The Power of Music to Overcome

As most long-time readers know, I have the honor to sing with the Santa Barbara Choral Society in the soprano section. For the last two years, we have had plans for the Verdi Requiem on our calendar for Spring 2009. Our concert will be May 16 and 17, just a few weeks from now.

Not too long ago, we learned of an astounding coincidence. May 17, 2009 happens to also be the Commemoration Day of the Liberation of the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague.

Terezin was a ‘show camp’ where visiting dignitaries from human rights organizations were brought to show them that the prisoners interred there were being treated well. Toward that end, the Nazis directed musicians and singers and artists toward this camp and permitted them to practice their arts for show. Later, most were deported to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Malthausen. At Terezin, there was a conductor, named Raphael Schaecter, who assembled a chorus and orchestra from among the prisoners. During the years of 1943 to 1944, Schaecter and his musicians performed the Verdi Requiem 16 times to uplift the hearts of their fellow prisoners and to amuse their captors, who thought it funny that a chorus of Jews would be singing a Christian funeral mass…for themselves.

This year on Terezin’s commemoration day, a chorus from America (the Berkshire Festival Chorus) will travel to Prague to perform the Verdi Requiem at the camp on May 17. On that same day, my chorus, Santa Barbara Choral Society, will be performing the same piece in Santa Barbara.

Once we learned of this amazing coincidence and began to discover more about the singers and the history of this piece of music in their lives, we determined to dedicate our performance to the memories of the singers of Terezin. Beautiful as the piece is (and it is achingly beautiful) it has taken on an entirely new meaning to our group. Each of us feels a connection to these singers and instrumentalists who under the most difficult of circumstances that life could throw at them found solace and even defiance of their captors in the music. Able to say through the Verdi’s score what they couldn’t say in words. For more on the history, click here.

Just today, a friend just sent me a link to an incredible essay by Karl Paulnack on this subject. Better than I ever could, this piece sums up why music matters and why it is desperately wrong to cut funding for music at a time as critical as this one in our country. Now, more than ever, we need music to feed and heal our souls.

If you’re anywhere near Santa Barbara that weekend, come to hear us at the Granada Theater!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “The Power of Music to Overcome

  1. Thanks for linking to that wonderful essay by Paulnack.

    If I were Empress of the World, learning how to play a musical instrument, singing in a choir, taking dance classes, painting, drawing, sculpting, and becoming fluent in at least one foreign language would be required activities in the curriculum of every school for all twelve years of school. You can tell how spiritually rich or impoverished a culture is by the art–or lack thereof–it creates. And we are dirt poor!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: And if I had the power to dub you Empress of the World to do just that I would bop you on the head with my magic wand today. Would that it were so. I agree totally with your position, except in the last. Despite our country’s not appropriately funding the arts (IMHO) at a governmental level, this country is rich in people who create it despite that lack. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the prisoners in Terezin, art flourishes within the human soul irrespective of condition. Like food, water, and air, as Paulnack suggests in his essay, it’s essential to our survival.

  2. What a coincidence (or maybe not)! My husband is a member of the Durham Choral Society (Durham, NC) and they will also be performing Verdi’s Requiem with the North Carolina Symphony May 2 & 3. I have passed your inspiring (& sad) story on to him and hopefully he can share it with others. What an incredible and powerful piece of music — and, I think, a powerful act of defiance in the face of great fear and suffering on the part of the Jewish prisoners.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Wish them the best in their performance. Once this Terezin connection is made, the piece takes on a whole new layer of depth and meaning. At least it did for me.

  3. Let me amend my observation about the state of the arts in contemporary Western culture. I didn’t mean that the world is not full of individuals who are wondrously creative or who have the sensitivity to respond to great art when they encounter it. Yes, I agree: the drive to create is embedded in human nature–part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God–and that’s why, throughout the ages, in all places and times, great art will emerge and it will be recognized over time as such. But I still contend that contemporary American and European culture are at the moment very impoverished, both in the art being generated and in the people who recognize it. Maybe I’m missing it, but I just don’t see the quality of art being produced today that compares with many of the great achievements of the past and their power to stir the soul. I don’t see historians of the future looking back on this period in our history as one in which the arts flourished with an outpouring of works of genius. That’s more what I meant by our current impoverishment.

  4. How much I applaud your Society’s efforts. You tackle the big pieces. Missa Solemnis, VW’s Sea Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, Handel and more besides.

    The Sea Symphony is a setting of Walt Whitman’s verses on the ocean and the exploration of it as a metaphore of transcendence. Both Beethoven and Verdi were atheists, yet the Catholic litturgy could inspire them so. VW was an agnostic (at least) but edited the Church of England’s hymn book and wrote some of its most inspiring hymns (eg “He Who Would True Valor See, Let Him Come Hither.”)

    And Meseiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Not easy listening, but very beautiful and moving. He was a devout Catholic and mystic unlike the unbelievers mentioned above.

    If I could throw in my 2 cents with a rather impractable suggestion: how about a staged performance of VW’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The music is a knockout, but requires a lot of soloists — which is why you’re not going to do it, something I understand. But at least you could do a few excerpts, especially the scenes “The House Beautiful” and “Watchful’s Nocturne”. EMI and Chandos have two classic recordings of the piece. VW himself recycled a lot of the music as his 5th Symphony, the other great masterpiece associated with WW II. The symphony was first performed during the London Blitz and the BBC relayed it to shelters all over London and people in those air raide shelters cried because the music gave them so much hope in their despair.

    And yes, I am distressed at the slip in education standards. I probably sound an old fart, but I had to do Latin and French. Classical Latin, not Catholic liturgy! We had to read Ceasar and Ovid in the original. Chaucer in the original Middle English. Why did the education of our young subsequently go so wrong?

    Michael Richards

    COMMENT from MD EADES: From one OF to another, I, too, had four years of classical Latin, reading Caesar, Cicero, Homer, Ovid, Virgil all in the originals. My mother (who was my high school senior English teacher) made us read at least portions of Chaucer in Middle English, just so that we’d be exposed to the beauty of it. She loved Middle English and read it aloud quite well.

    Thanks for the suggestions of VW Pilgrim’s…I will pass it along to our music director and see what she says. She’s quite a VW fan. In just recent memory, we’ve done his 5 Mystical Songs and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, but the Sea Symphony will be (next season) the first really epic VW we have tackled in a good while. The Society has been around for 61 years, so in the deep dark past they tackled some pretty ambitious things.

    We’re tossing about doing Stravinsky’s Les Noces next season, as a ballet collaboration. It’s pretty dischordant and unmelodic (which I’m not crazy about) but sounds challenging.

  5. Dear MD,
    I grew up with Les Noces. Two must have recpordings: Lennie B’s on DG (in Russian) and Stravinsky’s own recording on Sony (in English) with the 4 pianos played by Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber, Luckas Foss and Roger Sessions (4 composers for the price of one!).
    The reason for the composers is in celebration of the London premier conducted by Goosens (on your hubby’s blog a few posts back I mentioned that our actual dining room furniture was used by Goosens in the 50s!) which featured Vittorio Rieti, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc and Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke).
    When the piece gets going, it’s very exciting. But oh! the cross rhythums! Very difficult. Lennie’s version gets it right. Check it out!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Will do. Having listened to it, it sound dauntingly difficult. Our conductor is busy now looking at the score to determine if it’s something we ought to try to tackle for a performance we’d only have 6 weeks (read that 18 hours of rehearsal time) to master. It may have to wait for a future year. But I will get the LB recording and give a listen. Thanks.