Photo: Lee Pellegrini

The Long Road

Boston College music professor Ralf Gawlick’s journey to find his birth mother resulted in a startling discovery that transformed his work.

When Boston College music Professor Ralf Gawlick debuts his deeply personal new composition on campus this spring, the performance will mark the culmination of a fifteen-year journey into his past, one that resulted in a shocking discovery: that one of the most basic things he thought he knew about himself was wrong.

Raised by German parents in both Germany and the US, Gawlick grew up knowing that he’d been adopted, and that his biological mother was Kurdish. In 2009, however, around the time of his fortieth birthday, his wife, Basia, encouraged him to look into his roots more closely. What ensued was a long and complicated journey that crossed from Germany to Turkey, and resulted in him meeting his biological mother, at age forty-nine, for the first time ever. In the process, he learned that she was not Kurdish at all but of Roma descent. The Romani people are a nomadic ethnic group that has faced enormous historic prejudice across Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Roma were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and they still face discrimination today. 

The revelation changed the trajectory of Gawlick’s career as a composer. As he began to connect with his biological mother over Skype, he started work on “O Lungo Drom,” a new composition that would celebrate his Roma heritage. The phrase means “the long road,” and the piece is an oratorio, a type of long composition that features voices and instruments but without the scenery and costumes of an opera, and often with a religious topic. Gawlick’s piece pays homage to a people and a culture long excluded from the rarefied environment of classical music by incorporating traditional Roma instruments such as the cimbalom, a stringed instrument that’s similar to a dulcimer, and by including lyrics in Roma languages. The composition is dedicated to Romani Rose, one of the world’s most prominent Roma activists, who is head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.

“The important thing about this oratorio is that it’s the first time the Roma speak from within. Their voices are heard directly,” Gawlick said. “What has generally happened from time immemorial to now is that people have written works about the Roma.” He pointed out examples like Carmen, the famous opera with a beautiful Roma woman at the center who is eventually murdered by a jealous lover. “It’s of course a brilliant opera, but it’s written by Frenchmen and all the stereotypes around Roma have been used in it,” he said. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its Roma character Esmerelda, is another prominent example, he said. 

“O Lungo Drom,” on the other hand, includes texts from thirteen Roma poets across ten different Romani languages and dialects. Romani Rose was in attendance when the oratorio had its world premiere in Berlin in October 2022, on the tenth anniversary of the inauguration of Germany’s memorial to Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. The production will travel to the US this spring for an American premiere at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, on April 6, “O Lungo Drom” will be performed here at BC, in Gasson Hall, by the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien who are joined by soprano Clara Meloni, baritone Christoph Filler, and László Rácz, a Roma cimbalomist.

Gawlick's piece will also be performed in the Krakow Philharmonic by the same ensemble on August 1 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager, the Romani camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The renowned recording company Decca will be releasing the piece in time for the American premiere.

It’s the culmination of a tremendously meaningful journey for Gawlick. Meeting his mother for the first time was “profoundly affecting,” he said. And learning of his true heritage filled him with great joy and pride about being Romani. “It’s flooded my existence,” he said. He is now at work composing the first Roma opera, and learning the Roma language Romanes. “This whole world of discovery opened up to me that I could follow,” he said.