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She Was Here

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Osvaldo Golijov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Dawn Upshaw, soprano, sings Golijov & Mahler Apr. 7 - 9, 2011
© Thomas May

Osvaldo Golijov, whose parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, already had a wide range of musical impulses competing for his attention as he came of age in Argentina, where he was born in 1960. He grew up taking in an intoxicating mix that ranged from Old World classical traditions to Yiddish klezmer and Astor Piazzolla's tango innovations. After a pivotal period of study in Jerusalem, Golijov settled in the U.S. in 1986, where he has continued to approach genres and sonorities that are often kept in separate compartments as fair game for his all-embracing stylistic perspective—colors to be blended into a vibrant new synthesis.

It follows, then, that Golijov recombines vocabularies from folk, dance, and various ethnic popular idioms into his enticing and recognizable style. Close collaborations with performers are an integral part of his creativity as well. Dawn Upshaw has become an especially important muse. Golijov composed the lead role of his first opera for her in 2003 (Ainadamar, or "Fountain of Tears"—a dreamlike meditation on the poet-playwright Federico García Lorca and his favored actress), following this with the extraordinary song cycle Ayre and the recent She Was Here, for which he orchestrated four Schubert lieder to create a haunting new song cycle, which is named after the third song in the sequence.

Schubert's original musical treatments themselves offer far more than decorative accompaniments and beautiful melodies for the poems he chose to set: They add a rich new dimension that brings the subtler implications of the texts into greater relief. Similarly, Golijov's approach isn't merely to retrofit Schubert's piano accompaniments with an orchestral garb. Rather, through his imaginative use of harmonic and timbral color, Golijov creates a unique sound world to complement and comment on the originals (he retains Schubert's vocal lines). Indeed, his orchestral perspective offers considerably more nuance than the histrionic intensification found in some of Liszt's more-popular transcriptions of Schubert songs for piano.

Golijov selects four songs from different periods of Schubert's career in the 1820s. At the same time, he suggests a hidden connection in their shared themes of longing and absence, which are symbolized by images of nature. The composer points out that he himself wrote these orchestrations "at a time of loss and sadness." Golijov also draws a fascinating series of comparisons with later composers he believes Schubert seems to foreshadow. These include "the lyrical minimalism of Philip Glass (as in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata in B-flat major, the opening of the Fantasy in C for violin and piano, and the beloved song 'Nacht und Träume'); the fragility and intimacy of Hugo Wolf, and, beyond him, the ambiguous scent of the Vienna of Alban Berg, 100 years after Schubert's own disappearance (in 'Dass Sie Hier Gewesen'); the irony of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill (in 'Lied der Mignon'); and, perhaps most daringly, the sound of longing for a sweet, peaceful death ('Wandrers Nachtlied')."

Golijov sustains a convincingly unified atmosphere in the face of such variety, and the songs unfold as an interlinked suite. Even more, he imprints a highly personal musical signature, which is immediately apparent in the brief instrumental prelude opening the cycle and in the music that weaves the songs together. The prelude's crepuscular, slowly shifting textures carry hints of post-romantic brooding, but as if heard from a great distance, remembered in fragments.

This prelude leads directly into the first song, "Wandrers Nachtlied" ("The Wayfarer's Night Song"), which is set remarkably low in the soprano's range. Golijov's translucent, delicate orchestral details, woven around the lullaby rhythms of the vocal melody, evoke the song's symbolic setting on the threshold between day's end and nightfall. Along with shades of Strauss' Four Last Songs, prominent horns highlight the sylvan backdrop, but dusky woodwinds direct us toward the poem's introspective epiphany, with its glimpse into mortality and the melancholy promise of final peace.

Goethe's Mignon, in the version Golijov crafts, seems poised between different states as well—between longing and fantasy—as she sings her famous "Nur Wer die Sehnsucht Kennt" ("Only he who knows what longing is," taken from the last of Schubert's multiple settings of this poem from WilhelmMeister's Apprenticeship). Golijov emphasizes Mignon's sense of hopeless passion with sighing accents in the orchestra and weaves a shivery accompaniment of celesta, harp, and woodwinds which is then transformed into a newly composed interlude. This sets the tone for the third song, "Dass Sie Hier Gewesen" ("That She Was Here"), with its news brought by the gentle blowing of the east wind. Golijov's orchestrations sensitively foreground the enigmatic four-note motif of Schubert's song. Glass tuned with water and a shimmering triangle provide a transition into the ethereal atmosphere of the final song, "Nacht und Träume" ("Night and Dreams"). Golijov's muted, flute-like string scoring reflects the singer's longing for night and its comforting dreams. The magic of Schubert, writes Golijov, is that in the face of human loss, his music "brings consolation, especially in the last two songs, when he shows that past, present, and future, in time, are only illusion. At least while the music lasts."

WANDRERS NACHTLIED
Über allen Gipfeln
ist Ruh,
in allen Wipfeln
spürest du
kaum einen Hauch;
die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
warte nur, balde
ruhest du auch!

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

NUR WER DIE SEHNSUCHT KENNT
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!
Allein und abgetrennt
Von aller Freude,
Seh ich ans Firmament
Nach jener Seite.

Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,

Ist in der Weite.
Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
Mein Eingeweide.
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

DAß SIE HIER GEWESEN
Daß der Ostwind Düfte
Hauchet in die Lüfte,
Dadurch tut er kund,
Daß du hier gewesen.
Daß hier Tränen rinnen,
Dadurch wirst du innen,
Wär's dir sonst nicht kund,
Daß ich hier gewesen.
Schönheit oder Liebe,
Ob versteckt sie bliebe,
Düfte tun es und Tränen kund,
Daß sie hier gewesen.

—Friedrich Rückert

NACHT UND TRÄUME
Heil'ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;
Nieder wallen auch die Träume
Wie dein Licht durch die Räume,
Lieblich durch der Menschen Brust.
Die belauschen sie mit Lust;
Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:
Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht!
Holde Träume, kehret wieder!

—Matthäus von Collin

 

WAYFARER'S NIGHT SONG
Upon all the peaks
there is peace;
you scarcely feel a breath
stirring in the tree-tops;
the little birds are silent in the forest.
Wait!
Soon you too will be at peace




ONLY HE WHO KNOWS WHAT LONGING IS
Only he who knows what longing is
knows what I suffer.
Alone, cut off
from every joy,
I search the sky
in that direction.

Ah, he who loves and knows me
is far away.
My head swims,
my vitals burn.
Only he who knows what longing is
knows what I suffer.



THAT SHE WAS HERE
The east wind blows gently,
scenting the air;
and so it tells me
that you have been here.
Because the tears fall here
you will know,
even if you were not told,
that I was here.
Beauty or love—
can either remain concealed?
The scented breezes, and the tears,
reveal that she has been here.



NIGHT AND DREAMS
You sink down, holy night,
and dreams too float down,
like moonlight through space,
into the silent hearts of men.
With delight they listen,
crying out when day wakes:
Come back, holy night!
Sweet dreams, come back, come back again!


—Translations by John Reed