La Pasión Musical Synopsis

La Pasión Musical Synopsis

Choral conductor Ahmed Anzaldua—who is preparing the Minnesota Chorale and the Border CrosSing choir for their August 2-3 performances of La Pasión with the Minnesota Orchestra—offers the following guide to this extraordinary work, which he describes as encapsulating truths about “human nature, emotion and history.”

By Ahmed Anzaldúa

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La Pasión opens with Visión, Bautismo en la Cruz (Vision, Baptism at the Cross), a double vision: Jesus on the cross and a flashback of his baptism. The music is inspired by both the episode from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus emerges from the water and sees the Spirit descend in the form of a dove and Jesus’ last words on the cross. The strings represent the dove, the trumpets Jesus’ cry “God, why have you forsaken me?” The low drum represents Jesus’ heartbeat, reverberating in the berimbau and the accordion. Then follows the first of three capoiera dances, Danza del Pescador Pescado (Dance of the Ensnared Fisherman), which represents Jesus’ ultimate fate. These dances articulate the three sections of the Passion story. This first dance is a dance of sacrifice, representing a vision of the last time Jesus is on earth as a human being. This movement was inspired by the fishing boat in the lower part of Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

As a choral conductor I am, of course, particularly drawn to the choral movements in La Pasión, and the chorus has a central role in this work. The first series of choral movements are Primer, Segundo, and Tercer Anuncio (First, Second, and Third Announcements), which set the stage for the Anointing of Jesus, where the chorus erupts into the dramatic ¿Por qué? (Why?). Por que has a double meaning in Spanish and can also mean “because.” This movement, in the form of a wild mambo, represents the first rift between Jesus and the disciples. The disciples rebuke Jesus, who explains that the woman has come to anoint him for burial. The disciples fight, but their arguments become nonsense as they go in circles reduced to the same words, por que, with their double meaning. In this movement, Jesus is depicted by a female singer singing in the “the style of Celia Cruz.” The silent woman in Bethany is represented by an instrumental movement, Aria con Grillos (Aria with Crickets).

The story of Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper is presented in a lively son montuno. The disciples ask will it be me?” while the evangelist, in this movement a tenor in “the style of Benny Moré” tells the story of Judas’ visit to the priests. Three women join the evangelist at the end chorus, singing “But woe to that many by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born.” This movement has what may be my favorite marking in any piece of music: “con terror y con sabor” (roughly translated as “with terror and flavor/spice.”) The aria of Judas, Quisiera Yo Renegar (I Wish to Forswear) depicts Judas in utter despair. The text is anonymous, based on a flamenco song as sung by Niña de los Peines, also known as Pastora Pavón Cruz. In La Pasión, Golijov uses elements from Spanish music to depict Judas as a representation of the historical relationship between Spain and Latin America. Being condemned to death, either literally or metaphorically, is the theme of nearly every flamenco song, and the use of this style gives this context to Judas’ motives and the ultimate effect of his actions.

Eucaristía (Eucharist) focuses on the generosity of Jesus, who gives himself in the sharing of bread and wine with his disciples. The style used in this movement for Jesus’ words is of Gregorian chant, a single unaccompanied line that constantly reinvents itself, its simple beauty especially apparent following the musical chaos of the preceding choruses. The use of plainchant represents the ritual of repetition and reinvention that has become a part of the Eucharist through history, focusing on the incredible act of generosity from where it began. The same soprano soloist that sings the part of Jesus in this movement will return to sing the aria of Peter’s tears. According to Golijov, this soprano voice symbolizes purity.

Golijov calls the psalm Demos Gracias (We Give Thanks) a choral anthem. It grows constantly in intensity until it reaches a point of ecstasy. The only accompaniment to the SATB choir are two bombo drums (traditionally used in Andean music). One drum plays a firm, repeating pattern while the other is constantly improvising, breaking these patterns. The drums represent heartbeats: heartbeats of both fear and the assertion of presence – “I am here”, they proclaim. The courage of faith is the central idea of Demos Gracias. It is a choral fantasy based on the melody of Todavía Cantamos, a protest song by Victor Heredia from the height of the Dirty War in Argentina. More than ten thousand people were “disappeared” by the Argentine Military Government between 1969 and 1983. The song’s refrain is “we still sing, even in the face of the machine guns.” In Demos Gracias, the Last Supper has just ended and Jesus knows that he has been betrayed, he knows that he will be killed but still sings a psalm of gratitude for life. The psalm texts, fragments from Psalms 113 and 118, give thanks to the Lord while the earth trembles, in the face of death. This idea is central to the vision of the entire work, which deals with “the miracle of faith in Latin America.”

