Requiem for Darfur

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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 Mathew [William Lamson, Courtesy of New York Magazine]

Next Monday evening in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, the Singapore-born Indian conductor George Mathew will lead an all-star cast in making “a symphonic statement to the world” about the unabated malevolence and misery often labeled “genocide” in the region of Sudan known as Darfur.

The concert is a fundraiser, of course, for all the right relief teams. Jan Egland of the UN and Mia Farrow will take celebrity turns. The performers — the cream of New York, Berlin and the Metropolitan Opera — will be brilliant.

But George Mathew’s real hook into our hearts and consciences concerns the connection point among art, understanding and action. As in his Carnegie performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony last year for earthquake devastation in Kashmir, George Mathew is looking for an antidote to aestheticism, isolation and despair. And he believes that the answers are in the music — with a fervor that makes others drop what they are doing. The New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow was surprised to get the call, “but George is extremely compelling,” as he told New York Magazine. “Who else thinks of a musical event about helping people?” Bono and Bob Geldof, obviously, but not before this among classical players.


Dies Irae in Sudan

[Ron Haviv/VII, Courtesy]

Verdi’s Requiem, Mathew says, “is simultaneously music of mourning, consolation and a stern, urgent reminder of accountability and responsibility that each of us bears for the well being of our fellow creature,” added Mathew. “There is no more fitting way for us in the musical community to give voice to the acute need, fear, suffering and hope, of the victims of this catastrophe.”

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.

George Mathew

Artistic Director and conductor of Verdi’s Requiem for Requiem for Darfur

Conducting Staff, Manhattan School of Music

Former General Manager, Boston Camerata

Stephanie Kleschnitzki

Coordinator and Sudan advisor for Requiem for Darfur

Extra Credit Reading

Cedric, Verdi’s Requiem, SFist: Philistine, June 21, 2006: “Visiting conductor James Conlon twice asked for a perfect silence from the SF Symphony audience in Davies Symphony Hall, during Saturday’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The first time was to shush the house before opening the concert with the softest pianissimo from the cellos, a whisper of a murmur leading to the hushed prayer from the Chorus…”

Jason, Friday 8 Track, OxyMoron: Hipster Dork, January 12, 2006: “Elements to note are the huge percussive hits that work in a call-and-response with the orchestral hits as well as the frantic high strings (similar to Wagner’s darkest and angriest moments) that sound like the heavens are being burned from the sky.”

Euterpe’s Daughter, Amused, Music’sDaughter, December 20, 2006: “My prof for my psych class…played music before every class this semester. When I recognized it, I noticed it was always topical (for example, OLP’s Spiritual Machines on the day we talked about consciousness). The day of the exam, he played Verdi’s Requiem….It sounds like the world is coming crashing down around your ears. Apocalypse! Destruction! Wailing and gnashing of teeth!”

C. Dale Young, Quantus tremor est futurus, Avoiding the Muse, June 25, 2006: “Verdi’s Requiem was amazing. I was riveted, and it seemed most of the audience was as well. Whatever people want to say, there is still a strange power hidden deep within the words of the Latin mass. It captivates. It mesmerizes. Despite having never heard Verdi’s Requiem, I knew the lyrics, so to speak.”

Chris Jarrett and Alexis Rosenzweig, Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin, Radio Praha, May 24, 2006: “One Rafael Schaechter, using just a legless piano and with one single copy of the score, gathered over 150 fellow prisoners in a basement beneath the camp to rehearse a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. On Sunday, 63 years on, the camp was once again the venue for Verdi’s masterpiece, performed by musicians from the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music in remembrance of those who lived their last days in the grounds of Terezin.”

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  • OliverCranglesParrot

    This is not intended to answer Chris’ extremely important question. But the following piece of music has helped me recover and heal from catastrophic personal loss Symphony No. 3 (Górecki)

    For others it’s the Blues…and still others a hug…and still others…

    In terms of confronting an ongoing tragedy, art has the power to remind that humanity’s wickedness made flesh is not the only possibility for human potential and creativity. Perhaps not the problem solving nugget Chris is seeking. Art can unask the question and create room for re-examination without relying upon a historical context as the precondition of human understanding; a polite way to suggest shedding baggage may be the best approach to framing issues and exploring possibilities. Perhaps this is paradoxical given the context for which Henryk Gorecki’s symphony was conceptualized and delivered.

