Main Entrance to Small Fortress at Terezin
Performance of "Defiant Requiem -- Verdi at Terezin,"
J. Timothy Sprehe
text quotations are from Defiant Requiem -- Verdi at Terezin, ©Murry Sidlin and
used by permission of the author.
Defiant Requiem -- Verdi at
a concert drama written by Murry Sidlin, symphonic conductor and Dean of the Benjamin T.
Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America. Defiant Requiem is based on authentic testimonies of those who passed
through the World War II Nazi concentration camp in
On a spring day, Terezins
watch tower can be seen clearly from ten kilometers away, standing out from the
countryside. You have been driving through gently rolling farm country, the green crops
often relieved by fields of brilliant yellow rape grain, the plant from which Americans
get canola oil. An hour north of
Theresienstadt in German -- was built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II of
the next several years, the Nazis evacuated the 7,000 Czech residents of Terezin and
transformed the town into a concentration camp that held from 35,000 to 60,000 Jewish
prisoners. With a Jewish population this large inhabiting an area originally designed for
only 7,000, disease and lack of food were constant concerns. In 1942, the Nazis built a
crematorium capable of disposing of 190 corpses per day just to handle the death toll
caused by starvation, absence of medicine, and cramped unhealthy living conditions. More
than 33, 000 people died in Terezin, very few from execution. During the course of the
war, 140,000 Jews, 17,000 of them children, passed through Theresienstadt before being
transported to the death camps at
Restored Prisoners Quarters (Source: Terezin Memorial Website)
Transcending the inhuman conditions, life
and death within Theresienstadt focused principally on the frequent transports east to
The Jewish prisoners subjected to this inhuman regimen
included distinguished scholars and scientists in all fields, painters, sculptors,
composers, instrumentalists, operatic divas, and other musicians. They determined to to
maintain their spirits in the face of their conditions by continuing their
intellectual and artistic endeavors for the benefit of fellow prisoners after their long
workdays on meager rations. One musician, Rafael Schächter, devoted himself to making
music in Theresienstadt. In addition to such musical endeavors as staging operas,
Schächter directed a chorus of 150 in performing Giuseppe Verdis Requiem.
Schächter had a single copy of the Verdi score and his chorus learned the work by rote
(todays piano-reduction choral score runs to 140 pages). In 1943 and 1944, they
performed the Requiem sixteen times accompanied only on a legless piano propped up
Conductor Murry Sidlin
learned of the music at Terezin and heard Schächters story in the 1990s. He
began researching the concentration camp and Schächter, eventually tapping into the
diminishing network of Terezin survivors. Sidlin wrote the concert drama Defiant Requiem -- Verdi at Terezin, which was
first performed under his baton by the Oregon Symphony in 2002 and again at the Catholic
University of America (CUA) in 2004. The work interweaves Verdis Requiem with
video clips from survivors, dramatic readings, and Nazi film footage. In 2006, the Terezin
Memorial invited Sidlin to perform the Defiant
Requiem at Terezin as part of the 2006 Prague Spring, the first time that this
cultural event has included a performance outside of
Murry Sidlin conducting at Terezin (Source: Prague Spring website)
The Terezin Experience
The augmented CUA chorus
and orchestra came to Terezin on Saturday, May 20 for rehearsal, and on Sunday, May 21,
for performance. The chorus numbered 135 singers, plus four soloists, and the orchestra
added another 70 performers. A film crew accompanied us to make a film about the concert.
The performance featured soloists Sharon Christman
(soprano), Eleni Matos (mezzo-soprano), Steven Tharp (tenor), and Gary Relyea (bass).
Narrators were Murry Sidlin, Gary Sloan as Rafael Schächter and John Lescault as
Lecturer, playing several parts. The Catholic University of American Chorus, Leo
Nestor chorusmaster, was augmented by members of the Washington Chorus and the CUA
Symphony Orchestra was joined by Virtuosi Pragenses. The work was presented in English,
except for the Latin text of the Requiem. Film clips of survivors speaking had been
created when the work was first performed in 2002 and were part of a PBS broadcast derived
from that performance.
Murry Sidlin had explained to the chorus that part of our Terezin experience would be to rehearse in the cramped basement space the prisoners had practiced in. On Saturday, we all entered an old military barracks building in the heart of Terezin and trooped down into the basement. The old stone steps were so worn from more than two centuries of footsteps that they were dished out in the middle. As many of the chorus as could crammed into the dark, damp stone basement, with only a few light bulbs and chinks of light shining through the boarded up window wells. Murry gave a short talk about the significance of our being there and then we rehearsed an a capella section from the Libera Me, the last movement of the Requiem.
