Words by Joseph E. Morgan
At first glance, one might wonder why the Violins of Hope would conclude their tour of Nashville with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass, 1974). The piece was originally inspired by a project to commemorate Gioachino Rossini’s death but fell through. Verdi later finished it to commemorate the death of Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni whom he had admired his entire life. After a somewhat successful tour across Europe, the Requiem soon slipped from the repertoire. However, there was a resurgence in its popularity in the early 20th Century.
However, in 1941 composer, conductor and pianist Rafael Schächter was transported and imprisoned by the Nazis at the Terezin concentration camp. While there, with a hidden piano and an ability to secret himself between the male and female portions of the camp, Schächter was able to organize a separate male and female choir. When the Nazis reintegrated the genders in the camp, the resulting choir grew to over 200 members and having been discovered the camp administrators, they allowed the ensemble to perform selections from famous operas and other works of classical music.
Schächter reportedly taught the Requiem, an 85-minute piece, to his choir by rote, for their first performance in January of 1942. Schächter reportedly saw the Requiem as an opportunity for his fellow inmates to discreetly express defiance toward their captors, as the text allowed them to “sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them.” The piece was given an estimated 15 additional times, culminating with a performance for the Red Cross in 1944, as part of the Nazi’s efforts at propaganda. Later that year he was transported to Auschwitz and three other camps before he died.
The Violins of Hope is a collection of historic instruments that were once owned or played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust and they have been part of a community-wide initiative in Nashville that has reached tens of thousands of Nashvillians since they arrived in March. As a culmination of the visit, this concert looks to be most poignant, and the Nashville Symphony has brought in four world-class soloists for the performance, including Swedish Soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, Mezzo-Soprano Michelle DeYoung, Russian Tenor Alexey Dolgov, and American Bass-baritone Eric Owen. Each concert will also be preceded by a chance for the audience to view each of the instruments and meet the luthier in charge of refurbishing and maintaining them. The performance will be held this weekend, Thursday, May 31 through Saturday, June 2 at Schermerhorn Hall.