Italo Calvino wrote that literary classics are “books that come to us bearing traces of all the readings that have preceded ours, and that leave traces in the culture or cultures through which they have traveled.”
If the same holds true for musical works, then few are more marked than Giuseppe Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem (1874). To honor Verdi’s bicentennial, can we drop the misnomer "the Verdi Requiem?" He composed the Mass in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an artist and man whom he revered and whose sprawling novel I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”) Verdi deemed “true, as true as the Truth.”
In September 2002, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra gave a wrenching performance of the Manzoni Requiem in Liberty State Park, across from the darkness where the Twin Towers had stood. Music from the Requiem was part of the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. But the most momentous chapter in its history took place in 1943–44 at the Terezín concentration camp, where inmates sang the Requiem for their own dignity and solace—and to challenge their Nazi captors. A documentary to be shown on PBS on April 7 and concerts in Baltimore (April 23 and 24) and New York (April 29) honor the memory of those heroic musicians.
Directed by Doug Shultz and narrated by Bebe Neuwirth, "Defiant Requiem" won the Best Feature Documentary award at the 2012 Big Apple Film Festival. It tells the story of Rafael Schächter (right), a Romanian-born Jewish musician who was sent to Terezín in 1941. He was among many artists at the camp, where the conductor Karel Ančerl and the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa were also imprisoned. (Anne Sofie von Otter recorded works by Terezín composers for Deutsche Grammophon, and Koch International Classics and Decca offer anthologies of their music.)
Using a piano with no legs, Schächter organized performances of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, folk songs and opera choruses to keep up morale. At some point, he became obsessed with the idea of performing the Manzoni Requiem, of which he had a single score. He made this improbable choice because he wanted to send a message to his captors. In Josef Bor’s novella The Terezín Requiem, Schächter speaks to his fellow inmates about the Dies Irae, the “day of wrath.”
"The day about which we’re singing is the day of judgment of all men, and hangs over all men. Over all those who ravish and enslave and humiliate and rob and murder… The day in which the German Wehrmacht, torn to shreds, will moan and bleed under the shattering blows of the Red Army… This is the Dies Irae of which we shall be thinking… Not for revenge, not to balance our own accounts, only for the cause of human justice."
The Jewish elders at Terezín objected to Schächter’s plan on religious grounds and because they feared Nazi reprisals, but he carried on and led rehearsals with a wild, life-giving intensity. (A chorister interviewed in the documentary remarks that she is “not a Holocaust survivor as much as a Requiem survivor.” She adds: "I didn’t only survive the Requiem. I got it as a present to take with me all my life.”) The Terezín musicians performed the Requiem 16 times, once in the presence of Adolf Eichmann and international officials as part of a propaganda campaign designed to show the Nazis’ “enlightened” treatment of the Jews. Schächter was sent to Auschwitz and probably died on a forced march shortly before the Soviet Army liberated the camp in 1945.
The conductor Murry Sidlin (right) learned of Schächter and the Terezín Requiem some 15 years ago and promptly set about tracking down survivors. To commemorate the Terezín musicians, he created Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, the “concert-drama” that will be reprised in Baltimore and New York. He also founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation and the Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts and Humanities at Terezín.
The "Defiant Requiem" concert interweaves Verdi’s score with video testimony from survivors, snippets of a Nazi propaganda film, and words (by Schächter and other prisoners) spoken by actors. The film documentary includes survivor interviews along with animations, dramatized sequences and footage of a Requiem performance led by Sidlin at Terezín.
In the Manzoni Requiem, the chorus and soloists pray repeatedly that the dead be granted the everlasting light and life promised to “Abraham and his seed.” We know from Verdi’s letters and his stereotyped depiction of the peddler Trabuco in La forza del destino that he was not immune to anti-Semitism, and that the nationalism that he and his contemporaries espoused culminated in horrors. We also know that in art he stood staunchly with the oppressed, that in life he was a tireless philanthropist—and that Italy’s imperialist stunts in Africa disgusted him.
Would the Terezín musicians’ appropriation of the Requiem have pleased Verdi? No one can say for sure, but the traces left by their reading immeasurably enrich and ennoble the Requiem for us. “Listen to what the choir is singing to you,” Schächter broods in the Bor novella. “Libera me! Do you understand? Liberty, liberty!” May the memory of the Terezín musicians and their defiant Requiem forever be for a blessing.
In the New York area, the "Defiant Requiem" documentary will be shown in New York on WNET, Channel 13, at 10:00 pm on Sunday, April 7. Below is a trailer: