The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Verdi’s Requiem

“I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can’t live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know,  and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now.  I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them in serious trouble.”  ~Utah Phillips

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

22 May 1874, Milan.  Verdi conducts the premiere of the Requiem Mass he wrote for Alessandro Manzoni, the beloved novelist.  Manzoni wrote the novel The Betrothed that stands out as one of the great works of world literature and is credited with helping to solidify structures of modern Italian language.  Verdi admired him greatly and took a movement from an unfinished Requiem for Rossini — the “Libera me” — and created what would become one of the most loved, most famous choral works of all time.  It premiered in the cathedral in Milan; I was at the cathedral almost 125 years later to the day, but I can’t say that I was able to imagine the Requiem being performed there: I was wearing shorts and they wouldn’t let me inside. So I walked around the perimeter admiring the hundreds of chiseled saints that cling to its walls like barnacles.  I imagine those stony martyrs and mystics were pleased with what they heard on that day 125 years before: the work is so dramatic it’s hardly ever been used for liturgical purposes since its premiere, but saints are always unconventional and pretty dramatic themselves. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the work went nearly unperformed for a number of decades until it gained popularity in the 1930s — a popularity it has held ever since.


Rafael Schächter (1905-1945)

Rafael Schächter (1905-1945)

30 November 1941, Terezin/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.  Rafael Schächter, a Jewish Czechoslovak musician and conductor, is imprisoned in the concentration camp.  Among the possessions he was allowed to keep with him were several musical scores, including Verdi’s Requiem.  There was a smuggled piano in the barracks, and playing it helped him to alleviate some of the pain.  Could it help others, too?  It did.  He organized his fellow prisoners into a choir, rehearsing them in the evenings after long days of useless toil.  With only a single score, he taught everyone their parts, which they memorized.  The Nazi leadership gave them permission to hold concerts — fully realized operas — which were not only highly acclaimed, they earned the choir members clemency for a time.  With his place in the camp somewhat secure, he decided to perform Verdi’s Requiem both to inspire his fellow inmates and to deliver a subtle message to the Nazis: You’d better fear Judgement Day, because your evil surpasses all.  Week by week, his choir diminished, whether through death or deportation, so that the piece became a Requiem that was by the Jews, but for them as well.  The work was such a success, ironically, that when the Red Cross and world leaders asked to see what life in a concentration camp was like, they were directed to Theresienstadt where they witnessed children eating ice cream and an incredibly fine choir singing Verdi.  Little did they know that the original choir had dwindled from 200 members down to 60.

Hangar 11, Tel Aviv. Our stage for the Requiem.

Hangar 11, Tel Aviv. Our stage for the Requiem.

18 July 2012, Tel Aviv.  We awoke that morning to news that a bus transporting Israeli tourists from the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, had been attacked by a suicide bomber, killing five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver, and injuring thirty-two others.  That night we (The Collegiate Chorale) performed Verdi’s Requiem in a repurposed airplane hangar along the coast in Tel Aviv in an artsy part of town.  It was my first time ever performing the Requiem, and we were conducted by Maestro Riccardo Muti, one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Verdi’s music.  I’m told that his mentor had a mentor whose mentor was Verdi, so in terms of the transfer of musical knowledge and genius, he’s kind of like Verdi’s great-grandson.  The manager of the Israel Philharmonic announced to the audience that the concert would be dedicated to those killed in the morning’s attack — respectful yet solemn applause. — and then we started to sing.  A older woman in the third row began to cry as soon as the music started, and I noticed a few others followed suit.  I looked at the woman for the duration of the entire concert; she never stopped crying.  I sang to her the whole time.  When we finished and walked back to our own buses, none of the singers spoke to one another, which was highly unusual.  It was clear to all of us, I think, that we hadn’t just performed a beautiful concert: we actually sang the Requiem as a Requiem, and it was a deep, powerful experience.

