Documentary reveals power of music

Holocaust survivors tell tale of defiance, singing Verdi's 'Requiem' during World War II

BRATTLEBORO — When Giuseppe Verdi wrote his “Requiem” in 1874, little did he know it would become one of the most beloved and frequently performed works of all time.

And how could he have imagined the subversive power it would provide, some 70 years later, against the inhumanity of a Nazi concentration camp?

The Brattleboro Concert Choir presents “Defiant Requiem,” an award-winning documentary of the power of music to provide solace and give strength while revealing depths of power and pain, on Sunday, Nov. 23, at 4 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre.

The event is a run-up to the choir's performance of the “Requiem” in January 2015.

The choir is directed by Susan Dedell, who is celebrating her 25th year on the podium.

The film tells the story of Jewish prisoners at the Theresienstadt Nazi concentration camp. Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic, had been designed as a showcase for Jewish artists, musicians, poets, and writers as propaganda to suggest to the International Red Cross - and the world - that detainees were being treated well and allowed to pursue their art.

The truth was altogether different, as the horrors of imprisonment, malnutrition, slave labor, and deportation were as real there as at other concentration camps.

Among the inmates was Czech opera and choral conductor Rafael Schächter, who convinced the camp's leadership to allow him to lead the imprisoned singers and musicians in Verdi's “Requiem.”

Performed for other prisoners, the piece's messages of eternal life and ultimate liberation provided hope and respite from the horrific world of life in the camp.

The final performance, for the International Red Cross and SS officers from Berlin, was sung instead as a subversive statement of world's end, flung at them in condemnation and as a desperate message to the outside world.

Surviving members of Theresienstadt testify throughout the film of the power of Verdi's music to inspire their defiance and resistance - to “sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them.”

The film holds a special meaning to the members of the Brattleboro Concert Choir and director Dedell, as the 100-voice choir is rehearsing the Verdi “Requiem” in preparation for performances on Jan. 10 and 11, 2015, at the Latchis Theatre.

“We can't know Verdi's hopes and dreams for his 'Requiem,'” Dedell says. “We do see its enduring beauty and message of light and life eternal, despite the 'day of anger' so powerfully portrayed in the music. 'Defiant Requiem' [] certainly helps us understand 20th and 21st century meanings and Verdi's ability to transcend his time."

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates