Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín

Performances of Verdi's Requiem by Jewish prisoners at the Terezín concentration camp inspire a present-day concert drama that explores the profround relationship between music and its performers.

In late 1943, a chorus of 150 Jews imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp engaged in 16 performances of Verdi's Requiem—learned by rote from a single vocal score and accompanied by a legless upright piano—before audiences of other prisoners, SS officers, and German army staff members. Their purpose: to sing to their captors words that could not be spoken.

Thus begins an extraordinary saga that touches on politics, power, and the manner in which a timeless choral work provided people at the nadir of human existence with a soaring sense of hope and meaning that according to them could have been found in no other endeavor.

At the center of this series of performances was the Jewish conductor Rafael Schaechter, hailed before his internment as a conductor of exceptional skill, and possessed of a persuasive and charismatic nature. His story is both powerful and poignant: During his confinement he worked tirelessly to bring inspiration and meaning to the lives of his fellow inmates—yet ultimately fell victim to the death march of the Third Reich.

The exceptional story of Schaechter and the performances of the Verdi Requiem came to the attention of conductor Murry Sidlin, dean of the School of Music at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and resident artist/teacher and associate director of conducting studies at the Aspen Music Festival, in the late 1990s. The achievements of Schaechter and the chorus in the midst of monumental suffering, disease, and death had a powerful effect on Sidlin, and following considerable research he conceived of a concert drama to tell their noble story—the title of this singular work is Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín.

Murray Sidlin: There was a time when I was on the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, living in Minneapolis. I was walking along Hennapin Avenue when I came across the Bryn Mawr Bookstore. It happened to be a beautiful spring afternoon, and they had a shelf of books outside the bookstore. I walked over, and the very first book I saw was a book called Music at Terezín, so I took the book down and opened to a page that was the beginning of a chapter.

The first thing I saw was Rafael Schaechter, choral conductor, opera coach, pianist, piano teacher . . . and organized performances of the Verdi Requiem in the camp," some 16 performances. 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.

The performances of the Verdi took place in the former Czechoslovakia in a town called Terezín, which is contained within the walls of the famed fortress Theresienstadt, created by Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the late 18th century and named in honor of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Under German occupation, Terezin was at first a detention site for Jews from throughout Czechoslovakia, but eventually the Third Reich extended its reach into Poland, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Hungary, causing a rapid growth of the camp. In Murry Sidlin's words, Terezín was "a breathtaking enigma"—the result of the buildup was a community noticeably rich in artists and intellectuals. Unlike other camps, Terezín's detainees included scholars, philosophers, scientists, visual artists, and musicians of all types, including instrumentalists, singers, and composers, some of whom had achieved international renown.

Murry Sidlin: I started to get a picture of the Nazi roundup. It was clear that they were after the Jews in Czechoslovakia, especially Prague, and in so doing rounded up a number of artistic people—some very well known, some on the way up. Very well known were people like Karel Ancerl, who was a marvelous young conductor—he went on to lead the Czech Philharmonic after the war and ended his career as the conductor of the Toronto Symphony.

There were four major composers there, including Hans Krasa, who had already been performed by Stokowski and Koussevitsky with Philadelphia and Boston, as well as Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann, and Gideon Klein. I think Klein, had he lived, would have been the Leonard Bernstein of eastern Europe. First of all, he was devilishly handsome—he was a wonderful pianist—he had already started to conduct and make a name for himself. His compositions were starting to attract attention—the language was the au courant compositional tone of that time in middle Europe. He was executed at age 24.

The Nazis kept a tight rein on the world's perception of activities within Terezin. In late 1943 an inspection of the camp was demanded by Christian X, king of Denmark, to determine the condition of 466 Danish Jews sent there in October of that year. The review panel was to include two Swiss delegates from the International Red Cross and two representatives of the government of Denmark. The Germans immediately engaged in the infamous Verschoenerung, or beautification program, a ruse intended to mollify the king's concerns. The inspection was held on June 23, 1944, when the four officials were hosted by Adolf Eichmann, who was himself joined by numerous officers from Nazi headquarters in Prague and the high command in Berlin.