Our performance space for the Defiant Requiem was a large barn-like stone structure in the center of town that had originally been a riding academy where soldiers learned to fight on horseback. The Nazis used the building as a warehouse and a place where Jewish slave labor worked at a number of tasks. One window of the building was always open so that the pigeons nesting in the rafters could come and go to feed their young. The pigeons were not the least disturbed by all the noise we made; they carried on their normal lives through two rehearsals and the performance. Saturdays two rehearsals revolved principally around the dovetailing of the sound effects, video clips, readings, and choral/orchestral performance and filming for the movie being made. During the evenings dress rehearsal a violent thunderstorm struck Terezin with sheets of rain and deafening thunder. A window flew open and the noise was so loud that rehearsal stopped. People in the rehearsal audience reported a ghostly feeling that the original Terezin singers were returning to join in our performance.
After a short nights
Jewish and Christian Portions of Memorial Cemetery at
Jewish and Christian Portions of Memorial Cemetery at Terezin
Flowers laid during Memorial
Terezin Ghetto Museum
Flowers laid during Memorial Ceremony Terezin Ghetto Museum
Below: Edgar Krása, Terezin
Survivor, hoisted aloft by his
Several Terezin survivors were present for the
performance. Accompanying the musicians were Edgar Krása and his
wife, both Terezin survivors and now in their eighties, with their family. Edgar was
Rafael Schächters "roommate" at Terezin. The Krásas participated in all
the concert events, including the
presented itself as a quiet and picturesque little town where life seemed to go on
normally around the musicians as we rehearsed on Saturday and performed on Sunday. It was
almost as though we had been flown and bused to a movie location where only we -- the
performers and film crew -- were participating in the action. The event was solemn to all
of us but ordinary matters kept intruding in our peripheral vision as Terezin inhabitants
went about their daily lives. The effect was surreal. Only when we were actually
performing the Defiant Requiem within the darkened old riding hall before a spellbound
audience did the gravity of the event grip me. Only then did I experience how sacred was
this ground and only in my singing of Verdis magnificent score could I come to
spiritually touch those who performed the same piece more than 65 years ago in conditions
I cannot begin to imagine.
The Defiant Requiem
The "Concert Hall"
for the Defiant Requiem. (Source: Prague Spring website)
The "Concert Hall" for the Defiant Requiem. (Source: Prague Spring website)
Sidlins work, Defiant
Requiem Verdi at Terezin, is a concert drama based on authentic testimonies of
those who passed through the Terezin ghetto, featuring Verdis Requiem as a
tribute to the legendary performances by Rafael Schächter. The performance, Sidlin told us, was
a solemn memorial. Everyone on stage wore all black; no colorful dresses for the soloists,
no white shirt with tuxedo for Sidlin or anyone else. The staging was such that the
audience was never to applaud. When the audience came in, all performers were on stage, so
there was no clapping for the appearance of the first violinist, the soloists, or the
conductor. At the appropriate time, the performance simply began.
The Concert Drama
Not only did prisoners perform the Requiem, but
after the day's exhausting work their lives included painting and drawing, composing
music, writing satirical cabaret, reciting Shakespeare, and attending scholarly and
scientific lectures on every topic under the sun -- an environment the Nazis could never
have imagined flowering within their concentration camp. Among the few extant pieces of
this art are the dozens of childrens drawings and paintings displayed in the Jewish
Defiant Requiem dramatizes how Schãchter's
performance of the Requiem occasioned sharp controversy with the Jewish Council of
Elders in the camp. The Elders feared the performances would bring reprisals from the
Nazis. More than that, they decried the performance of the Latin text of the Catholic Mass
for the Dead because it might communicate that the prisoners were ashamed to be Jews.
Schãchter's constant response was that in the Requiem "we can sing to them
what we cannot say to them."
In the Dies irae we will sing
to them of the Day of Wrath that is prophesied. How great the trembling will be when the
Judge comes, by whose sentence all will be bound. That the trumpets shall summon them
before the throne to be accountable and nothing . . . nothing shall remain unavenged! Give
us a place among the sheep and not the goats, we shall sing. And let us not burn in
eternal fire, we shall sing. When the damned are assigned to the searing flames, call us
to the blessed, we shall sing. Bowed down in supplication, I beg you help me in my last
hour, if that is what this is, we shall sing. I told the chorus what the council said to
me! And I said to them: "There. . . there is the door for those who are afraid or
feel that presenting the Verdi is wrong of us. They all stayed. We indeed shall sing.*
Schãchter possessed a warm personality and the ability to
inspire people with his art. He was a brilliantly gifted musician and the survivors speak
of how he how he drew them into the beauty of Verdi's music. The drama enacts the effect
of the Requiem on the prisoners.
the Agnus Dei, the performance is backlit with the screen showing the Nazi
propaganda film created in the summer of 1943, a film about Nazi benevolence entitled,
The Führer Gives a City to the Jews." As Sidlin said, "Every frame
was a sadistic lie: the food, snacks, medical attention, the clothing, the gentle
lifestyle, the close-ups of the healthy, the athletic, the laughing children, even the
peaceful gardening. A veritable spa. a vacation paradise." The International Red
Cross visited Terezin in June 1944, accompanied by high ranking SS officers and again the
Nazis staged a carefully arranged charade about how happy was life in the camp. Although
reduced to only 60 singers, Schãchter performed the Requiem for the visitors. The
Red Cross failed to see through the Nazi ruse. Adolph Eichmann attended and was heard to
say, "Those crazy Jews; singing their own Requiem."
