Hi Pope Francis. Meet Mr. Golijov.
Of all the headlines Pope Francis has made during his visit to the United States this week, this is one of the most recent:
Ok, ok that was an understatement—it’s also the most surreal one. The track—which has been streamed over 231,000 times so far today—does a respectable job of using a vernacular musical style to open up a space for communication and connection. After a slow-building opening that merges prog-rock organ with more post-rock guitar atmospherics, brass instruments enter on a square and declamatory melody that feels like a traditional hymn tune. This use of sacred music signifiers helps transform the rock milieu of the introduction, creating a dramatic juxtaposition that motivates the entrance Pope Francis’s sermon.
But in the end, the song isn’t all that memorable and doesn’t have all that much to offer in terms of musical richness or production values (it sounds like it was recorded in a home studio, with a lot of MIDI instruments, and a clunky, computerized drummer). It’s hard to imagine a song that sounds like this getting more than a handful of streams on the day of its release without the Pope’s imprimatur. Compared to the other ways Pope Francis has carried out his ministry—the strongly worded speeches, sermons, and encyclicals, his public interaction with the avoided and vulnerable, his predilections for Fiats and Ford Focuses—this one probably won’t be something he’s remembered for. However, I was struck by this quote from Don Giulio Neroni, the producer and artistic director not only of this work, but of albums with Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
As in the past, for this album too, I tried to be strongly faithful to the pastoral and personality of Pope Francis: the Pope of dialogue, open doors, hospitality. For this reason, the voice of Pope Francis in Wake Up! dialogues music. And contemporary music (rock, pop, Latin etc.) dialogues with the Christian tradition of sacred hymns.
As someone who likes to create poly-stylistic dialogues in my own music, I certainly appreciate what “Wake Up!” is going for. But it also made me think about other music that engages in this dialogue of the sacred and secular more effectively, something that actually transforms both musical medium and ecclesiastical message.
Over the past two centuries or so, there have been a lot of works that use Christian sacred texts, but were meant to be performed in more-or-less secular spaces. There have been many rich and affecting concert requiems by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Faure, and Benjamin Britten (whose War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem text with poetry by Wilfred Owen). The work of Olivier Messiaen has much dazzling Christian imagery, many times articulated as a kind of ecstatic bird song (something the animal love Pope Francis could get behind. He’d also like Messiaen’s dramatic work about the original St. Francis). Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich both composed vibrant and joyful settings of Hebrew psalms. And current New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli recently composed a haunting, postmodern “Vespers For a New Dark Age,” a piece that deftly explores a changing relationship to the otherworldly in a world an increasingly technological world.
(A somewhat exhaustive playlist of the music discussed in this post)
Pope Francis and Don Giulio Neroni should definitely check all these works out if they haven’t done so, but if they only have time to listen to a ponder a single work that effectively interfaces the sacred and secular in this era, then I would suggest they spend some time with Osvaldo Golijov’s bracing Pasión según San Marcos from the year 2000.
Osvaldo Golijov’s life and music are suffused with contrasts. He grew up in Catholic Argentina, son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and an atheist father. He remembers a lot of different music floating around the house while growing up; traditional European classical; klezmer and Jewish liturgical music; the tangos of Astor Piazzola. While much of his music blends these various influences, none are so brazenly genre-crossing as his passion setting. Golijov was commissioned by conductor and Bach expert Helmuth Rilling to write a passion based on St. Mark’s gospel in honor of the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. Golijov was unfamiliar with Mark’s specific account of Jesus’s death, but he was very familiar with the public depictions of Jesus he grew up with in Argentina. Using both his life experience and varied musical influences as a guide, Golijov gives Mark’s passion a distinctively Latin American flavor, complete with propulsive, percussive music based on flamenco, rhumba, samba, and other Latin dance styles.