    In terms of generating the necessary urgency to repair and improve a tragic situation, it will take more than music, mathematics, evolutionary science, social systems, ngo’s, communication technologies, celebrities, religion, My-Beliefs-Trump-Your-Beliefs, etc. to crack this nut. There is no answer awaiting in the back-of-the-book.

    Optimistically, as long as this problem is not ignored, there is still potential and hope for an end to the crisis that doesn’t involve mass slaughter and attrition. Any and all pressure should be brought to bear upon our collective wits.

  • No one event, personality, medium, organisation or idea can do it, but if enough people show enough initiative and committment, I suppose we might reach a tipping point. By showing we give a damn, we up the political ante, until democratic leaders have no choice but to engage fully in a determined search for a lasting solution.

  • George Mathew

    Dear FredR and Oliver,

    Bless you for your thoughts. This is all about GIVING A DAMN! Grass-roots has always been what made awakenings and action possible. We have seen this vividly manifest in the initiatives of Gandhi, MLK, Havel and even these last US midterm elections. The humanitarian effects through great music in these concerts is important but the larger context of our work is an awakening of the larger social psyche to action, to reflection and most of all to interaction that we can be a more dynamic comunity at every single level. We have the fantastic opportunity in the fact that Verdi, Beethoven and Duke Ellington among countless other great artists were profoundly interested in this very selfsame awakening and left blueprints in all their works for us to have and to use.

    The most vital response to art is the creation of dynamic community on every level — and that is almost larger than a human principle.


  • zeke

    Chris cites three possible reasons that people don’t connect: George Mathew is looking for an antidote to aestheticism, isolation and despair. The second two seem obvious (though important). The first, aestheticism is intriguing. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the show.

    This show may give new meaning to the notion that music is “moving.” In this case: moving to action. To be effective any art needs to move us on an emotional level. Aestheticism drains art of the vital force that makes it potentially moving.

    A question nags though. Through history some of the most “moving” music has been quite shoddy artistically. I am thinkning of everything from military marches and national anthems to overtly manipulative soundtracks in movies and television.

    On the one hand, aestheticism can be limiting. On the other, we must not abandon our critical faculties, for fear of being led astray by propaganda disguised as art.

  • loki

    When George Steiner lectured at Harvard several years ago,he sited Wagner’s influence upon the Nazis. He sumed up this thought by saying,after all Mozart’s music never led any one to kill anyone.

    Can Dafur be healed by music? We are all,afterall guilty bystanders to tragedy.

  • tbrucia

    Organizing the folks in refugee camps into self-defense militias and handing them AK-47s and ground to air missiles would do more than any amount of music. Music doesn’t save one single life. As for ‘healed’, only the living can be healed; the dead simply rot. — The question raised, ‘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.’ The answer is simple: it can’t.

  • nother

    Betthoven, talked about writing for for moods, like a poet; my question for George would be what is his mood when he thinks about Darfur?

  • Sir Otto

    You guys hear joy and resurrection. I hear despair and chaos. Which is it?

  • bsaltzstein@comcast.

    thank you for this special program. it brought me to my knees.

  • soltrekker

    I’m sorry, I usually really enjoy Open Source, but I found this program extremely aggravating. Such arrogance. To pretend to understand what Darfurians are suffering and create such parallels between their tragedy and what survival there is and the requiem’s moments seems to me pure fantasy in the service of ego. Thank goodness for the young woman whose “simple” (Mathew’s descriptor) statements and direct, to what degree, I do not know, service to Darfurians was the only redemptive quality of this program. She, at least, also directly stated that the concert is a benefit. I firmly believe no one but Darfurians understands their misery. People, be still, listen to the music, and get ought your checkbooks.

