Sunday, February 6, 2011
A MASS FOR THE DEAD
There was a man, Rafael Schaëchter, who knew about life and reinventions. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp in Terezin (Thereseinstadt) in the Czech Republic. He was a composer, choral conductor and vocal coach, and he smuggled one copy of Verdi’s Requiem into the camp. Using this one copy and a broken piano in the camp, he decided to recruit singers from among the prisoners to perform this piece.
Schaëchter recruited 150 singers to perform this very difficult piece of music. The piece is hard enough to perform with healthy, well-food, well-rested vocalists who each have their own copy of the music and are able to read music. But this group of prisoners learned the piece after a long day of being overworked through manual labor, underfed, and malnourished. Some could read music and some could not, but it didn’t matter because there was only one copy of the music, and so they had to learn the entire requiem by rote.
This group of prisoners learned the entire requiem and performed it 16 times from 1943 to 1944 including one performance for the Red Cross. Schaëchter continued to recruit new prisoners to replace those who were deported to new camps.
The amazing part of the story is that the prisoners were tired at the end of the day, at the end of 14-hour days. And Schaëchter was a perfectionist. And yet, during the few hours of rehearsal at night, the prisoners forgot about the fact that they were hungry, sick, hurting. They forgot about the fact that they were overworked and underfed, confused, and uncertain about their future. They forgot about the fact that they lost family and were without hope because. . . .for a few hours each rehearsal they were hope. . .ful. They were hopeful.
The seeming contradictory tension is astounding. Here was a group of Jewish prisoners singing a Catholic mass. If that doesn’t make you think and learn to find God in unexpected places, imagine this: a requiem is a mass for the dead. And yet, these prisoners were using a requiem, a mass for the dead, to inspire life. In those moments during rehearsal and performances, even in front of an international Red Cross delegation that were being shown a camp to falsely “prove” that the camps were not death camps that abused the Jews, even in that situation, they sang this Catholic mass for the dead, this requiem, as an act of defiance. It was as if they were saying, “You can take my health and age my body. You can hurt me and beat me, but you can never, will never take my spirit, my attitude, my hope. That belongs to me.” Think of some of the parts of this Catholic mass in Latin: Dies Irae - day of wrath. Appropriated in the hearts and minds of the Jews it perhaps referred to the day of wrath awaiting the Nazi perpetrators and captors in judgment for their atrocities. Or the imagine the final part of the requiem: Libera me - Release me! Liberate me!!! In the hearts of these singers, they were not asking for their souls to be liberated to heaven from their earthly frames, but they were asking to be liberated from these camps back to life as normal, or liberated by death from these concentration camps. The whole event was too staggering to comprehend and required a fully immersive experience.
The conductor, Murry Sidlin, was a professor at Catholic University and he founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation that puts on these concerts of the Verdi Requiem around the world. What is special about how the concerts are done is that we didn’t just sing the requiem. Through the different movements/parts of the requiem, we had bits of film, interviews with actual prisoners, and readings to help paint the picture. Actual prisoners from the actual camp, actual survivors, actual surviving choir members attended the performance and were there. Two sons of a choir member prisoner joined us in singing in the choir. And we performed this all in the Kennedy Center. It as a powerful performance.
What is amazing about Murry is that he’s a conductor that actually makes music. Music is both an art and a craft. But most of the time people work on the craft part--simply learning the piece, learning the notes, playing them with the best intonation, technique, fingering, mouthing, blowing, plucking, etc. Murry inverts it. Work on the notes and learn the piece outside. With him you will work almost exclusively on the musicality--the phrasing, the dynamics, the nuance, the subtext (for vocals), the sub music, breathing, speaking through the music. It was both easy since the context for the performance of this piece was provided by the story, but it was harder because we wanted to do justice to the prisoners and honor them and their courage and defiance. Murry made us FEEL the story and sing from that place of darkness, of crying out to God, of not understanding why things are happening the way they are and not knowing what to do. We sang from the point of not having any hope and yet hoping with what we have left, where we struggle with the events happening and yet cling to the God who defies understanding. We cried out through the music; it was powerful, powerful, powerful. It was impacting, it was earth-shattering. I kid you not. There was such movement in the music with the orchestra and choir, I was amazed. I have never felt that intensity in a performance ever. And he pulled it out of us, inspired it from his inspiration, encouraged us to put ourselves in their shoes (with utmost respect), and came alongside us in this journey. And in the end, the surviving choir members who were there were pleased and thankful.
I don’t know what it is they went through, but I thank them for allowing me to participate in the remembrance of their experience.
Kennedy Center Promotion