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A Long Road of Remembrance and Hope


The oratorio O Lungo Drom (The Long Road) is an authentic testimony of the Sinti and Roma people, whose journey since time immemorial has been shrouded by poetic and popular imagination. It finds its voice for the first time here directly through the words of Sinti/Roma poets and writers, set to music by Roma composer Ralf Yusuf Gawlick. This oratorio will receive its joint U.S. premières on April 5th at College of the Holy Cross and the 6th at Boston College, with soprano Clara Meloni, baritone Christoph Filler, cimbalomist László Rácz and the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, the same cast performing on the world première recording recently released on Decca Eloquence Australia. Harpsichordist Peter Watchorn, a professor at Boston College and co-founder, executive producer and CEO of the record label Musica Omnia (which hosts seven Gawlick recordings), recently spoke with the composer.

PW: In the past decade, you have shared your thoughts with BMInt’s readership on three previous occasions, each time prior to the première of a major new work: Missa gentis humanæ, Kollwitz-Konnex (… im Frieden seiner Hände) and Herzliche Grüße Bruno ~ Briefe aus Stalingrad. Why now a work on the Sinti and Roma?

Portrait of Prof. Ralf Gawlick in his office in Lyons 408A for use in the Winter 2024 issue of BCM.

RG: The story behind O Lungo Drom begins back in 2015 with my musical memoir, my string quartet Imagined Memories, an autobiographical work that probes into the realms of a relationship that never was; a bond with my biological mother, who I never met – or rather, as it turns out, thought I would never meet.  I was adopted as an infant into a German family, but it was only in 2009 that I first visited the town of my birth, Pfaffenhofen, and saw my birth certificate for the first time. I had been always told that my biological mother was Kurdish, a young Gastarbeiter (migrant guest worker) who came to Germany from Turkey to work and who gave birth to me under great risk to her, and my, safety. After visiting my birth town, for the next eight years — during which time I composed Imagined Memories — my wife Basia and I embarked on a journey of discovery trying to find her. After a whole series of extraordinary events, the story takes a dramatic turn when we located her living in a small village on the Black Sea. Soon after, we made contact. Previous to that, it had been my assumption that I was Kurdish through both my mother and father. But after meeting and speaking to her through a translator on skype, I learned that she was actually Roma, not Kurdish. This turned my world upside down — or rather, right side up – and motivated me to immerse myself into the history, language, culture and music of the Roma. I knew that I, being a composer, would ultimately process this truly existential discovery through my own art, through music.

Before turning to the oratorio itself, please share with us: who are the Sinti and Roma?

Ever since their appearance in Europe over a thousand years ago, the “Roma” – the ethnonym that the Roma use to describe themselves – have been labeled with derogatory, disparaging, and ethnically insulting words such as “G*psy”, “Zigeuner”, “Zingari”, “Cygan”, etc…, words derived from the Greek “Atzinganoi”, which translates as “untouchable”. These designations reveal a brutal social hierarchy which continues to plague and condemn the Roma to a pariah status in many places world-wide, subjecting them to constant discrimination and persecution – punctuated by infernal periods of enslavement and genocide. For centuries, literature about the Roma came exclusively from the ‘outside’, by non-Roma authors looking in, and it is precisely this literature that has persistently perpetuated ethnic, social and cultural stereotypes that have proven so harmful to this minority. It is not until the twentieth century – but essentially only in the past fifty years, that Roma poets and writers have begun to express themselves in written form in Romani (or Romanes), a macrolanguage of Romani communities, or in the vernacular of the countries or regions within which they reside. These are watershed years, since for the first time, the Roma ‘speak’ from ‘within’ to authentically express what has been shrouded in the fog of popular imagination for ages.

And who are the Sinti?

They are a subgroup of Romani people who mostly live in Germany for the past 600 years.

Is it fair to say, that learning that your biological mother was Roma has given you the impetus to trace, through your own biography, the story of a whole people that you didn’t even know about?

