Monday, May 6, 2013

My Favorite Album: My Contribution

I got an idea, and I couldn't stay away. Everybody who reads this is going to be asked for their contribution in the near future. Though those contributions needn't be nearly so self-revealing as mine. In fact, I'd recommend they not be :).

La Passion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov (Hanssler)   (not the inferior DG remake) 

When I listen to Osvaldo Golijov’s music, I don’t hear anything exotic, I hear home. Golijov, like me, came from a Yiddish speaking immigrant family from Eastern Europe with all too many close relatives who perished in the gas chambers and work camps, and with extensive family connections spread all around Israel, America, and Argentina. He is ‘My Composer.’ When I listen to the Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, or especially the Lullaby and Doina, I simply can't keep it together. This is the music my subconscious heard long before my conscious self ever realized what it was hearing, and I wonder if there is any music so quick to destroy me emotionally. But nothing Golijov ever wrote, not one piece, prepared me for the impact which La Pasion Segun San Marcos would have on me. I kept thinking back to Berlioz's account of the first time his teacher heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - he was so moved and so disturbed that when it came to leave and put on his hat, he couldn't find his head.

When I'd finished the album, I literally felt as though my life had the purpose which I'd always lacked. For once in my life, this weird, unshakable obsession of mine for classical music no longer felt like a creepy fascination for embalmbed relics - here was, finally, a place which felt as though contemporary music met history on its own terms. A piece in which classical music fully engaged the world outside the mummified concert hall, and contemporary popular music didn't seem so historically unaware of what came before that its musicians didn't seek to reinvent the wheel. 

One day I'll write the 7,000 word post which I've danced around writing about this, the greatest piece I've ever heard written in my lifetime, for years - and no doubt will delay writing that post for many years more. So I'll simply conclude by saying that for this 'nice Jewish boy', all too steeped in a cultural inheritance he neither asked for nor could ever shirk, the finale of this work is one of the very most moving moments in all of music - more emotionally cathartic (if only for me) than anything else in Golijov, Adams, Reich, Bernstein, Britten, Shostakovich, Copland, Strauss, Mahler, Janacek, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bruckner, Verdi, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, Haydn,... or Hebrew Cantillation or Christian chant or the Muslim Call to Prayer, or even in truer gods than theirs', like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. 

After more than an hour's worth of telling the story of Christ's death in Spanish (and, vicariously, Latin), during which momentum gradually snowballs for over an hour to an avalanche unheard since the heyday of Berlioz, the text changes without warning to the cadences of Biblical Hebrew, and Christ laments on The Cross in his original tongue of Aramaic. The chorus responds afterward - not with an account of The Resurrection, but with The Kaddish. 

 The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead which every Jew must chant three times every day for 11 months whenever their parents, spouses or children precede them into the earth. To hear this prayer intoned at the end of a medieval Passion play - a play so often used in history as a way to inflame congregants against the Jews living among them - is both the greatest shock of my musical life and the most unbearably moving moment in all music. It is the greatest display I know of how music may yet bridge the gap between cultures locked pitifully in millenia of misunderstanding.  Even now, as I type this (running on no sleep in 36 hours), I find myself more than a bit ashamed at the tears which flow fast and freely down my cheeks as I think about this most defining musical moment in my life.  To me, this music is the subdued cry of the entire world, and if not the entire world, then certainly the subdued cry of my world. 

I can't help but think of my father's older sister, Tzipporah, raised between 1942 and 1945 in a convent by Catholic clergy for whom discovery of her origins meant certain death for her, them, and probably all the other children within their care, only to die of typhus a few days after my grandparents could reclaim her. I think of my own grandmother, forced to flee her hometown in 1940 with her sister and my grandfather as she heard the machine gun fire which she knew was aimed at every other Jew in her town, including her mother. I think of my grandfather, fighting unbearable depression and malnourishment as he hid in barns and fields during the Baltic winter of 1943, and the unbearable urge to which he later admitted to turn himself and his own family in to save them all the anxiety of waiting any longer for an end which seemed so inevitable. I think of my Great Aunt Rochel, who risked capture every week of the Holocaust to go into the nearest town without a Yellow Star and buy what little food she could so that the three of them could live to see another week, only to die in a crossfire during the Polish Civil War which followed World War II's end. I think of a hundred (hundred thousand? hundred million?) other relatives who died or just barely survived in that terrible century of death, their stories both known to me and completely unknown. What were your sacrifices for? What accomplishment is there which I ever could do that could justify the suffering you underwent so that I may live on this planet with all the privileges you'd never know?

Perhaps this is all just the unbearably feverish sentimentality of a too extravagant person in dire need of sleep. But for me, this music, this Kaddish, is the ultimate symbol I've ever known in my life for hope. I'm thirty-one, and the generation after me springs up all around us. What is there to save us but the hope that future generations will do better than we've done? Maybe, just maybe, our human nature is getting better. And if it is, then what better evidence is there than that a Jew can voluntarily say Kaddish for a man whose name could only provide dread for so many millions of us for so many centuries?

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