Just as I was getting to work on Saturday, Scott Simon introduced a segment about a Carnagie Hall performance of Verdi’s Requiem to benefit the refugees from Darfur. I made a mental note and went to the web site to listen to the program. What I know of classical music I mostly learned from movie soundtracks, so the significance of the chosen piece is a little lost on me. I did find this description at Christopher Lydon’s Open Source, who also has a program on the concert:
As great as any of his 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi’s one Requiem is beyond category among the masterpieces of human affirmation in the depths of suffering and horror. Verdi wrote it in his 60’s to mourn and remember his artistic heroes, the composer Rossini and the poet-novelist Manzoni. The Requiem lives in the choral and orchestral canon as a monument to Verdi himself: his belief, doubt, compositional craft and melodic genius. The work encompasses confessions of sin and guilt, a tour of hell, affirmations of faith and aspirations to heaven. Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” not normally part of the traditional Catholic requiem Mass, has become a Hollywood favorite soundtrack for unidentifiable terror. Prisoners at Terezin, the Nazi camp in Czecholovakia, learned and played the Requiem in defiance of their helplessness. Musicians play it still, not least to remember Terezin.
George Matthew was the conductor for the concert. He was conducting Verdi’s piece for the first time. It was not his first time to assemble a variety of musicians and singers for a cause. He conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to raise money for Asian earthquake victims. When Scott Simon asked him why he felt compelled to organize this concert, Matthew said, “We as the classical music community had to say something with our craft.”
When Simon asked why Verdi’s Requiem, Matthews said it is “at once the music of mourning, at once it is extremely stern, and it is at once full of fear, of active terror in the face of death and really what happens to the human spirit when it’s confronted with the prospect of becoming nothing.” He went on to talk about its explosiveness and said following those explosions there was “the silent space which is the fertile ground for action.” To him, the music suggested that “In our human environment, the prospect of a individual dying unnoticed is not acceptable, it is not natural, and it is certainly not conscionable. It’s almost by virtue of the fact that someone is dying, the community must gather and Verdi is speaking to our deepest and best instincts.”
Lydon wrote in his commentary of the interview he did with Matthew, “My question to George is how his grasp of Verdi, and Beethoven, can strengthen our limp notions of what is happening in Sudan; how even a rapt contemplation in listening to Verdi can relieve our very contemporary American distance and indifference to what has become the hellish wallpaper of our media and our minds.”
I haven’t listened to Lydon’s show, but I wonder if Matthew’s answer to the question was much like his answer to Scott Simon: “We as the classical music community had to say something with our craft.” In offering their gifts, the musicians and singers are doing what they can to not let human beings die unnoticed and strengthening our sense of connectedness in the best way they know how.
Our call is to listen and then go and do likewise.