Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
A student of a diverse range of composers (Gerardo Gandini and George Crumb among them), Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) has blended Argentinean music, traditional Jewish idioms, and modern sounds into a distinctive style. This klezmer -influenced clarinet quintet first brought him to international attention and other works – including one honoring the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, La Pasión Según San Marcos – have received considerable acclaim. He has received commissions from – among others – the composer Hans Werner Henze on behalf of the city of Munich, the Spoleto USA Festival, New York’s Lincoln Center, and the Minnesota Orchestra. He is an Associate Professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and is on the faculties of the Boston Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center.
The following note by the composer has been supplied by the publisher, Universal Edition:
I have this image of my great-grandfather, who shared my bedroom when I was seven. I’d wake up and see him by the window, praying with his phylacteries in the early light. I think of him always praying, or fixing things, his pockets full of screws. I remember thinking, three of his children are dead; how does he still pray? Why does he still fix things? But we were taught that God had assigned that task of repairing the world to the Jewish people – Tikkun Olam. Incomprehensible.
About eight hundred years ago, Isaac the Blind - who was the greatest Kabbalist rabbi of Provence – dictated a manuscript saying that everything in the universe, all things and events, are products of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters.
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is a kind of epic, a history of Judaism. It has Abraham, exile, and redemption. The movements sound like they are in three of the languages spoken in almost 6,000 years of Jewish history: the first in Aramaic; the second in Yiddish; and the third in Hebrew. I never wrote it with this idea in mind, and only understood it when the work was finished. But while I was composing the second movement, for example, my father would sit out on the deck with the newspaper, the sports pages, and every once in a while he would shout, "There you go! Another Yiddish chord!"
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. The forces of God and man, they never unite, but they do commune; you can hear the dybbuk and the shofar, searching for a revelation that is always out of reach.
The Second movement 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, playing 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. The last movement was written before all the others. It’s an instrumental version of K’vakarat, a work that I wrote a few years ago for the Kronos Quartet and Cantor Misha Alexandrovich. In this final movement, hope is present but out of reach. There is a question woven into the hardening, incense: why this task? Repairing a world forever breaking down, with pockets full of screws. The question remains unanswered in the postlude.
Excerpts from a conversation with Brooke Gladstone, October 1996. Used with permission.