The Kennedy Center

Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for Klezmer clarinet and String Quartet

About the Work

Osvaldo Golijov Composer: Osvaldo Golijov
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In our increasingly interconnected world, the multi-cultural music of Osvaldo Golijov speaks in a voice that is powerful yet touching, contemporary yet timeless. Golijov's parents, a piano teacher mother and a physician father, emigrated from Russia to Argentina, where Osvaldo was born on December 5, 1960 in La Playa, thirty miles from Buenos Aires, into a rich artistic environment in which he was exposed from infancy to such varied musical experiences as classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the tango nuevo of Astor Piazzolla. He studied piano and composition at the local conservatory before moving in 1983 to Jerusalem, where he entered the Rubin Academy as a composition student of Mark Kopytman and immersed himself in the colliding musical traditions of that city.

Golijov came to the United States in 1986 to do his doctoral work with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, and spent summers at Tanglewood on fellowship studying with Lukas Foss and Oliver Knussen. In 1990, he won Tanglewood's Fromm Commission, which resulted in Yiddishbbuk, premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music in July 1992 and winner the following year of the prestigious Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. Golijov came to wide public notice in 2000 with the Pasión según San Marcos ("Passion According to Saint Mark"), commissioned in remembrance of the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death by German conductor Helmut Rilling and the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart.

Golijov's works, with their syntheses of European, American and Latin secular cultures and their deep spirituality drawn from both Judaism and Christianity, have brought him international notoriety and, in 2003, a coveted MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award." He was named Musical America's "2005 Composer of the Year," and in January and February 2006, Lincoln Center presented a festival called "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov." In 2008, he received a Vilcek Foundation Prize, which annually recognizes "foreign-born individuals for extraordinary contributions to society in the United States" in the fields of arts and biomedical research. He is currently at work on a commission for the Metropolitan Opera.

Osvaldo Golijov has been on the faculty of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts since 1991; he also teaches at the Boston Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center, and has been Composer-in-Residence with the Marlboro, Ravinia, Spoleto USA and Cape and Islands music festivals, Merkin Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Music Alive series.

Golijov wrote of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, "About 800 years ago, Isaac the Blind, the great Kabbalist rabbi of Provence, dictated a manuscript in which he asserted that all things and events in the universe are the product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet's letters. His conviction still resonates today: don't we have scientists who believe that the clue to our life and fate is hidden in other codes?

"Isaac's lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching for a state of communion. Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, says that ‘Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself. Debhequth (communion) is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation.' If communion is not the reason, how else would one explain the strange life that Isaac led, or the decades during which groups of four musical souls dissolve their individuality into single, higher organisms called string quartets? How would one explain the chain of klezmer generations that, while blessing births, weddings and burials, were trying to discover the melody that could be set free from itself and become only air, spirit, ruakh?

"The movements of this work sound to me as if written in three of the different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our history. This somehow reflects the composition's epic nature. I hear the prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Aramaic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; the third movement and the postlude are in sacred Hebrew.

"The prelude and the first movement simultaneously explore two prayers in different ways: the quartet plays the first part of the central prayer of the High Holidays — ‘We will observe the mighty holiness of this day ...' — while the clarinet dreams the motifs from ‘Our Father, Our King.' In the prelude, the music is like a celestial accordion, rising and falling like breathing, like praying ... like air ... then the air is transformed into a pulse and heart. The whole first movement is a heartbeat that accelerates wildly ... becoming frantic. It's built on a single chord, rotating like a monolith. The quartet obsesses in eighth notes, the clarinet starts a huge line in long notes, but zooms in and is caught up in the gravitational spin. Like the forces of God and man, they never unite, but they do commune; you can hear the dybbuk [the malevolent spirit of a dead person] and the shofar [the ram's horn blown in synagogue on holy days] searching for a revelation that is always out of reach.

"The second movement is based on The Old Klezmer Band, a traditional dance tune, which is surrounded here by contrasting manifestations of its own halo. It opens with a hesitating, irregular pulse: a skipping heartbeat, the rhythm of death. The violin and the clarinet hold forth in monologue at the same time, like those Bashevis Singer stories told in a poorhouse on a winter night. The same four notes, the same theme, plays in endless combinations.

"The string quartet is an accordion in the prelude, a klezmer band in the second movement; now, in the third movement, it's a shepherd's magic flute. This last movement is a purely instrumental version of K'vakarat [a prayer of Yom Kippur — As a shepherd musters his sheep and causes them to pass beneath his staff, so dost Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature's life and decreeing its destiny], a work I wrote in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet and Cantor Misha Alexandrovich. Here the klezmer clarinet (klezmer means ‘instrument of song') takes the cantor's part. Hope is present here, but out of reach. This movement together with the postlude bring to conclusion the prayer left open in the first movement: ‘... Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature's life and decreeing its destiny.'

"But blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I always had the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind.' That is why, I think, all legendary bards in cultures around the world, starting with Homer, are said to be blind. ‘Blindness' is probably the secret of great string quartets, those who don't need their eyes to communicate among themselves, with the music or with the audience. My homage to all of them and to Isaac of Provence is this work for ‘blind' musicians, so they can play it directly from the heart. Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: an art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and to hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories."