It was based on sacred Christian liturgy, composed by an agnostic, dedicated to a devout Catholic, and voluntarily performed by imprisoned Jewish choristers for their Nazi captors.
That is the music of the Messa de Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. And its power and true intentions remain somewhat of a mystery.
Verdi was among Italy’s most famous opera composers, having innovated the genre to new heights. After a long career, by 1873 he was ready to put aside his composer’s pen and retire comfortably to his farm.
But when beloved literary icon Alessandro Manzoni suddenly died, Verdi felt music was the best eulogy. He used the sacred words of the Latin Requiem mass to create an opera-like oratorio for the secular stage.
With a modest tempo, no words and no harmony, the cellos begin with a simple, descending six-note melody that sounds incomplete.
From there, “Requiem” (Rest) is softly chanted by the chorus as the story begins to unfold.
The “Dies irae” (Day of Wrath) is among the most famous themes; with pounding bass drum notes and growling brass, it conveys God’s “hammer of judgement.” If fear had a theme song, this would certainly be it.
Dramatic orchestra riffs carry the epic journey until it crescendos into cascading cries of “Salve me!” (Save me!).
The old testament turns new when the pleas are finally answered. “Domine Jesu Christe” (Lord Jesus Christ) appears and a tender offering is carried by the cellos.
God is praised in unison with a brisk Sanctus (Holy) and a meditation follows with a simple plainchant of “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God).
In a stroke of genius, Verdi uses special techniques to create an ethereal realm in a duet of "Lux aeterna" (Eternal light) and "Requiem aeternam" (Rest in peace). Here one begins to hear the soul, not just the heart, of Verdi.
Then with no real melody or tempo, it ends opposite of the way it all began. An organ-like final chord resonates and the singers chant “Libera me” (Deliver me) repeatedly until the last note just fades away.
Was Verdi crying out for his own redemption, not from the sin of just being but from the sin of not believing?
Was this even a religious work? After all, he purposefully wrote parts for women, having to ask for special permission from the Church just to perform it.
It was “against the rules” to feature women, but the Church relented.
In 1943, a group of Jewish prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp also asked for an exemption. Their plan was to meet weekly to memorize, prepare and eventually sing the entire 90-minute Requiem by Verdi.
The Nazi’s were amused and permitted it, using it as propaganda to illustrate their care for the prisoners.
But after performances, dozens of these singing prisoners were sent to their sad fate. The 150 member chorus just continued by recruiting others to replace them.
Survivors say the Jewish prisoners needed this Requiem to endure, to stay focused on hope, and to nurture their souls through sound.
They also hoped it would relay an encrypted message to their captors, “to sing to them what we could not say.”
The mystery and power of Verdi’s Requiem becomes more revelatory through that lens. Perhaps it was never a Requiem for the dead...but for the living.