Yes, absolutely. I think the perspective from which this whole thing should be looked at is not so much through the lens of my individual story — though that’s of course important to me on a deeply personal level – but what my story and my role as a composer creating new music can contribute to the entire Roma story. It has led me to make relationships not only with past and present authors through their texts, but also with extraordinary Roma activists in the US and abroad – in particular with Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, who lost thirteen family members in Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust. Rose has been politically active since the 1970s in the struggles of the minority for acknowledgement and material compensation for the wrongs they have suffered. His significant successes include spearheading efforts that led the Federal Republic of Germany to officially recognize in 1982 the Nazi genocide of the Sinti and Roma as well as their acknowledgement of the German Sinti and Roma as a national minority in 1995. Just to put this into perspective, Italy, Spain and France still do not recognize the Roma as an ethnic national minority. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. I first met Romani Rose in 2022 and dedicated O Lungo Drom to him.

Please tell us about the work. 

O Lungo Drom, “the Long Road” in Romanes, is a large-scale work, scored for a chamber ensemble including soprano, baritone, flute, clarinet, cimbalom, piano and string quartet. It integrates texts from all around the world into an oratorio to create a Lied of the scattered Sinti and Roma. “The Long Road” is a road of longing, of yearning, a path that leads to and from remembrance; each step and footprint on this road, imbued with a profound sense of Fernweh, embraces hope and beauty through resilience and consolation. O Lungo Drom sets the words of thirteen different poets from this minority in ten languages – including German, French, Italian, Spanish, Macedonian, Serbian, Polish and  three Romanes dialects. The 66-minute piece is in one continuous movement, organized in a tripartite narrative:

  1. Ascent – II. Nadir – III. Vista.

Are these sectional titles chronological?

Yes, to some extent. A significant portion of Ascent traces the background history of the Roma, their journey from India into Europe, through the evocative poetry of Lekša Mānuš, a Latvian Rom. This origin story also functions as a metaphor for the birth of the Roma and how this birth has historically condemned, and continues to condemn many Roma to a life of suffering and pain.

And where would you say Ascent leaves us chronologically? How far does that take us in the story?

It takes us right to the 20th century, and this leads us into Nadir.

Because the opening words of Nadir are really, “Twentieth Century, what did you give the poor Roma?’

Yes, what have you done to me! This then leads into a Totentanz ― a Danse Macabre ― followed by harrowing testimony of Ceija Stojka, an extraordinary Austrian Romni writer, painter, activist, and musician, and survivor of the Holocaust. There are even echoes of Lili Marleen from Auschwitz – gruesome texts created by Auschwitz prisoners are sung to the sugar-sweet melody of this most popular of love songs.

And in the third section, Vista, which obviously talks about the way forward, what would you say is that is the character of that section compared to the first two? Where does it take us?

Most important here is the idea of hope ― seizing hope and believing in hope. The texts by such poets as Alija Krasnići , from Kosovo, Reinhold Lagrene, from Germany and Papusza, from Poland reflect this. Although there’s always an eye cast backwards on the traumatic history of grief and suffering, it’s very important in Vista to show how the Roma want to see themselves nowadays. This means not being suffocated by centuries-old persecution, by staying frozen in generational trauma, but rather embracing beauty, life and living, finding the way forward. This is expressed in a most life-affirming way in the text by Papusza, the first Romni who composed her own ballads and songs based on traditional Romani story-telling and songwriting. Just listen to her words:

Oh, how beautiful the forest sounds murmur. Oh, how beautiful the rivers rush forward. Oh, how beautiful to live, to hear it all! Oh, how beautiful to see it all! Oh, how beautiful to live!

How glorious! What an exquisite text. I set them in the original Polish as a Litany.

Let us now turn to the sound world of O Lungo Drom. Are there any particular Roma musical elements in the oratorio?

As many of our readers will know, there exists a long and rich musical history of Roma music that dates back to the 17th century. The influence that members of this ethnic minority have always had on European cultural history, such as European art music, is well documented.  The musical traditions of Roma bands, known to many as G*psy bands, are as diverse as they are distinct. I should note that the term ‘G•ypsy, long used to describe Roma communities, is considered an offensive racial slur for some time now and should not be used. In my oratorio, I did not intend to write a ‘Romani’ style work, whatever that would even be. Especially given my musical upbringing in the Western classical tradition, I wanted to avoid perpetuating musical stereotypes associated with the Roma, or paying musical lip service by decorating the piece with Roma musical tropes and clichés. That said, I did want to imbue O Lungo Drom with its own tinta, an effective and useful term Verdi used to identify and create the  unique ‘color’ of each of his operas, something like a ‘golden thread’ that served as an essential unifying factor in his works. In the oratorio, the substantial use of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer from Central-Eastern Europe and used extensively in Roma music ensembles, provides such a tinta. It joins an ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, piano, string quartet and soprano and baritone vocal soloists. The work’s tinta also owes much of its soundscape to the various ensemble groupings that produce timbral threads between the diverse texts and languages. Although I was committed to avoiding any musical stereotyping, I did want to embrace what is at the heart of so much Romani music: song, from the melancholy, elegiac to the bittersweet defiantly virtuosic, and dance, even if this be a danse macabre.

