Over the course of his imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, musician Rafael Schächter gathered a chorus of singers to perform Giuseppi Verdi's Reqiuem—first in secret, and finally for a performance in front of high-ranking Nazi officials— over a dozen times. For many of the performers, including Schächter, it would be the last music they would hear before being transported to their deaths at Auschwitz.
This Thursday through Saturday, in their final performance with the Violins of Hope, the Nashville Symphony and Chorus will perform Verdi's Requiem. A live broadcast of the evening will also be aired Saturday night on 91Classical. We spoke with Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero ahead of these performances about the power of Verdi's work and his response to its history at Theresienstadt.
The unlikely story of how Schächter assembled a group of mostly amateur singers to perform one of the repertoire's most demanding choral works, all in the midst of tremendous suffering, is detailed in the documentary film Defiant Requiem. For many of Schächter's peers, a fiery Catholic Mass was a controversial choice for a Jewish choir to perform, and some urged that it would appear as if Schächter was apologizing for his Jewishness. But Schächter pushed forward, recognizing the emotional content and subtly subversive message of Verdi's work.
Guerrero suggests that Schächter might have been drawn to the emotive range in Verdi's writing, as well as his unflinching treatment of the topic at the heart of a reqiuem mass, and one in the forefront of the minds of Theresienstadt prisoners: death.
"I'm sure death was very clear in everybody's mind, it was inescapable, they could see it all around them," Guerrero says of Schächter's choir. "And because Verdi knew drama, he was able to capture the darker parts of [their experience]." Guerrero mentions that Verdi's work, unlike many requiems, does not end with the peaceful movement titled "In Paradisum" ("In Paradise"). "This is like any other tragic opera that he wrote; there is no happy ending."
Instead, he says that Verdi leaves listeners with something more akin to a musical question mark. "I think it's very appropriate, because in the end we don't know what happens after we pass. We have all our faith and we can have all our beliefs, and hanging onto them is absolutely imperative, but at the same moment we are humans too, and we have doubt."
The uncertaintly surrounding death, and when and how it would come, was a constant reality for Theresienstadt prisoners. And as members of his chorus were periodically transported to Auschwitz – unbeknownst to them– Schächter continually re-taught parts from Verdi's enormously complex work to new singers, by rote, using a single score. Guerrero says that through Verdi, they persevered in singing through this hellish reality.
It's a reality that he describes as "unimaginable," but one that also demonstrates the power of joy through music and the strength of those who performed it. "Under the worst of circumstances, people will step up to the plate and do things they couldn't possibly imagine." Guerrero points out. "I know this piece intimately, I know every note inside and out, and I can only imagine the pride of many of these singers as they were able to learn this.... this might have be the one light in the middle of such horror."
It's a light that Schächter and his choir had to cling to, as what began as gatherings to perform music in secret was eventually turned into public Nazi propaganda. In 1944, SS officers requested that Schächter stage Verdi's Requiem for a visit from the Red Cross and several prominent Nazi officers, including Adolf Eichmann. The performance was part of an elaborate staged facade to disguise true conditions at Theresienstadt.
So the choir stood and sang in front of their tormentors. With "Libera me" ("Deliver me"), they closed the Requiem with powerful text about asking God for mercy on Judgement Day, a pointed message delivered just a handful of years before Eichmann and others would be tried and executed for war crimes.
Immediately after the Red Cross visit, transports to Auschwitz resumed and included Schächter and his entire chorus.
Even with all concentration it takes for Nashville Symphony performers to execute the technical demands of Verdi's piece, Guerrero says the stories embodied by the Violins of Hope will be in the back of their minds. He says it's important to celebrate the stories of people like Schächter and his choir, who chose to literally sing defiantly in the face of death. And for him, the operatic drama of Verdi's Reqiuem is the perfect tribute.
"It has its high moments, it has its low moments, it has its scary moments, it serious moments," he describes. "It can be very moving, and I promise you there will be a lot of goosebump moments in these performances."