Maestro Murray Sidlin

Maestro Murray Sidlin

2006, Terezin.  Conductor Murray Sidlin assembles a choir at Terezin in the dilapidated hall of the concentration camp to commemorate the performance of the Requiem the prisoners gave for the international community.  He’d learned of the historical concert conducted by Schächter and was fascinated by the fact that such an Italian Catholic piece should resonate so deeply with the Jewish prisoners.  He interviewed survivors who had performed at that concert and they told him how the music gave them hope and courage, how simply rehearsing gave them something to look forward to in a place where everything around them reeked of death, oppression and misery.  In this commemorative performance the piece is performed with full orchestration, but there are moments when the orchestra drops out to allow the piano to play all the parts as it did for the entire work when Schächter’s choir performed it — as the survivors who attended as audience members could attest.  Sidlin would go on to establish the Defiant Requiem Foundation which would produce the concert in this way — reminiscent of Terezin — around the world.

9 March 2015, New York City.   I’ll be singing the Requiem for the second time, again with the Collegiate Chorale, but this time at Avery Fisher Hall and with Murray Sidlin conducting.  We’ll perform it as his orchestration of Schächter’s Defiant Requiem, not as the traditional Requiem that you may know (not that it’s so different musically, just a few poignant reorchestrations as mentioned above).  As we’ve rehearsed it these past few weeks, I keep thinking back to those performances in Israel and that woman with the tears.  I can still see her face, every detail of it.  I wonder why it should be that, for me, this piece — so utterly Catholic — should be so completely associated with Judaism.  Every time I will have performed it, it somehow ends up addressing anti-Semitism and is a direct response to cruelty, injustice and terrorism directed towards the Jews.  But then I read the news, and I cease to wonder why.  Anti-Semitism is alive and well, along with many of the other types of hatred that have been with us for so long.

There is something redemptive about Verdi’s Requiem.  It captures the fear of dying, the fury of Judgement Day, the impassioned pleas for salvation, both loudly insistent and quietly sincere.  You don’t have to practice any particular religion to feel the sway of its power; by the end you’re simply in awe of its enormous beauty.  Which doesn’t make it an antidote for evil — it obviously didn’t cause the Nazis to have a change of heart.  But it does provide a kind of sanctuary, as if God, in response to our singing “salva me fons pietatis” — Save me, fount of pity! — saves us with the Requiem itself.  He says, “Here, there’s a Requiem concert in March; just hang on to this.  I know you can’t comprehend all the wickedness you see around you in the world, but that’s okay.  Just hang on.”  And we do.  The piece is 140 years old, but still feels relevant and fresh

The past didn’t go anywhere, did it?

Et lux perpetua luceat eis.  


If you’d like to know more about the Defiant Requiem, click here to watch the documentary film and learn more.

And if you’d like tickets to hear us perform the Requiem in March, click here.

Alexander Hamilton: the Man, the Book, the Musical

In 2012 I was sitting on the beach in Tel Aviv with two friends from the Collegiate Chorale.  We performed with the Israel Philharmonic for three weeks that summer, and on this evening early in the tour the three of us were drinking wine at one of the open air bars scattered along the coast and talking about…(wait for it…)…Alexander Hamilton.  One of my compatriots had recently finished the Ron Chernow biography and was clearly excited to share what she’d learned.  She told us of his exploits with a beaming air, as if he were her own son.  Hamilton, she said, was far and away her favorite Founding Father.

This struck me for two reasons.  First, my friend is Syrian by birth, educated in Europe, now an American, and she is so passionate about history that she has a favorite Founding Father.  Which prompted my second thought: my DNA arrived on American soil in the mid-1600s, long before Hamilton & Co. were even born, and yet I’d taken their contributions for granted.  I know that’s common: when we study history in schools, everything that happened in the past feels like a foregone conclusion.  It’s only as an adult that I began to realize that none of it has ever been preordained and that the present could have been very different.  Even so, I have to admit I was a little bit ashamed for not having a favorite Founding Father myself, especially considering I grew up in Cincinnati, which is in Hamilton County, which is named for that same Hamilton (a fact I didn’t realize until I read the biography; no one ever told me and I never thought to ask).  In that moment, in Tel Aviv, it seemed as though a fave Founder was something one ought to have.

Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC.  I always make a point of visiting him when I'm in the area.

Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church in the Financial District in NYC. I always make a point of visiting him when I’m in the area.

Naturally, then, I started reading the book as soon as I got home from the trip.  It was immediately clear why she’d been so drawn to him.  His biography is like something out of Dickens: a ragamuffin West Indian kid grows up on the wrong end of town with a cast of colorful characters, moves forward in life by impressing the right people with his wit and scrappy intelligence, makes his way to New York to study, finds himself hobnobbing with the elite, eventually becomes Washington’s most trusted aide.  He also happens to be the father of modern finance and was one of the very first prominent abolitionists.  And all of this is only the tip-of-the-tip of the iceberg.

And now, two centuries after his death from dueling Vice President Aaron Burr, he’s one of the hottest characters on Broadway. Since he’s now my favorite Founding Father, too, I was both shocked and excited to read about Hamilton the musical.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of In the Heights, was also moved and impressed by the Chernow biography and turned Hamilton’s story into a hit show that’s got both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber singing its praises.  A quick search turned up this fantastic video from a performance by Miranda at the White House in 2009.  No doubt the piece he performs has gone through many changes before finally making it to New York, but if the show in its current form is anything like this recording then my guess is that Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber weren’t just being nice.  It’s sold out through April, but I’m going to do my best to get $20 tickets in the lottery.  I’ll report back if that actually happens.

In the meantime…

(ps: Who is your favorite Founding Father?)

Magna Carta Day — 6/15

WHEREAS today marks the 798th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, and
WHEREAS it is Father’s Day Weekend,
THEREFORE I see it fit to honor a few of my great-great-great…x20…great-great grandfather’s who had some involvement in the Magna Carta’s existence and execution.

I’ve been archiving my family history for enough years and with enough concern for accuracy that I feel comfortable referring to myself as a genealogist, albeit of the amateur, hobbyist sort.  I recently discovered that one of my earliest colonial American ancestors, John Throckmorton (1601-1683), descended from a fairly august lineage that led through a succession of feisty barons straight into the Plantagenet, Angevin, Carolingian and Merovingian dynasties.

It seems to be genealogical gold to be able to trace your family history back to Charlemagne, and I can do it, but I always offer this caveat for those who think “royal blood” is something to get over-excited about.  Charlemagne is my 40th great grandfather.  So say the word “great” forty times and that’s how far back you have to go.  Assuming a person has two parents who are not brother and sister (or any other combination of relatives), then that person has four distinct grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, and so on.  Know how many 40th great grandparents a person has?

A: 4,398,046,511,104

That’s over 4 trillion, folks.  That’s a lot of Grandparent’s Day cards.  And it presents a mathematical problem: there were only a couple dozen million people living in Europe during Charlemagne’s day, and if you add up the rest of the population of the Earth at that time it still doesn’t equal 4 trillion.  In fact, if you add up all the people who have ever lived it doesn’t equal that amount.  So that means that those 4 trillion empty spaces on your family tree have to be filled with the same few million people about a million times over!!

And it also tells us that we’re pretty much all related.

Now, having put all that out there, why care about genealogy at all?  Because it’s one thing to know generally that every person with any European ancestors whatsoever can probably trace their lineage back to Charlemagne (and everyone else alive then), but it’s another thing to have names and biographies and marriages — to have specific ancestors to think about who lived in a set of specific dates, who faced the challenges and enjoyed the blessings presented by the circumstances of the world at that time.

Which brings me back to the Magna Carta.

The English baronage in the early 13th century was in revolt against King John.  He was engaged in several battles in France that were draining royal coffers, so he did what governments in need do: he raised taxes (never a popular move).  English possessions in Normandy were lost.  A skirmish with Pope Innocent got him excommunicated.  The barons were not pleased.  Theirs was not the first rebellion against a king, but it was the first where the rebels didn’t have a replacement king in mind, so the result was that the king was not dethroned, but his powers were diminished.  This gave rise to the kinds of parliamentary governments so familiar to the world today, which is one reason the Magna Carta is historically relevant for the entire world.  According to the British Library, most of the clauses of the Magna Carta were so specific to the time period that only three remain as law today, but one of them is supremely important: that every person accused of a crime is given due process of the law and judged by a jury of their peers.