The core instrumental ensemble that you just mentioned is the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien. What is your relationship with them?

When the strings in the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien perform as a quartet, they are known as the Hugo Wolf Quartet. Back in 2016, they commissioned and premièred my string quartet Imagined Memories at Carnegie Hall and later at Vienna’s Musikverein. That same year they formed the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien.

So, would it be correct to say that the evolution from quartet to that of ensemble coincided chronologically with these two large works of yours?

Yes, absolutely.  My initial involvement with the quartet for Imagined Memories naturally led to a collaboration on O Lungo Drom, a work also dedicated to them. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Hugo Wolf Quartet was supported by the Vienna Alban Berg Foundation, which in 2016 gave its imprimatur to the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien.

And there’s the connection to the legendary Alban Berg Quartet.

Indeed. Early on, the Hugo Wolf Quartet actually studied with members of the Alban Berg Quartet,

By the Foundation bestowing the name Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, previously given officially to the Alban Berg Quartet, the artistic mantle has been meaningfully passed on to this extraordinary seven-member ensemble, a Universal Music Group/DGG/Decca recording ensemble.

Including O Lungo Drom, you have composed in most of the main genres of vocal music, beginning with your Kinderkreuzzeug cantata, Missa gentis humanæ, Kollwitz-Konnex song cycle and now this oratorio. Why do you classify The Long Road aa secular oratorio, and what makes it unique?

An oratorio, whether sacred or secular, is a non-staged work with a dramatic or narrative text for voices and instruments. Secular oratorios are based on a non-religious subject, such as a historical or mythical episode, or telling the story of a person. O Lungo Drom tells the story of a people.

What makes it unique? Well, this oratorio contains many significant ‘firsts’: it is the first oratorio on a Romani subject, the first that sets multiple texts by Romani authors themselves (not by non-Roma writers looking in from the ‘outside’), and the first to be set to music by a Rom.

Also, it is the first work about and for the Roma which has been recorded for a major international record label. This past October, we recorded the work for Decca in the concert hall of the Franz-Liszt Center in Raiding, located in the Burgenland outside Vienna. Recording the piece in the birthplace of Franz Liszt adds extra significance, as he was the first great Western composer to recognize Roma culture in his own works. The ensemble and I are also very grateful to Cyrus Meher-Homji, the senior Vice-President of Classics & Jazz at Universal Music Australia, to embrace and support this project. With great joy and pride, I can share that the world première recording of O Lungo Drom on Decca Eloquence Australia was released on digital and physical retail platforms on March 22nd.

And the same cast on the recording will be performing?

Yes! Clara Meloni, Christoph Filler, László Rácz and the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien will give the U.S. premières of the work. Let me close in saying that is my profound honor and privilege to compose for and work with these world-class artists, many of whom I worked directly with while composing the piece, intimately fashioning the music for them, like a musical tailor. They are not only great musicians, but the dearest of friends. A composer could ask for nothing more.

Lastly, allow me to express my special gratitude to you, Peter, for helping to assemble this project as one of the producers of the recording, as well as to Florian Berner, cellist of the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien and godfather of O Lungo Drom.

O Lungo Drom (The Long Road) U.S. Premières:

College of the Holy Cross Brooks Concert Hall HERE
Friday, April 5th 8:15 pm:
Free/Reception to follow

Boston College. Gasson Hall HERE
Saturday, April 6th
7 pm: Pre-concert Lecture & Interview, 8 pm: Concert
Free/Reception to follow

Clara Meloni, soprano; Christoph Filler, baritone; László Rácz, cimbalom; Alban Berg Ensemble Wien

Work/Composer Webpage HERE

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