Founder and President of The Defiant Requiem Foundation
Creator of Illuminations Concerts
Upcoming Performances of "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin":
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How did Murry Sidlin Discover the Story and Create the Concert/Drama?
What is the Concert/Drama "Defiant Requiem"?
The concert/drama, "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín" is a multi-media production two hours in length. The concert/drama presents a complete performance of Verdi's Requiem combined with elements of on-stage drama, video interviews and authentic film from the era. The performance illuminates the musical and personal character of Raphael Schächter, a young conductor deported to Terezin from Prague, who was the force and inspiration behind the performances. He taught 150 prisoners the Verdi Requiem by rote from one score and performed it 16 times in the camp. The concert/drama brings to light how singers and audiences were transformed by the experience.
The performance begins with cacophony of sounds representing the vast variety of performances presented at Terezín during any week. At the sound of a piercing train whistle all music stops and the Requiem begins. Included among film excerpts are moments from the propaganda film about Terezin, “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” which was made by prisoner Kurt Gerron as ordered by the Nazis. To achieve authenticity, movements of the Requiem begin with an out of tune piano and evolve into the ideal of the orchestra.
The real heart of this story is the life-affirming harmonious effect brought about by great music which offered hope, courage, dignity and assurance to all who sang or heard it, through the expressions of faith, justice, love and compassion found in the mass.
THE STORY OF DEFIANT REQUIEM: VERDI AT TEREZIN
(Adapted from an article and interview of Murry Sidlin by Thomas Sheets for The Voice of Chorus of America, 2008)
In the late 1990's Murry Sidlin was on the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, living in Minneapolis. On a beautiful spring day as he was walking along, he happened on a shelf of books outside a bookstore. His eye caught a book called "Music at Terezin", and he opened it to a page entitled: “Rafael Schächter, choral conductor, opera coach, pianist, piano teacher . . . organized performances of the Verdi Requiem in the camp, some 16 performances."
Murry Sidlin: "I thought to myself, “My God,” and then all the implications of this started to strike me: Verdi’s Requiem in a concentration camp—“Recruited singers” was all it said—who were these singers?—and this conductor?—why the Verdi Requiem in that place? Why did a choral conductor who was in prison for being Jewish recruit something like 150 singers to learn by rote a choral work that is steeped in the Catholic liturgy with a chorus that was 99 percent Jewish? That was the genesis of the project."
Sidlin discovered that the performances of the Verdi took place in the former Czechoslovakia in a town called Terezín, (orginally a fortress called Theresienstadt, created by Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the late 18th century). Once the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, they used it as a detention site for Jews. Eventually the Third Reich extended its reach into Poland, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Hungary, causing a rapid growth of the camp.
Murry Sidlin: "Terezín was “a breathtaking enigma”—the result of the buildup was a community noticeably rich in artists and intellectuals. Terezín’s detainees, i.e., the scholars, philosophers, scientists, visual artists, and musicians of all types eventually were allowed to create, to perform and lecture."
As Sidlin began his research, he found survivors from the chorus who talked about the performances. They also described how Rafael Schächter, a promising young conductor, vocal coach, pianist and chamber musician, sent to Terezin by the Nazis, was the driving force behind the performances of the Verdi Requiem. Upon realizing that the Nazis would be tolerant of artistic and intellectual activity by their prisoners, Schächter quickly became a central figure in the creation of the camp's Freizeitgestaltung (“Administration of Free Time Activities”).
￼Schächter’s exact reasons for undertaking the Verdi were never documented. But the survivors of the camp who sang in the performances who spoke to Murry Sidlin have said that Schächter attributed extra-musical elements to both the text and music of the work, and intended by these performances to defy his unperceiving captors.
Murry Sidlin: " In the midst of all this, Schächter begins recruiting singers to perform a number of choral works—some opera choruses, folk music, and some cantatas. He gets this bolt of lightning that guides him to decide to do the Verdi Requiem, yet it’s not clear exactly why he decided to do this. Survivors I have talked to always talk about him as a person with a sunny disposition, great sense of humor, quite the wink-and-smile sort of fellow—evidently something of a ladies’ man—quite charismatic. However, when he started to work on the Verdi, singers I spoke to all said—separately from each other—some variation on the statement that he was like a crazed man on a mission—that you couldn’t whisper in rehearsal without inviting his wrath."
Marianka May (a survivor) said he started using words like "defiant": "This is our way of fighting back—we take the high ground—we stand above—we have a vision of high art—the Verdi Requiem is the pinnacle of defiance."
Murry Sidlin: "....which ultimately led me to realize the difference in the text if you are a prisoner or if you are a Catholic celebrating the mass: If you look at the "Dies irae,” if you look at the “Libera me,” and if you read it as if you were a prisoner you could sense the defiance and resistance that was motivating Schächter and that caused him to reach out to a work not only of great difficulty but of extraordinary power and inspiration. He told the chorus at one point, “Whatever we do here is just a rehearsal for when we will do the Verdi in a grand concert hall in Prague in freedom.” And he also said to them a number of times: 'We can sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them'—that was the essence, that was the message behind the Verdi."
Of course, Schächter's decision to perform Verdi's Catholic Mass caused quite a conflict with the Council of Jewish Elders, who accused him of apologizing for being Jewish and who were afraid it would create such a controversy that the Nazis would shoot them all and end all artistic activities.
Murry Sidlin: "Edgar Krasa, a member of the chorus who sang in all 16 performances and was Schächter’s roommate, said that Schächter returned after a meeting with the Council of Jewish Elders red-faced, extraordinarily upset, and said to Krasa, 'There were shouting matches with the Council about performing the Requiem.' The head of the Council, Rabbi Jacob Edelstien, repeatedly said to Schächter, 'If you do this it will create controversy in the camp, and the way the Nazis will resolve the controversy will be to shoot you, deport your chorus, and stop all free time activity.' Schächter went to the chorus and told them what happened with the Council—told them it was dangerous—but said to them, 'We’re going ahead with performing the Requiem. For anyone who doesn’t want to do it, there is the door.' They all stayed."
As one survivor said: "I achieved a relationship with music I never knew was possible. For the first time in my life—and maybe the only time—I listened with the same focus and intensity with which I would have run to grab a piece of bread that someone had dropped. This music was not merely nourishing, but consuming. Listening was not the normal and usual option, but no option, an absolute necessity.”
It is certainly true that the performances given by Rafael Schächter's chorus of Verdi’s Requiem in Terezín resulted in a remarkably profound relationship between music and performer. As much as one may try, one can never truly understand how much the members of Schächter’s chorus (and those who heard performances) relied on the music and their conductor to find hope as death surrounded them. However, perhaps one could stop and consider how important music is in inspiring the human character.
What inspired Murry Sidlin to spend more than twenty years of his life to bring this story to light? He described it best in his own words:
"My own objectives were simple: I am attempting to give Schächter the career he was prevented from having; and I want everyone who learns of the commitment to the “high ground” taken by the conductor and chorus to associate them always with the Verdi score. Then, there are the most important issues: the value of life and living, the depth they all achieved in understanding the music—returning to Verdi's core, and the psychological, emotional, and physical effects of the music, and the hope it brought them. That’s it.