Osvaldo Golijov Channels Chopin and Schumann

Classic Arts Features   Osvaldo Golijov Channels Chopin and Schumann
Carnegie Hall will host a number of events celebrating the bicentennial of Chopin and Schumann's births. Osvaldo Golijov premieres a new tribute work, with Dawn Upshaw, March 17.


"Memory is a strange human quality," says Osvaldo Golijov. "To recreate something you love from memory leads to something very different than reality. Chopin wonderfully recreated Poland while living in Paris: Living in exile leads you to invent a land that maybe never existed."

After Carnegie Hall co-commissioned Golijov to compose a work for pianist Emanuel Ax and soprano Dawn Upshaw in celebration of the bicentennial of Chopin's and Schumann's birth, Golijov immersed himself in the music of the two composers and found that they share what he describes as "a world of memory and fantasy."

Like Chopin, Golijov has recreated his homeland from a distance. Born into an Eastern European Jewish household in Argentina, he moved to Israel in his early 20s and settled in the United States a few years later. His compositions often combine and refract the many musical influences of his background.

Golijov associates Schumann with his own memories, specifically those of his childhood when he grew up listening to his mother play Schumann's piano works in their home. "As a pianist and teacher, she played lots of Schumann: Carnaval and Kreisleriana and much more," he says. "It was very early when I first heard Schumann's music, and it saturated my mind on a daily basis." The link between Schumann and Golijov's childhood seems appropriate given that Schumann's music, for all its Romanticism, frequently displays a childlike sense of innocence and playfulness. Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), a set of miniature pieces that evoke the emotional world of youth, is a perfect example.

Golijov's work for the bicentennial celebration addresses two basic ideas: childhood and illusion. "In someone like Beethoven, there's such solidity. Chopin and Schumann inhabit a more airy world," he says. "That's what I'm trying to create in my composition."

In many ways, Golijov is a sympathetic composer to Chopin and Schumann. With Chopin, he shares an interest in transforming the musical folk traditions of his homeland. Just as Chopin incorporated traditional Polish dance rhythms in his mazurkas and polonaises, Golijov often infuses his compositions with the spirit of Argentine tango and Jewish klezmer.

With Schumann, he shares a fascination with literature. Golijov's opera Ainadamar was based on the life and work of 20th-century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and he's a devoted reader of what he calls "the Latin American novelists of the '60s and '70s: Borges, Garcia Marquez, and so many others."

Schumann was a prodigious reader of everything from the plays of Sophocles to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and he often drew musical inspiration from literature. His Kreisleriana depicts a fictional character from the writings of E. T. A. Hoff man, and his Papillons (Butterflies) represents a scene from one of his favorite novels by Jean Paul.

Golijov and Schumann even share a propensity to use poetic metaphors when talking about music. Discussing the slow movement of Schumann's Second Symphony, Golijov says, "The pure melodic invention is like watching a flower blooming." Describing Chopin's blend of the heroic and lyrical, Schumann likened Chopin's music to "a cannon buried in flowers."

Many of Schumann's works were written for his wife, Clara: one of the great pianists of the 19th century. The tendency to write for a particular artist is reflected in Golijov's compositions as well, many of which are written for Dawn Upshaw, with whom the composer has worked for many years. "The beautiful thing is that once you create a family of performers, you develop a sort of code: a shorthand: where you can say one word and everyone gets it."

New to Golijov's family of performers is Emanuel Ax, who premieres Golijov's new work with Upshaw and hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman at Carnegie Hall as part of the Chopin and Schumann bicentennial celebration. "They are two composers who really define the piano, opening up the possibilities of the instrument enormously."

On June 19, 1831, perhaps too engrossed to elaborate, Schumann scratched a brief entry in his diary: "Luxuriating in Chopin." The Chopin and Schumann bicentennial is an invitation for us all to luxuriate once again in their music, and to experience: 200 years later: the inspiration they continue to provide for today's composers and performers.


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