During the Agnus Dei, the performance is backlit with the screen showing the Nazi propaganda film created in the summer of 1943, a film about Nazi benevolence entitled, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews." As Sidlin said, "Every frame was a sadistic lie: the food, snacks, medical attention, the clothing, the gentle lifestyle, the close-ups of the healthy, the athletic, the laughing children, even the peaceful gardening. A veritable spa. a vacation paradise." The International Red Cross visited Terezin in June 1944, accompanied by high ranking SS officers and again the Nazis staged a carefully arranged charade about how happy was life in the camp. Although reduced to only 60 singers, Schãchter performed the Requiem for the visitors. The Red Cross failed to see through the Nazi ruse. Adolph Eichmann attended and was heard to say, "Those crazy Jews; singing their own Requiem."
Prague Spring website)
As Sidlin said of the
prisoners of Terezin, "Their desire for culture was indeed a match for their desire
for life. For more than three years, Rafi Schächter inspired the Terezin population until
his deportation to
The Requiem is written to
conclude with two pianissimo unison voicings of Libera me (Deliver me). In the Defiant Requiem, the first "Libera me"
is sung fortissimo. Then a piercing train whistle sounds the signal for the
deportation train. Then, the chorus sings the second "Libera me" sotto
voce.The Requiem ends and immediately a solo clarinet sounds and sustains a single
note. The clarinet then begins very slowly to play Oseh
Shalom from the Jewish mourners Kaddish. As the clarinet plays, the chorus
begins humming along with the melody. The chorus comes down off the risers, heads bowed,
descends from the stage, and walks slowly up the center aisle of the hall. Eyes downcast
and still humming the Oseh Shalom, the chorus
exits the hall and walks to the Terezin train station about three block away. By chance,
the first two men from the chorus to come up the aisle humming the Oseh Shalom were Daniel and Rafael Krása. Mrs.
Krása had retained her composure until then, but when she saw her two sons leading the
procession to the train she broke down and began crying.
Meanwhile, on stage, the dirgeful melody of Oseh Shalom shifts to a solo violin. The conductor, soloists, and orchestra quietly leave the stage and go out the back of the hall. At the end, only the solo violinist is on stage. There is no applause. The audience leaves in silence.
to the Train siding humming the Oseh Shalom
Walking to the Train siding humming the Oseh Shalom
Very little record remains of the cultural heritage of wartime
Terezin. One exception is Viktor Ullman, an important composer and philosopher. He wrote:
Theresienstadt has been, and remains, an education in form. Previously, when one did not
feel the weight and pressure of material life, because modern conveniences those
wonders of civilization had dispelled them, it was easy to create beautiful forms.
Here, where matter has to be overcome through form even in daily life, where everything of
an artistic nature is the very antithesis of ones environment here, true
mastery lies in seeing, with Schiller, that the secret of the art-work lies in the
eradication of matter through form: which is presumably, indeed, the mission of man
altogether, not only of aesthetic man but also of ethical man. I have written a fairly
large amount of new music in Theresienstadt, mainly to satisfy the needs and wishes of
conductors, producers, pianists, and singers, and thus to make provision for leisure
activities within the ghetto. To make a list of this music seems to me as idle as it does
to emphasize, for instance, that in Theresienstadt it was impossible to play the piano so
long as there were no instruments. The severe shortage of manuscript paper will surely
also be of no interest to future generations. All that I would stress is that
Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not
sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was a match
for our desire for life; and I am convinced that all those who have striven, in life and
in art, to wrest form from resistant matter will bear me out.*
Performing the Defiant Requiem at Terezin was the most profound musical experience of my life. My mind kept going to the thousands of people who had passed through these spaces more than 65 years ago; people of all ages and backgrounds, many with vast unrealized talent in so many fields of science, learning, and the arts. This generation of extraordinary human beings was snuffed out through systematic and carefully organized murder. Yet while they were at Terezin, the music kept them going, kept their spirits from yielding to despair, and made them able to keep looking their captors in the eye with pride and dignity. Terezin and the Defiant Requiem are the greatest witness I will ever encounter to the power of music to inspire the human soul.
The End (Source:
Prague Spring website)