As part of the charade the Nazis compelled Schaechter to give a performance of the Verdi. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Red Cross issued "a bland report about the visit, indicating that the representatives were taken in by the elaborate fiction." Eichmann was later quoted as having said, "Those crazy Jews—singing their own requiem."

Rafael Schaechter was born in Romania and emigrated to Prague in the mid-1930s. Prior to his detention by the Nazis, his career had begun to blossom, and he was becoming increasingly known as a conductor, vocal coach, repetiteur, pianist, and chamber musician. He had founded a company called the Prague Chamber Opera, which was quickly shuttered by the Germans, and in 1941 he was sent to Terezín.

Upon realizing that the Nazis would be tolerant of artistic and intellectual activity by their prisoners, Schaechter quickly became a central figure in the creation of the camp's Freizeitgestaltung ("Administration of Free Time Activities"). Records show that he oversaw the Opera and Vocal Music Department, expanding from there to create a theater ensemble; he also commissioned new music from the four renowned composers who were in the camp. Full-scale musical performances were limited, as the Germans had confiscated all the musical instruments from Jews living in the Prague ghetto—their reason: to store them in a warehouse for future inclusion in a large museum to the extinct Jewish race at the end of the war.

There are several survivors of the camp who sang in the performances who are still alive at the time of this writing. Their comments suggest that Schaechter intended by these performances to subtly heap scorn and derision upon his unperceiving captors.

Schaechter's exact reasons for undertaking the Verdi in the face of mounting peril were never documented. The only reliable insights come from those who were close to him during that time, and remarkably there are several survivors of the camp who sang in the performances who are still alive at the time of this writing. Many have attended performances of Defiant Requiem given throughout the world, and recorded statements from a few of them are included in the production itself. Their comments suggest that Schaechter attributed extra-musical elements to both the text and music of the work, and intended by these performances to subtly heap scorn and derision upon his unperceiving captors.

Murry Sidlin: In the midst of all this Schaechter 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 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." 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 Schaechter 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.

Schaechter's daring artistic choice resulted in a conflict with the camp's Council of Jewish Elders about the inherent paradox present in performances of a requiem mass by a Jewish chorus. The council, which included the famed Rabbi Leo Baeck, feared that such concerts might suggest to other Jews within the camp that they were apologizing for being Jewish—and if that caused any agitation within the prison population it might infuriate the Nazis, who had a very direct form of reprisal. The arguments between the Council and Schaechter were frequent and fiery—but Schaechter held firm, invariably repeating to them his mantra that by performing the Requiem, "We can sing to them what we cannot say to them."

Murry Sidlin: Edgar Krasa, a member of the chorus who sang in all 16 performances and was Schaechter's roommate, said that Schaechter 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 Schaechter, "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." Schaechter 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.

Although the question of the artistic quality of these performances is sure to occur to every musician acquainted with this story, accounts given by singer-survivors suggest that their experience transcended traditional standards of assessment and became a means of sustenance as essential as food and drink. The following composite observation—an amalgamation of comments by several members of the Terezín chorus and its audience, used in the script of Defiant Requiem—offers insight into how powerful an effect the Verdi had on them, both as singers and hearers.

Murry Sidlin: I listened to the Requiem with a desperation, as though I never heard music before. What a rejuvenating and hopeful experience it was. I can't clearly describe the actual physical effect it had on us. People have asked me so often, how did the chorus sound? But I can only respond with words about what the music meant to me. I don't think I can describe the sound of the chorus. I just know that I listened and heard desperately. It's not as though they weren't singing, of course they were, but what I heard was the music coming from them; the music, not just the sounds of the music, but a clear, enveloping sense of all that this music was created to mean! 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.

The performances continued through June 1944. All the while the Nazis continued to send detainees to the gas chambers, with dramatic results for the chorus: The membership of the group was decimated twice by these deportations, and both times Schaechter recruited new singers and began the painstaking process of teaching them their parts from the single score of the Verdi that soon became a staff of life to them.

Marianka May: God sent us the Verdi—God sent us the music—God sent us Rafael Schaechter— and the lectures—God sent us the way to live.

