Any performance of Verdi’s Requiem any time and anywhere in the world is a memorable event. I have heard it played several times, and am invariably stirred, moved, uplifted and invigorated by the music, regardless of the standard of the performance. Hearing a performance in Jerusalem of what was termed ‘Defiant Requiem,’ commemorating the performance of that music in the Theresienstadt concentration camp under the baton of inmate Rafael Schächter, was something quite extraordinary for all those who heard it, but I felt that for me it had a special significance. The performance, which was given in the framework of the Israel Festival last week, is the project of American conductor Murry Sidlin. In a bold move, the music was interspersed with readings describing the performance of the work in Theresienstadt and filmed accounts by camp survivors who had participated in the performance or attended it.
During my teenage years in London in the 1960s I heard the Requiem played on LP records every Sunday morning. It was then when my late father would sit at his desk in our back room, his head wreathed in cigarette smoke, as he attended to his accounts or typed letters on behalf of the various organizations for which he worked in his spare time to earn a few extra pennies. He had arranged for a loudspeaker system to be built from our front room, so that records played on the ‘radiogram’ there which was his pride and joy could be heard in both rooms simultaneously. It was my task to attend to the four 33 r.p.m. records which formed the boxed set of the Requiem and had to be turned over and changed every twenty minutes or so. Each time I hear the Requiem now I recollect exactly at which point each record ended, requiring my intercession so that the music could continue. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who the artists were, and those records have long since gone the way of all flesh.
The book by Josef Bor describing the agonising events surrounding the performance of the Requiem in Theresienstadt, ‘The Terezin Requiem,’ translated by Edith Pargeter and published by William Heinemann in 1963, was on my parents’ bookshelf when I was still living at home, and I must have read it almost as soon as they bought it. It is a very moving account of all the difficulties and obstacles that had to be overcome so that the music could be performed, and it certainly made a deep impression on me, but the thought that it could in some way be dramatized never occurred to me. My own connection with Theresienstadt derives from the fact that my paternal grandmother was deported there from Hamburg in 1942, and perished there a few months later (before the Requiem was performed there). I have translated the letters she sent from there, as well as the diary written by Martha Glass, who was also from Hamburg but survived.
In the performance devised by Murry Sidlin Israeli actors gave some readings in Hebrew, Sidlin himself gave others in English, and filmed extracts of interviews with survivors were shown interspersed with the music. An upright piano was used to accompany some of the music instead of the full orchestra, reminding the audience of the conditions under which the music was performed at Theresienstadt. At those moments the stage was darkened, and when the full orchestra took over the stage was brilliantly lit, serving to underline the contrast between the conditions then and now. At the end of the performance the audience was requested not to applaud but to stand for a minute of silent contemplation. While we were standing the soloists, the members of the orchestra and the choir quietly walked off the semi-darkened stage.
It was a truly moving performance of a remarkable piece of music, one which few of those present that evening will ever forget, least of all me, who felt that a remarkable coincidence had managed to bring several separate strands of my life together. My enjoyment was heightened by the fact that one of my two sisters, someone who shared my very unique experience of the music, had come from out of town to attend the performance. But I couldn’t help wondering what our father would have made of it all.