The inspiration for this movement were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, represented by the altos that begin the movement. These women marched in defiance of the Argentine Military Government in unexpected resistance. They stood firm despite societal views on women and motherhood in Latin America, highlighting for the world the human rights violations that were occurring, and presenting a formidable adversary for the dictatorship. This assertion of faith in the face of adversity and the courage it requires is a central theme of La Pasión. Demos Gracias has been excerpted and published separately and is beginning to form part of the repertoire of choirs across Latin America today. Cara a Cara (Face to Face) is a short interlude that depicts Jesus and Peter having the conversation in which Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. It is followed by En Getsemaní (In Gethsemane), a lush movement with impressionistic violin harmonics and metallic percussion accompanying the soprano and alto voices in a texture that depicts Gethsemane as a magical place. Jesus, accompanied by the sopranos and altos, introduces the next aria, Agonía (Agony). The part of Jesus is sung by female voices when his actions show remarkable courage to reflect Golijov’s assertion that the “miracle of faith of Latin America” is especially true of this region’s women.

Agonía and Arresto (Arrest) form the emotional heart of La Pasión. Agonía is in the style of a slow milonga, the first musical genre from Argentina depicted in this piece. Milongas often use texts of mourning, with a singing style that is nearly declaimed, leading to impassioned climaxes punctuated with the nostalgic strains of the bandoneon. Golijov has remarked that he considers the episode right before the arrest of Jesus as the most powerful moment in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is faced with death and fears it; he says: “Father, take the cup of death away from me.” Jesus sings to God as a child would and then, when he returns to the disciples and finds them asleep, he sings to them as a mother. The part of Jesus in this movement is sung by three different soloists, each reflecting conflicting aspects of his person. At the most dramatic juncture in La Pasión, Jesus overcomes the fear of death and becomes divine, accepting that it is not his will but God’s will which must prevail. Golijov places the emotional climax and midpoint of La Pasión immediately following this moment: Jesus tells the disciples to wake up, the Son of Man will be given to the unfaithful. Everything that comes after this is inevitable, stemming from this single act of courage. All of a sudden, Judas and the soldiers erupt into the scene, coming to arrest Jesus. The choir, now the soldiers, sing a clever alliteration: “al que bese ese es” (who he kisses, that’s him.) This is followed by Danza de la Danza Blanca, the second of the three capoeira dances. It depicts a strange episode in Mark of an unknown young man who, wrapped only in a sheet, is the only one who instead of running away follows Jesus, until the sheet is taken from him and he runs away naked.

In Bach’s Passions, Jesus is always surrounded by a halo of strings, like the halos in European iconography. Golijov’s Jesus, full of human emotion, has no serene halo; he is full of wrath, like the Jesus in Picasso’s Crucifixion. His agony is real, and his suffering is humanity’s suffering, this is the Jesus of Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion. When confronting the high priest, Jesus answers the question “Is it true that you are the Christ, the Son of God?”, with the words Soy Yo (I am),  imbued with a transcendent wrath, a fiery halo of trumpets and quitiplás, a Venezuelan percussion instrument consisting of bamboo sticks that strike the ground.

The moment after Peter denies Jesus, where he looks at the moon and weeps, is represented in a verse by Galician author Rosalía de Castro. This 19th-century poem depicts a woman who sings to the pale moon in absolute despair, who wants to be forgotten both in this world and the next. The music of Lúa Descolorida (Pale Moon), however, contradicts the text. This movement is composed in the style of an early Baroque aria, with indications to the performers to play it “as Jordi Savall would play it.” In the music, Golijov represents great hope, the strength and luminosity of Peter’s spirit, who would go on to found the Church, contrasting the utter hopelessness of the text.

