Interview: 'Defiant Requiem' creator and conductor Murry Sidlin
On Saturday, June 1, Defiant Requiem, a “concert-drama,” will be presented for one night only at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The piece, which includes a full performance of Verdi’s famous Requiem Mass, also tells the story of when the piece was performed by Jewish prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp. Asheville Stages critic Michael Poandl recently interviewed Murry Sidlin, the creator of Defiant Requiem, to talk about this unique and inspirational piece.
Michael Poandl: Can you briefly describe Defiant Requiem and and how it came about?
Murry Sidlin: Well, I stumbled across the story in a book store in Minneapolis in a pile of used books. I pulled out a book entitled Music at Terezin. I opened the book, at random, to a very short chapter about a conductor named Rafael Schachter. He and thousands of other Czech Jews were sent to the concentration camp Terezin.
The prisoners formed a Music Society consisting of about 20 composers that worked and got their music played; there were singers, there were pianists. Some of the string players from the major chamber ensembles and orchestras were able to bring their instruments and so they played recitals. Within the concentration camp, there was a richness of culture.
I couldn't believe that there was so much culture in a concentration camp and, you know, I've since talked many of the people who were there and they looked at it as nutrition. In place of the actual food that they didn't get, this was their nutrition. It was spiritual. It was inspirational and it was harmonious. And in a time where their lives were wrapped with chaos and insanity, they found sensitivity and calm and harmony in the performances.
So, Schachter, after a couple of years of being there, saw the quality of the musicians, and he decided that he was going to try to put together a performance of Verdi's Requiem.
I was magnetically drawn to the question of what in the world are these Jews who are in prison for being Jewish doing giving what free time and energy they had to learning a composition steeped in the Catholic liturgy? It didn't make sense to me and therein was the question that I had to seek the answer to.
When I solved the mystery — that these prisoners were using the arts and humanities in service to their fellow prisoners — it rather changed my life. It brought to the surface some great mysteries about art and about the interrelationship of art and spirituality and learning and overcoming obstacles and dedication and all of these incredible questions. And standing at the forefront was harmony.
MP: Verdi's Requiem is such a difficult piece of music and, as you mentioned, it's a Catholic funeral mass. So what was it about this particular oratorio that you think attracted Schachter and everybody else who performed at Terezin?
MS: Well, I think there are two answers to that. First, he takes the Requiem score because he can't leave home without it. And he wanted to have it in his grasp so that if he's sitting someplace or on the train going or if he has some time in the evening he can look at at the score. It will give him great pleasure.
Number two, after he's there for a while, and the arts community percolates, he sees that doing a major work may be possible. He remembers some Latin from the Requiem Mass: “Whatever is hidden shall become evident and nothing shall remain unavenged.”
They're singing to the Nazis: “What you have done will be known and it will be avenged; you will suffer for this. God will see to it.” I think those two lines were the inspiration for Schachter deciding to do the Verdi Requiem.
MP: And when Schachter later said, “We sang to the Nazis what we could not say to them,” do you think that's what he was referring to?
MS: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean this was their way of raising their fists. One of the survivors told me this was their way of fighting back. This was why Rafael Schachter uses the word defiance. It's not my word. So, Defiant Requiem means that they turned the Verdi requiem into an act of defiance.
MP: One of the most incredible pieces of this story is that the prisoners ended up performing Verdi’s Requiem for the International Red Cross and top Nazi military personnel. Do you think they were aware that they were essentially being exploited for propaganda purposes?
MS: Yes, they were. It was the Danish King that forced the Red Cross to visit. There were about 300 Danes in the camps. So, the Red Cross came. And before the Red Cross came, the Jews had to clean the place up. They had to plant gardens and build fake storefronts and in the storefronts were fake windows where it looked like they were selling clothes and shoes. But all that stuff [came] from the prisoners’ own suitcases — it was called a Potemkin village.
All of this was just a charade. So the prisoners knew that they were participating in the charade, of course. What was the choice?
MP: You call Defiant Requiem a “concert-drama.” How is it different from a traditional choral performance?
MS: Well, first of all, we tell the story of how Verdi's Requiem was used in Terezin, what it meant to the prisoners, and we tell the story with two actors. The actors will speak between the choral movements and explain parts of the piece that the chorus is about to sing, but also perform dramatizations of certain questions: How was it received in the camp? How did it feel to be in the audience? What were the conflicts surrounding the making of the piece? There’s so many issues surrounding the piece.
One of the actors speaks on behalf of Rafael Schachter and one of the actors, whom we call the lecturer, is a composite of five different people and various perspectives.
And then also we have onscreen video excerpts of interviews of five or six people, three of whom sang in the choir and three others who were in the audience at Terezin.
MP: What do you hope the audience takes away from Divine Requiem?
MS: I want people to remember the name of Rafael Schachter. He was a great hero. He was an inspired man and a man capable of inspiring thousands of his fellow prisoners. And part of what we do is to give him something of the career he never had. That's number one.
Number two: I want people in the audience to remember, whenever they hear the Verdi Requiem again, the circumstances of Terezin. Not to think of it simply and only as the magnificent music that it is, but to go further and realize the nutrition and inspiration and its role as the the giver of courage and the giver of harmony.
MP: What was it like to perform Defiant Requiem at Terezin?
MS: Well, it was no ordinary day. I can only tell you that it's not a matter of ghosts or spirits. But I felt in my heart of hearts that I was acting on behalf of people who sacrificed so much. And who died so needlessly.
You know, I guess let me put it to you this way. Maybe this is the best way: The question you just asked is a very complicated one and a very personal one and, as it is with art, the reason why art exists is because we run out of language. So that's when art begins.
What was it like? I can only answer silently and with my head down and with my eyes closed and tell you it was no ordinary day.
MP: Wow. Well, it's such an amazing project and I'm so inspired by it and I think Asheville audiences will be inspired, too. Good luck with the future performances.
MS: Thanks, all the best to you. Take care.
Defiant Requiem will play for one night only, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 1, at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in downtown Asheville. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at uscellularcenterasheville.com.
(Photos by Josef Rabara, courtesy of Classical Music Communications)