematic in Golijov’s treatment of Jesus. In published remarks Golijov has said that he thought of Jesus as a Che Guevara–like figure representing the “collective spirit” of the Latin American people. Golijov de–persons Jesus, making him into a symbol. He accomplishes this first by not having his words sung by one singer but instead assigning them to a consortium of singers.
Furthermore, by having sopranos and altos usually sing Jesus’ words (there is one brief passage where a few of Jesus’ words are sung by a quartet of tenors), Golijov makes the Son of God weirdly androgynous. When Jesus tells the Sanhedrin that they will see the Son of Man “coming in the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62), Golijov extends Mark’s text by a long passage of nonsense syllables to which he sets the Passion’s most contorted and chromatic melody. Sung by a mezzo–soprano doubled by trumpets, this passage of scat singing not only makes Jesus appear feminine, but dangerously deranged (Golijov’s marks the score at this point “possessed, at great speed”).
Mark’s story is not about revolutionary symbols or eccentric types, and Christians do not name as creation’s Lord and Savior a “type” or a “symbol.” They name Jesus. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection illuminates to Christians both the depth of their own guilt and the even more boundless expanses of God’s love. But this, perhaps understandably, is a story that Golijov just doesn’t get. Instead, he tells but one more tale in the “bad things happening to good people” genre, this one sauced up with carnival rhythms.
So, again, why the cheers? One of the German critics knew. “What was expected was a somber piece about Jesus’ sufferings, melancholy and reverent. Instead we had a clapping chorus, exuberant dancing musicians, bongos, a black Christ, and dance rhythms at the Crucifixion.” This Passion is fun. Tragic yes, but not a tragedy of our—or anybody’s—making. Spiritual of course, but not a spirituality cramped by the constraints of doctrine or tradition. Artistic certainly, but not an art that either requires or rewards much thought (you can even perform it deaf). It’s even multicultural. Golijov has given the millennium’s international Bobos just the kind of Passion they want: a no fault, no consequence, Good Friday–lite experience you can dance to. The only surprise is that the cheering stopped so soon. Golgotha? Let’s samba!
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.