The meditative nature of Peter’s aria is destroyed by the morning in Amanecer y Silencio (Dawn and Silence.) The unique vocal color that Golijov asks from the choir is reminiscent of sunrise in Jerusalem. According to Gojilov, “sunrise comes violently in Jerusalem, bouncing from the white stones throughout the city.” The intense desert sun shows up in refractive waves around the stones, which Golijov depicts in the choral tone, meant “to hit the listener in the face”. Jesus is taken to La Junta Suprema, a loaded term in Latin America, beset by military dictatorships through history. Pilate and Jesus face each other much like a bull and a bullfighter, circling each other. Pilate asks whether what they say is true, “is he the King of the Jews?” Jesus refutes the question; Golijov imagines this scene as two boxers, studying each other. Here, Jesus’ rage is not expressed in noise as in the first trial, but in silence; speechless before this supreme injustice. The chorus stomps the floor and claps, as in flamenco. There is no voice, like a nightmare where you want to scream, but you cannot. It is the rage of the voiceless, a deafening silence, expressed in the musical idiom of the Spaniards, of the colonizers.

Jesus is led to Golgotha in a wild parade, depicted as a carnival. The music of Al Golgotha is the Cuban comparsa, used in parades and celebrations. The music represents the mob going mad, losing its humanity in complete chaos. It modulates ever upward, pushing the choir to its limits, and ruthlessly forcing every singer to sing repeatedly at the highest end of their vocal range. The scene is of every lynching that has occurred through history, a circus-like moment where ridicule and cruelty come together. Gojilov pushes it as far as it can possibly go. The people in the mob realize afterward what they have done, and the devastating effect of this realization is directly related to the extent of the chaos that precedes it. To begin the crucifixion sequence, Golijov suddenly switches gears, going from the Cuban comparsa directly to the batucadas of the Carnaval do Brasil. It is interesting to note that both the comparsa and the batucadas are an essential part of the Lent and Easter celebrations in Cuba and Brazil. The entire orchestra, choir, and percussion take part in the Brazilian Carnival, the choir sings mockingly “Hail to Christ the King.” The music is celebratory but sinister, a madness that births a cataclysmic event, leading to humanity’s realization of what it has done. The third capoeira dance, Danza del Manto Púrpura Sagrado (Dance of the Holy Purple Robes), representing the purple cloak given by the soldiers to Jesus in order to mock him, is one of the most memorable moments of La Pasión, and one of the most raw depictions of the crucifixion in any work of music.

Jesus’ cry in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” (God, for what have you forsaken me?) is, in Golijov’s Passion, a metaphor for Latin America. According to Golijov, the people of Latin America have been punished with corrupt governments, natural catastrophes, oppression, poverty, political instability, corruption, and yet, the people are perhaps the most faithful he has encountered anywhere in the world. This moment is meant to be transcendental. Golijov uses electronic processing to create reverberations that represent Jesus’ cry reverberating across millennia from its origin at the cross. It is the cry of all oppressed peoples, the suffering of the Passion is humanity’s suffering.

The Gospel of Mark ends abruptly, with the death and crucifixion of Jesus, with no accounts of anyone seeing Jesus afterward, as in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. However, Golijov wanted to end the work with a passage that would serve as a metaphor for the Resurrection. He ends with the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead. This prayer makes no mention of death but, rather, it is a prayer for the affirmation of life, and gives this Passion story a truly unique context. Like Visión, which begins the piece, Kaddish is replete with musical symbols. It contains the echoes of Jesus’ cry at the cross; the “shivering” accordion, representing the silent crowd, mad just moments before; the heartbeat in the drum and bass; the berimbau, as in the opening movement; and a text from the Lamentations, “Behold and see if there has ever been any pain like my pain.” In the end there is a quote from Bach’s Matthew Passion. Golijov felt that the work had to dissolve history, that it had to speak not only to the present and future, but also to the past. Following the last verse of the Kaddish, “beyond any blessing and song,” “Amen” ends the work in reverent silence and meditation.


Ahmed Anzaldúa is a Mexican choral conductor, classical pianist, and music educator of Egyptian descent. He is an active musician, performing in Mexico and the United States frequently as a soloist and conductor with choirs, orchestras, in recitals, and as a collaborative pianist. He lives in Minneapolis and is the director and founder of Border CrosSing, an organization dedicated to integrating historically-segregated audiences, repertoire, and musicians through the performance of choral music. He is also a co-editor of the Justice Choir songbook and beginning in August 2019 will be Director of Music Ministries at Unity Church - Unitarian in Saint Paul.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff