CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In the early 1940s, during World War II, many of Europe’s most prominent Jewish musicians boarded trains destined for the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. German propaganda described the city’s small fortress as a camp with a “rich cultural life,” but when the new inmates arrived, hope quickly faded. Their beloved instruments were replaced by workers’ tools, and they toiled endlessly each day as slave laborers for Hitler’s Third Reich.
But for a few minutes one morning in 1943, all that changed. Hundreds of Jewish prisoners gathered that day inside the camp and started singing Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” – a powerful, somber piece of music. They’d rehearsed for weeks before hand, memorizing the complex work without the help of books or sheet music.
It was a simple, yet powerful, act of defiance, but not one that uncommon in the camps.
“The prisoners were always making music,” Korre Foster, assistant professor of music at Austin Peay State University, said. “They were singing, they were playing violin. That highlights the importance of music as a creative and vital aspect of life.”
This fall, the APSU Department of Music is examining the powerful role music played during those dark times with a new choral concert, “Music for the Holocaust.” The performance, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, in the APSU Music/Mass Communication Building’s Concert Hall.
The music created during that period wasn’t always inspiring or defiant. In Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary, “Shoah,” the survivor Simon Srebrink recalls how, at the age of 13, he was forced to sing Polish folk tunes and military songs for his captors. Those captors later shot him in the head, but Srebrink survived. The somberness of his experience is echoed in the loud, almost violent percussive sounds, which open the Oct. 21 concert.
The performance begins with the world premier of “In the dark times will there also be singing,” a new composition by APSU professor of music Jeffrey Wood. The haunting work alternates between readings from the late Charles Reznikoff’s poetry on the Holocaust, to choral performances sung in Hebrew.
The second half of the concert will feature a performance of Donald McCullough’s “Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps.” McCullough, a celebrated composer across America and Europe, traveled to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and located several melodies crafted by prisoners in Buchenwald. He took those pieces and composed the 40-minute work that seeks to give “a human voice to the victims of the Holocaust.”
“The idea is basically how these individuals still made music, even though they were suffering,” Foster said.
That work will alternate between APSU voice faculty members singing solos and APSU theater faculty members reading letters composed during the Holocaust. Members of different student choirs will also be on stage as a choral union, performing the songs.
“It’s important to know that this is beyond a musical concert,” Foster said. “It’s much more of a life experience, especially for our students. It’s a learning experience for our students because we are reminding them of things that happened during World War II and the Holocaust.”
For more information on the “Music for the Holocaust” concert, contact the APSU Department of Music at 221-7818.