Conductor's 'Defiant Requiem' Tells How Music Brought Harmony To The Chaos Of Terezin

Apr 26, 2019

A May 1, 2014, performance of The 'Defiant Requiem' at The Music Center at Strathmore.
Credit Randy Sager

During World War II, Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin learned Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem and performed it 16 times. This weekend at Northern Illinois University, that story of affirmation and defiance toward their captors will be commemorated through Verdi's music, historic film footage, testimonials from camp survivors, and narration. The program, Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, will be led by its creator, conductor Murry Sidlin. He's conducted it close to fifty times around the world. In this week's Friday Forum, Sidlin describes his hopes for what the audience will take away.

MS: The top of the list is, Raphael Schaechter was a great hero. And he used his musical knowledge -- his artistry, his sensitivity -- to pull people out of the graves they were headed to. They were in a state of descent. And he made it possible not only for them to be reinvigorated, but for that reinvigoration to go over to an audience.

So I want people to know his name. And that every time we do this, it's just another step toward giving him something of the career he never had, number one. And number two, I just want people to know a composition -- a great composition, any great work of art -- is never limited to its original intent. And in this case, the Verdi Requiem was not limited to the Catholic mass, it went way beyond that.

It's that kind of integrity, in that kind of depth, and that kind of power of the music. I want to touch people. I want to touch people very deeply. And I want young people who sing it, or older people who sing it, to work hard to touch that audience. Because God knows we need it, today more than ever. But at the same time, it is critical that people understand that these were people in a state of tentative life. They had no idea from day to day whether they're going to survive. And yet they went into this cellar nightly -- the women one night, men one night, and everybody the next night -- until they knew the Verdi Requiem. And then after the first performance, two thirds of the choir was deported. But with deportations come imports. He recruited and started over and he did this twice. He was dedicated and devoted to the Verdi Requiem in service to mankind.

GS: What reaction have you gotten telling you that you succeeded?

MS:  We don't permit applause. So we can only tell by, you know, the nerves in the back of my neck when I finished the Requiem, of what's going out in front.

When we performed in Jerusalem, there's a line that I speak at the end, as my role is not only conductor, but I'm sort of like the stage manager of Our Town. I take people from one actor to the other and so forth. We perform the whole Requiem but we have a way to get there that tells the story. So one of the things that I say is, the question was never 'Where was God?' The question in the camp was 'Where was man?' And when I gave that line in Jerusalem, I immediately heard whimpering all over the hall, all over the place. The question of 'Where was man?'  And then a year later, when I gave the performance in Berlin and I got to the same point, and I said, 'Where was man?' There was no whimpering. There was the coldest, deadest silence I've ever heard in my life -- you could hear the air ducts at work. And so that's two different reactions to the same question. 

'Defiant Requiem' creator and conductor Murry Sidlin
Credit Guy Stephens

GS: Are those the ones that stick out most of the performances?

MS: I performed it three times at Terezin. The first time was very difficult. It's not that it's memorable, it's that it was tough going. It was rough. It was hard. When I turned around to the audience, I could look out the door and I could see the place where Raphael Schaechter lived. And several of the survivors came. Several survivors of other camps came. And so it was when you do this major work and tell this story on the grounds where it happened.

I had one man come up to me and tell me - I gave a lecture in high school in New York - and he came over to me afterwards. And he said, 'I was in the audience for three performances of the Verdi Requiem when Mr. Schaechter conducted it at Terezin.' And he told me that it was harmony, not Verdi's harmony, but a totality of harmony. He said to me, 'Realize that we lived in chaos and insanity. And we thought that that harmony was a quality of the past, no longer to be experienced.'

And so music made the difference to most of them. Music made the difference. And that's just a simple statement. We study it, we practice it, we perform it. But I think we need to stop and just take some time to wonder about its magnificence, the spiritual nature of it -- what it can do, what it has done, what it will do -- if we allow it. Raphael Schaechter himself said, 'I studied music all my life. But I had to come to Terezin to discover music.'

GS: It sounds to me like you could say the same.

MS: I think you're right. I think you're right. Somebody once tried to pay me a very high compliment. I stopped them. And I said I'm merely telling the story of these people. It's their story. How it came to me I don't know, it just did. I stumbled on it and now it's my responsibility. And this guy - this was in Israel - he said, 'So you're a messenger.' He says, 'We have a lot of messengers here in Israel.' And I never thought of that. But I'll accept that. I'll accept the fact that maybe I'm a messenger. Fine. But it's simply that. I didn't live it. I still only know the surface of it, because I didn't live it. But to these extraordinary people, I'll serve as their messenger, sure. 

Murry Sidlin leads a performance of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, Sunday, April 28 at 3 p.m. at NIU's Boutell Memorial Concert Hall with the NIU Philharmonic & Concert Choir, Cor Cantiamo, McHenry County College Chorus, Voices in Harmony, and soloists.  

In conjunction with the performance, the Jewish Artists Collective-Chicago will exhibit thematically related artworks in the Reynolds Whitney Gallery, adjacent to Boutell Hall in the NIU Music Building, April 28-May 15.

Additionally, the NIU School of Theatre & Dance will present "Bent" a play that deals with the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust, and questions of love, tolerance, and human dignity, May 2-4 in its Black Box Theatre. 

In the link below, Sidlin tells Guy how he "stumbled" onto the story which eventually led him to the Defiant Requiem.