Sunday, May 7, 2017

They sang what they could not say

I attended an excellent and amazing Detroit Symphony Orchestra program last evening. It was titled The Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin. The core of the evening was a performance of Requiem Mass by Giuseppi Verdi, which was premiered in 1875. The music includes four vocal soloists and a huge choir in addition to the orchestra. The piece is famous for its Dies Irae “Day of Wrath” section that features several mighty whacks on the bass drum (I’m sure an online video will demonstrate).

What was amazing about the evening was the story that was wrapped around the performance. Part of the story was told by the conductor, Murray Sidlin, in a pre-concert talk. Sometime around the year 2000 he found a book about the music at Terezin. That prompted him to create an evening program to tell the story. That story was told as part of the performance.

Terezin is the Polish name for what the Germans called Theresienstadt. This was a city/ghetto/camp to hold Jewish prisoners during the Nazi era. This was the showcase camp, where the Nazis took the Red Cross to say, “See! We treat our Jews very nicely!” Though there weren’t gas chambers, a huge number of the over 100,000 prisoners died of such things as starvation. Residents were frequently shipped to other camps that were set up to kill them.

With all that chaos and insanity around them the prisoners looked for ways to mentally escape. They organized lectures on practically every subject, though especially literature. These were educated people, mostly from Prague, who valued books and stories. But they had to leave most of their books behind. The also organized concerts, of all types of music. Many of the prisoners had been in the several Prague orchestras or played in various dance bands. Perhaps 20 of the prisoners turned to composing, writing their music on whatever paper they could scrounge. At the time of a concert the camp authorities requested instruments be brought from a warehouse in Prague – which housed the instruments confiscated from Jewish musicians when they were ejected from the orchestras.

One of those musicians was conductor Rafael Schächter, a rising star in the opera scene. When he was sent to Terezin he could not leave his score for Verdi’s Requiem behind. After being there a while Schächter decided his fellow prisoners needed to perform the Requiem.

They needed to sing it even though it was Jews singing a Catholic text. The rabbis at the camp opposed the idea. They needed to sing it because that “Dies Irae” section speaks of the ultimate Judge bringing justice to their oppressors. They could sing to their captors what they could not say. They needed to sing it because that same “Dies Irae” section calls on God to hear them, to save them, to pull them out of the ashes. They needed to sing it because the music speaks to the spirit, about all they had left. They needed to sing it because it was both a balm for their souls and an act of defiance.

Looking through a lens of ranking, the Nazis (ranking in the extreme) would have heard the words and assumed they were the favored of God and would be plucked from the ashes while God would smite the Jews, who deserved it. After one performance a Nazi official was overheard to say isn’t it appropriate they are singing their own requiem?

So Schächter charmed other prisoners to be in his choir. He then taught them the music by rote – he had the only score. They performed it with piano. In all they performed it 16 times. Twice in that time two-thirds of his choir was swept off to death camps and he had to rebuild his choir. I think it was the final performance that was presented when the Red Cross visited. Shortly after that a great number of prisoners were sent to death camps. Schächter did not survive the war.

On stage at the performance I attended was the orchestra and chorus. There was also a Lecturer to tell part of the story, an actor speaking as Schächter, a piano (definitely a console style, not a grand), and a screen. Several times the conductor turned around and told us other parts of the story.

Between sections of the music the screen showed surviving members of the choir talking about what they went through and what Schächter and his efforts meant to them. Towards the end we also saw the Nazi propaganda film showing the world how pleasant life was in Terezin. In the pre-concert talk the conductor said the Nazi government had plans to show that movie around Germany. They never did because by the time it was completed the whole country was in such ruins it would have shown Jews living better than Germans were.

The program began with a bit of a montage of the wide variety of music performed at Terezin. Then, each section of the Requiem was begun with chorus and piano, as it would have been performed in the camp. After a moment or two the lights came up and the orchestra took over. We heard what Verdi wrote. As each section ended the orchestra dropped out, the lights dimmed, and the piano took over again.

The Requiem ended quietly and immediately a clarinet and violin played a Jewish folk tune while the choir hummed along (I heard a woman behind me humming too). In the darkness the orchestra, except for the clarinet and violin, left the stage. The choir slowly filed off too, still humming. I interpreted it as the Nazis dismantling the choir by sending the singers to death camps. Soon, only the violin was left. She finished the tune and walked off as a message on the screen asked us to observe a moment of silence rather than applauding.

They sang what they could not say: You may starve me. You may work me until I drop. You may beat me until I’m broken. You may even kill me. But you will not take my soul.

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