Murry Sidlin: Did you ever stop and ask, "Where was God?"

M.M.: Of course God was there. The question was: Where was man? Man was empowered by God to do good—compassion, love—where was man?

The concert drama Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín is a multi-media production of around two hours in length. The musical foundation of Defiant Requiem is an uncut performance of the Italian master's Requiem, using large chorus, soloists, and orchestra. Interpolated into it are numerous other elements, intended to dimensionalize the nature of life in the camp, the musical and personal character of Schaechter, and the manner in which the singers were transformed by the experience of preparing and performing the Requiem.

In one of the most dramatic moments of the production, the chorus begins the "Dies irae," accompanied only by a slightly out-of-tune piano, as was the case so many years ago in Terezín—after several measures, the orchestra enters with an explosive subito, bringing into full relief the contrast between usual musical expectations and that which was reality in the camp.

The performance begins with a sound montage representing the vast variety of performances presented at Terezín during any week. Two soloists from the chorus, a soprano and a baritone, are heard singing Mozart and Schubert, respectively; at one point, on a screen above the chorus, portions of a German propaganda film about Terezin, "Der Fuerhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt" ("The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City") are shown; and three actors portray several key figures in the story, including Schaechter. In one of the most dramatic moments of the production, the chorus begins the "Dies irae," accompanied only by a slightly out-of-tune piano, as was the case so many years ago in Terezin—after several measures, the orchestra enters with an explosive subito, bringing into full relief the contrast between usual musical expectations and that which was reality in the camp.

After the performance concludes, applause is discouraged, and as the singers leave the stage they quietly intone the plaintive "Oseh shalom," drawn from the Kaddish section of Jewish liturgy, and sung by a majority of prisoners on their way into the gas chamber: "May he who makes peace on high make peace for us below."

At the core of this story is the life-changing effect wrought by a work of art on people who embraced it not merely as music, but as a vessel into which they might invest their very beings. For one not there to experience it, defining this alchemy adequately would require the art of putting into words the inexpressible. However, a careful reading of the following exchange between Sidlin and the pianist Edith Steiner-Kraus, a celebrated pianist following her liberation from Terezin, will bring the reader the fullest measure of comprehension possible from without.

Murry Sidlin: I had a conversation about the Verdi with Edith Steiner-Kraus when I spoke with her at her home in Jerusalem. When I met her, she was in her 90s and had recently had a stroke—she was not able to play the piano anymore. I said to her, "Edith, you are a worldly, urbane musician. How would you describe the quality of the chorus, especially as it pertains to the Verdi?"

When I asked her this question, she gave me this sly, suspicious look out of the corners of her eyes and she said, "When you ask me a question about all those musicianly things, you are no doubt speaking about precise rhythm, intonation, balance, diction. I think you would be proud of this chorus in any urban setting. However, the superficial nature of your question troubles me terribly—as if any of that mattered. Don't you understand? We had returned to the source of the music—we were so far inside the genesis of the music that we were at Verdi's table. I don't understand why people, when they talk about Terezín, mention those elements that you ask about. You'll never understand, or get close, to what music truly meant to each of us as a sustaining power and as a way of using our skills to inspire—beyond criticism—beyond any superficial evaluation—we were music."

As I sat there I realized: With all my knowledge, with all my study, all my skills as a conductor, I knew nothing. And frankly, I don't know anyone who knows what she knew—it transcends language, it defies comprehension.

Without doubt, the performances given by Rafael Schaechter of Verdi's Requiem in Terezín resulted in a singularly profound relationship between a composition and its performers. Though one may read with utmost empathy, at best one can only imagine the degree to which the members of Schaechter's chorus relied on the music and their conductor to find hope as death whispered around them—and then pause to reconsider one's understanding of the full range of human character, and music's place therein.

Murry Sidlin: My own objectives are simple: I am attempting to give Schaechter the career he was prevented from living; and I want everyone who learns of the commitment to the "high ground" taken by 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.

Rafael Schaechter was deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944, and died the following day in the gas chamber.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2008.