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The daily newspaper of classical music


 22 August 2003



Grace Notes

By Joe McLellan, classical music critic emeritus of The Washington Post




On August 27, PBS will telecast an inspiring and heartbreaking program about a chorus of Jews in a German concentration camp singing a Catholic Requiem Mass. It is a World War II memory as significant as the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.

There is a touch of schizophrenia in the ancient Latin text of the Requiem Mass - perhaps the text that has been set to music more often than any other in history. In its original form, dating from the early centuries of Christianity, the Requiem embodies a message of peace and tranquility. Along with prayers for the dead ("eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord"), it contains a message of comfort for the survivors, an assurance that death is an illusion, that "vita mutatur, non tollitur" ("life is changed, not taken away").

Then, in the 13th century, a Franciscan friar named Thomas of Celano wrote a poem called the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") portraying in vivid terms the end of the world, the sounding of the last trumpet, the rising of the dead from their graves and the Last Judgment. It is still compelling reading and a key to understanding the medieval mind. A text and a good translation of it can be found on the Internet at

Although it differs strikingly in tone from the original Requiem text, it does mention the resurrection of the dead and it was inserted into the Requiem, where it added a note of pure terror to the basic note of peace and comfort. It is no longer used in Catholic funeral services, and Gabriel Faure left it out in his setting of the Requiem, but many composers, most notably Berlioz and Verdi, found in it an opportunity for some spectacular music. Verdi, in particular, who was a strong believer (though an anticlerical) and genuinely afraid of death and punishment, treated it with some of the most dramatic writing of his career.

Both the comfort and the terror in Verdi's Requiem had a special meaning for the people confined in the Terezin (in German, Theresienstadt) concentration camp, an anomalous institution used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes - a showcase. of the "humane" conditions in concentration camps, where visiting dignitaries, including a Red Cross committee, were brought on carefully guided tours. People in Terezin were allowed a more civilized existence than those in
Auschwitz or Buchenwald; they had cultural activities, including the writing of poetry, visual arts and music. An inmate, a conductor named Rafael Schächter, organized a 150-voice choir, which (among other works) performed Verdi's Requiem 16 times in 1943-4. Actually, he organized three choirs in that period, because his choir members kept getting shipped off to the death camps.

There was opposition to his work among ths Jewish prisoners, rabbis and Zionists, who did not want to see Jews singing a Catholic composition and accused him of "apologizing for being Jewish." His response, based on the violent music of Verdi's Dies Irae, was, "We can sing to them what we cannot say to them." Particularly meaningful to prisoners was a passage known as the "Libera me" ("Set me free").

The Nazis, unaware of the deeper meanings of the performance, did not interfere. Adolf Eichmann, attending one performance, joked that the Jews were "singing their own requiem."

The PBS program, titled "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin," was taped in April, 2002. Directed by Phillip Byrd, the program was written and conducted by Murry Sidlin, who was the resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra (he is now the dean of the Benjamin A. Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America). It is a tribute to Schächter and his colleagues, nearly all of whom were ultimately murdered by the Nazis.

A combination of documentary and performance - with English subtitles throughout - it describes conditions at Terezin, with several survivors from that chorus recalling their experiences 60 years ago. One chorus member, Marianka Zadikow-May, recalls, "It's very difficult to sing when you're hungry; it's very difficult to concentrate."

The program reinforces the survivor testimony with film clips from Nazi documentaries, as well as actors who portray Schächter and his adversaries among the Terezin inmates. And it also presents Verdi's Requiem, with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, the Portland Opera Chorus and four excellent soloists, with dramatic episodes and commentaries between the music's movements. Sometimes the instrumentation is reduced to a single piano, which is all Schächter had.

"I want to make Schächter famous, as the hero he was," is Sidlin's explanation of why he devised this program. He certainly does that, and with the context he supplies, he makes it the most powerful Verdi Requiem I have ever experienced.

"In the Dies Irae, says the actor portraying Schächter, "we can 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." He told the chorus, "There's the door for those who are afraid or feel that presenting the Verdi is wrong of us." Nobody left.

Soloists in the performance include soprano Lisa Willson, tenor Philip Webb, mezzo-soprano Eleni Matos and bass baritone Gary Relyea. Also appearing in the broadcast with camp survivors Krasa and Zadikow-May is Eva Rocek, another singer in Schächter's chorus.


The story of music at Terezin has been told in a lightly fictionalized treatment, "The Terezin Requiem" by Josef Bor. Of related interest is "Playing for Time," by Fania Fenelon, a memoir about an orchestra at Auschwitz.