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First movement, Tenebrae

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Osvaldo Golijov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: The Sphinx Virtuosi with the Catalyst Quartet and Elena Urioste, violin Wed., Oct. 10, 2012, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

First movement, Tenebrae for String Quartet (2002-2003)

Osvaldo Golijov

Born December 5, 1960 in La Playa, Argentina

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 nuevo tango 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'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 in New York presented a festival called "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov." 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.

Tenebrae - "darkness" - encompasses the most solemn moments of the Christian year. The name is applied to the combined Roman Catholic services of Matins and Lauds, which bracket daybreak, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week, during which fifteen candles signifying the ebbing life of Christ are extinguished one-by-one after the singing of the obligatory Psalms. The service closes "in tenebris." The most musically significant parts of Tenebrae are the Biblical lessons for Matins, taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, each verse of which begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet and ends with the words, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God." Composers made polyphonic settings of the lesson texts, often with elaborate melismas for the opening Hebrew letters, as early as the 15th century, and the tradition found a particularly rich expression in 18th-century France with the Leçons de Ténèbres of François Couperin and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

 Golijov originally composed Tenebrae in 2002 for soprano, clarinet and string quartet for the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, where it was premiered in June 2002. The following year he arranged the work for string quartet on a commission in honor of 50th anniversary season of the Friends of Chamber Music, Denver; the Kronos Quartet premiered that version in Denver on October 15, 2003. Golijov wrote "I composed Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it ‘from afar,' the music would probably offer a ‘beautiful' surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin's Troisieme Leçon de Ténèbre, using them as sources for loops, and wrote new interludes between them, always within a pulsating, vibrating, aerial texture. As a composer, the challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches the ground."