So, some of my known grandfathers had a hand in that.  Here are their stories.

William D’Aubigny, Lord of Belvoir (after 1150 — 1 May 1236)

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D'Aubigny family

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the D’Aubigny family

Grandpa Willy D’oh is my 26th great grandfather (and you only have 268,435,456 of those).  He was the Lord of Belvoir Castle, a stunning bit of real estate in Leicestershire.  He remained neutral at the beginning of the rebellion, only joining once he saw that the rebels might win.  It’s always smart to hedge your bets if it means losing your head.  Once in, he was all in, going so far as to hold the Rochester castle for the barons in the war that took place after the signing of the charter.  King John’s men did eventually capture him, though, and he was nearly hanged, but he lived on to become a Surety of the Magna Carta, meaning he was one of the twenty-five men who saw to it that it was enforced throughout the land.  He became more of a loyalist during the reign of John’s son, King Henry III, and was a commander for Henry’s army during the Second Battle of Lincoln.  He died in 1236 and was buried in Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, which is best known as the ancestral home of Lord Byron.  I like to think about Byron glancing at my ancestor’s memorial stone in the abbey and having it reappear transformed as an image in Manfred or Childe Harold.

Sir Robert de Ros, Baron of Helmsley (ca. 1170/72 — 1227)

London - Temple Church Robert de Roos 1227

Effigy on Grandpa Rob’s tomb

Grandpa Rob Ros is also a 26th great grandfather of mine.  There’s a lot more research to be done on this one because it sounds like he lived a life less ordinary.  First off, he committed some sort of offense that had him arrested by no less a personage than King Richard I, but his first captor handed him over to a second captor who subsequently let Grandpa Rob go free.  The second captor was not so lucky: he was hanged.  Grandpa Rob went on to prosper, however, and was given the barony of Helmsley by King John.  He was therefore loyal to John at first (like Grandpa Willy), and even escorted his father-in-law, my 27th great grandpa William the Lion, King of Scots, to the court of John to swear fealty to the English king.  (Incidentally, William the Lion was great-great grandson to King Duncan of Macbeth fame — a connection that pleases this English/Theater teacher immensely!)  It seems he had a brief period sometime thereafter where he became a monk, but that didn’t last.  This may have been the time when he was one of the Knights Templar.  In any case, he was rewarded for his loyalty to John during the start of the rebellion, but by the end he, too, took on the role of Surety of the Magna Carta and was responsible for watching over Northumberland.  He is entombed in the Temple Church in London, made famous recently by The DaVinci Code.

King John I of England

Don't look so sad, Grandpa.  You did good in the long run.

Don’t look so sad, Grandpa. You did good in the long run.

Grandpa John, like the other two, is a 26th great grandfather of mine.  Okay, okay: I should have probably started with him.  My DNA (from the research I’ve been able to complete) left the lines of succession after John’s grandson, King Edward I.  I’m not going to try to give his bio here — the man was a king, after all: there are hundreds of volumes written about him, far more than I can offer here.  History has not ranked him as one of the better kings, and that reputation doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.  But, as Hamlet says about his deceased kingly father, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”  This day 798 years ago was a bad day for Grandpa John, but it was the dawn of a new day for the rest of us.  It marked a turn in the course of human events.  I’m pretty sure his barons didn’t mean to, but they unwittingly cracked open the doors of democratic rule that allowed the rest of us to bear a share of the power that they alone had wielded for many centuries.  I know you couldn’t have known it at the time, Grandpa John, but you did a far better thing for the world than you could have ever imagined — which is perhaps reason enough to clear some of the blemishes off your reputation.

So Happy Magna Carta Day, everyone!  Here are a few shots of me from last summer in the ruins of a crusader castle in Acre, Israel (where my last Plantagenet ancestor, Joan of Acre, was born).  See any family resemblance?


In the navy!

Lost in the melee

Lost in the melee

Gored by a crusader, probably a Grandpa.

Gored by a crusader, probably Grandpa Rob.