Golijov’s composition is as much a passion play as concert piece. There are dance breaks inspired by the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and the choristers have choreography as well, including an intense flamenco foot-stomping sequence as Jesus stands silently before Pilate. It also has a strong ritualistic element because of there aren’t any texts from outside the passion that act as commentary. The visual spectacle of Pasión según San Marcos links it to Latin American street festivals, like Posadas, but curiously, it lacks is a clear segregation of characters. There is no single evangelist part—like Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions—or a Jesus soloist. Instead, the words are spread among the choir and a variety of soloists who play no specific role.
The alternation of choral and solo settings of Jesus’s words has particularly striking implications. Jesus is not just a first century Galilean Jew, but a transcendent being whose story plays out in the daily lives of the poor and politically oppressed of Latin America, as symbolized by the choir members dressed in humble robes. The combination of multiple storytellers, settings of vernacular translations of Mark’s gospel, and the mixing of popular Latin music styles make Golijov’s passion a musical analog of liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría’s concept of the “crucified peoples,” where Jesus is encountered through the experience of those on the world’s margins. Golijov is not setting the passion story as much as a particular experience of the passion, one that transcends its typical setting in Christian ritual.
Golijov’s work has a complicated relationship with the secular concert hall. With its shear volume, theatrical presentation, and percussive intensity, the passion attacks the listeners’ senses and forces them to deal with Golijov’s politicized message. If listeners disagree with or cannot relate to the message, the passion becomes obnoxious pastiche of popular Latin forms because these musical gestures lose their symbolic meaning of communicating the experience of a common Latin American person. In addition, Golijov’s particular fusion of text and musical styles can come off as disrespectful and drain much of the passion’s Christian meaning. In a review of the passion in the Christian journal First Things, music theorist and composer Michael Linton criticized many of Golijov’s musical gestures that he felt were ineffective at articulating the true meaning of Mark’s passion. He was particularly critical of the settings of Jesus’s dialogue for a female soloist that utilized singer Luciana Souza’s range extremities and Middle Eastern melismas, making Jesus look and sound like a “disembodied transsexual lunatic.” Linton was also disappointed at Golijov’s emphasis on political symbolism over character development, particularly during the foot-stomping section before Pilate. For Linton, Golijov’s passion is unsuccessful because the music undermines the story by advancing the composer’s own agenda, misappropriating the passion narrative for his own ends, rather than treating the passion as an end in and of itself.
However, La Pasión según San Marcos is admirable for its creative audacity. Despite not being a Christian himself, Osvaldo Golijov sees that the passion narrative is inextricably linked to Christian ritual. Thus in order to create an effective concert passion in a secular space, a composer must embrace the passion as a form of prayer, and not just a simple story that can be treated humanistically. By setting the words of Jesus—plainly-translated from Mark’s gospel—for singers of all kinds, Golijov articulates the transformational power of Christian ritual rooted in the passion narrative; a power that can transform the concert hall into a genuine place of worship. However, as the composition itself sees no boundaries between pop and classical, music and theater, religious ritual and secular life, it transforms the communicative power and reception of the Christian message, stripping away sticky doctrine to reach the heart of Mark’s gospel. The music’s sincerity and exuberance breaks down boundaries between the text, performer, and listener alike, inviting all to join in celebratory and communal music-making.
In this way, Osvaldo Golijov’s Pasión según San Marcos beautifully encapsulates Pope Francis’s ministry of encounter. In the making of the work itself, a Jewish Argentinian encountered Mark’s passion and discovered that it resonated with his experience in contemporary culture. The text of Mark’s gospel encounters the Spanish language, as well as Jewish traditions, as Golijov ends the work with a haunting setting of the Kaddish in Hebrew. Contemporary art music encounters vernacular styles from across Latin America, creating a rich and emotionally potent hybrid. And today’s staid concert culture, with its assigned seats and separation of performer and audience, encounters the theater of religious ritual. What would it be like to experience this musical encounter in St. Peter’s Basilica on a Good Friday?