Osvaldo Golijov
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Oceana (1996): Notes
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Oceana, for Vocalist, Boy Soprano, Chorus, and Orchestra

Call —
First Wave — Rain Train Interlude —
Second Wave —
Second Call —
Third Wave —
Aria —
Coral del Arrecife (Chorale of the Reef)
Composed: 1996. Premiere: June 27, 1996, Oregon Bach Festival, Eugene, Oregon; Luciana Souza, New World Guitar Trio, Schola Cantorum of Caracas, Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, Maria Guinand conducting. Performing forces: vocalist ("Brazilian jazz style"), child soprano (or group), double chorus, three flutes, piccolo, alto flute, percussion, two guitars, and strings.

Recording made for release in 2006 on Deutsche Grammophon's DG label: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Luciana Souza, vocalist, John Dearman and Scott Tennant, guitarists (members of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet), and members of the Gwinnett Young Singers, Robert Spano conducting.


Oceana was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival for its 1996 concert series, Cantatas of the Americas. Four composers were asked for modern choral works in the spirit of the greatest composer of cantatas, Johann Sebastian Bach. Golijov chose to work with the opulent pop/jazz voice of Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, a chorus from Venezuela, Latin-American instruments and musical styles, and poetry from South America's Nobel-Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Of the choice of Ms. Souza as soloist, he says, "Luciana's voice was a great part of the inspiration for this work. I mean, not a particular melody that she sings, but the quality of her voice, which embodies the pain and sensuality of Latin America." For the work's premiere, the composer wrote:

...My aim in Oceana was the transmutation of passion into geometry. This is, in my mind, the clue to both Bach's and Neruda's work. ...[One hopes that the emotion evoked by the work] is the emotion of hearing order, inevitable and full of light: every note in its place, as in Bach, every word in its place, as in Neruda.

Giants such as Bach are fated to be used as mirrors by composers and performers of every era, who will see their own image reflected there. ...In their own ways they were all correct in their fruitful misreadings of Bach's music, and I feel that Oceana is my own misreading.

Neruda is our Latin American Bach. Like Bach, he is Midas, able as if by magic to transform everything on this Earth into poetry. ...I think I have discovered the clue [to setting his poems to music]: Neruda's voice is a chorus, too powerful for a single voice to handle...

I do hope that water and longing, light and hope, the immensity of South America's nature and pain, are here transmuted into pure musical symbols, which nevertheless should be more liquid than the sea and deeper than the yearning that they represent. And if I have misunderstood Bach, then so be it, in the spirit of Picasso, who could see only a dove when everyone else saw clearly that it was the number two.


1. Call. For his text Golijov chose the poem "Oceana" from Neruda's 1961 collection Cantos Ceremoniales. As Bach's cantatas invoke the grace of God upon believers, Neruda's verses passionately invoke the thrilling, mysterious presence of the ocean goddess. The vocalist sets the mood of sensuous longing in the first movement, intoning the name Oceana, accompanied only by harp and two guitars.

2. First Wave - Rain Train Interlude. The string orchestra enters as the tempo speeds up, and the choral voices respond to the siren call of the goddess. The composer calls for an enthusiastic, not overly refined vocal sound: "open voice, like pirates at sea calling their goddess." Beginning together, the two choruses eventually begin vying and echoing each other in their complex rhythms. Suddenly, the choruses and the strings fall silent for a "Rain Train Interlude," in which two flutes and a piccolo are accompanied by the guitars and harp in a free "improvisation" reminiscent of Andean pipers.

Oceana nupcial, cadera de las islas,
Aquí a mi lado, cántame los desaparecidos
Cantares, signos, números del río deseado.

Oceana, bridal Oceana, thigh of the islands
Sing to me here, by my side, the vanished
Chants, signs, numbers of the desired river.

3. Second Wave. The choruses return with a swaying, churning incantation. Their counterpoint becomes more involved as the strings rejoin them, so that the poetry of nocturnal mystery and wave-washed reefs swirls ever more alluringly.

Quiero oir lo invisible, lo que cayó del tiempo
Al palio equinoccial de las palmeras.
Dame el vino secreto que guarda cada sílaba:
Ir y venir de espumas, razas de miel caídas
Al cántaro marino sobre los arrecifes.

I want to hear the invisible, that which fell
From time to the equinoctial mantle of the palm trees.
Give me the secret wine contained in each syllable
The coming and going of foams, of races of honey
Fallen to the marine vase over the reefs.

4. Second Call. The vocal soloist returns to make her wordless suggestion of the goddess's siren call, with an alto flute added to the accompaniment and all the strings except contrabass dropping out. This section is more up-tempo than the "First Call," with a breezy, samba-like feel.

5. Third Wave. The choruses and string orchestra take over once more. Their music is easy-going at first, becoming more and more frenzied as they evoke the repeatedly crashing waves of the sea.

Oceana, reclina tu noche en el Castillo
Que aguardó sin cesar pasar tu cabellera
En cada ola que el mar elevaba en el mar
Y luego no eras tú sino el mar que pasaba,
Sino el mar sino el mar

Oceana, recline your night in the castle
That awaited forever your mane coming
In each wave that the sea elevated in the sea
And then it wasn't you the one coming
But the sea but the sea

6. Aria. Strings and choruses break off at the climax, and the guitars and harp begin a conversation with Latin and African percussion instruments, beginning with talking drums and shekere. Vocalist and alto flute moan in wordless unison their swaying incantation. Golijov says, "In this movement I tried to write a melody that, like Bach's own, 'reinvents itself' continually, that is always reborn — of course my style is different and I'm a fly next to Bach, but the idea is the same." Later, one or more children's voices sing of timeless lava monuments carved by the sea.

Tengo hambre de no ser sino piedra marina
Estatua. Lava, terca torre de monumento
Donde se estrellan olas ya desaparecidas
Mares que fallecieron con cántico y viajero

I'm craving to be nothing but marine stone,
Statue, lava, tower, a monument
Where the waves that crash have disappeared:
Seas that died with chant and traveler.

7. Chorale of the Reef. The voices drop out, and the instrumental sounds become increasingly thinner and higher, finally coming to rest on soft, long-held chords as the choruses begin the finale. Gently swelling and withdrawing, the two choruses repeatedly invoke the name of Oceana, occasionally dissolving in receding echoes of forgotten memory. The bulk of the movement is sung without accompaniment, as the voices hypnotically recall ancient images of reefs and shells and seafarers, fading to a final chord of unresolved longing.

Oceana, dame las conchas del arrecife
Parta cubrir con sus relámpagos los muros,
Los Spondylus, heroes coronados de espinas,
El esplendor morado del murex en su roca:
Tú sabes como sobre la sal ultramarina
En su nave de nieve navega el argonauta.

Oceana, give me the shells of the reef
To cover the walls with their lightning
The Spondylus*, heros crowned with thorns
The splendor of the murex* on the rocks:
You know how, over the ultramarine salt,
In his vessel of snow, the Argonaut sails.

* The Spondylidae family of spiny oysters were known throughout the ancient world, wherever the oceans lapped the shoreline. In pre-Columbian America, spondylus shells were prized as material for royal jewelry and carved totems. They also had religious importance in worship and funeral rites. Likewise known worldwide from earliest times, the Muricinae or murex is another mollusk family whose secretions were the source of a royal purple dye.


— Nick Jones
Program Annotator of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Copyright 2004, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Reprinted by permission