  • Potter

    My reaction was helplessness ( which Chris mentioned) and resignation ( definitely from the music) and I suppose it is apropos to keep those feeling alive rather than have no feeling or turn our heads in despair. We do send many of us) money to Unicef and Doctors w/o Borders and the other ngo’s. But the dying and suffering keeps on keeping on…..

    Stephanie was the heart this night. But one thing I did connect with that George Mathew’s said that the human spirit is indomitable.. and we know that when we read accounts of the Holocaust. We need perhaps to get some of those Darfurians here to tell their stories… a string of them ongoing…

    The nagging feeling is that if this were happening practically anywhere else we would not stand for it. The “tipping point” would have been reached. This we noted years ago when this started. Years!

  • soltrekker, there is a paradox in that we can never really KNOW the suffering of another, yet we can find ways to connect to the suffering another profoundly enough to move us to action or to at least reduce a sense of loneliness. Yes, the checkbooks are important. But concerts like this and constant cultural call to evoke a constant awareness of that which we have not yet stopped is also important. Each small moment of trying to get someone to empathize with the plight of another continues to add drops to the pool of concern that might actually begin to have tides when enough drops attract the attention of the moon.

    Ego is always involved. To say that we are in service of ego is to say that we are human. We are not angels. If we were we would be living in a different existential domain.

  • nother

    “Moods are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”

    -Ludwig van Beethoven

    I have always kept this quote near my desk. It reminds me how moods play into this whole crazy deal.

  • Listening to the Requiem and the commentary makes me think of another great piece of morning for voices and orchesta: Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. A lot of listeners shy away from more modern classical music, but as someone who not only appreciates but loves modern music, I highly recommend it.

  • drpeacerose

    Thank you for this wonderful show. Last spring the Seattle Peace Chorus performed “Mozart’s Requium” as a trubute to all who have died in Iraq and Afganistan. So many of us feel helpless to do anything about the tragic state of the world. At least for that period of time we felt we were doing something. A contingent of the the Seattle Peace Chorus will be traveling to Venesuala to perform in June. Music and the arts can give us a voice, express our empathy and bidge misunderstanding.

  • George Mathew


    Thank you for your beautiful response. Soltrekker, your unease at my posture and indeed the posture of the whole enterprise is a microcosm of our own struggle to find a proper response to the scale of what is going on in Sudan and elsewhere in the world. It is a struggle is that laden with stumbling, recovery, pulling together of people, more stumbling, greater recovery and compassion, some great great music. On one thing I agree with you completely. Stephanie, my wonderful colleague and partner in REQUIEM FOR DARFUR and on OPEN SOURCE, is not only the heart of the show on Thursday, but the heart and battery off our entire operation.

    This is an effort to bear witness to what Leonard Bernstein called “our boastfully held little blue pilot flame of Humanity” — our ability to love no matter what our own flaws are, no matter what the cirumstances, no matter how large or small the context is.

    The response to Darfur has been tied up in knots by our well-meaning commitment to legality and an old-fashioned, perhaps even Old Testament notion of justice. Our effort with these concerts is not just to bring great music to the service of people in need by raising money for them and by raising awareness for them but by creating an enterprise which is driven by love, by inclusion, by embrace not only in the beautiful velvet-seated environs of Carnegie Hall but in the sweaty, hectic, deadline driven of the everyday life whereever we might be.

    George Mathew

    Artistic Director

    requiem for darfur

  • longdaysjourney

    Mr. Mathew:

    Thank you so much for putting this together. I’m unable to attend in person, but I am hoping your performance will be simulcast and available for purchase as a recording. I know that I am only one of many who would like to participate, even if it is only by listening to a cd, in this wonderful event you have organized. Best of luck tomorrow night!

  • Hi George,

    I just heard the Weekend Edition piece on Requiem for Darfur. Your words about responding in the silence that follows catastrophe were very compelling. I remember you from the UMN as a very thoughtful musician. So glad to know you are continuing to find purpose and hope–as well as artistry–in the art.

    –David Evan Thomas

  • EllenB

    I heard about this concert on NPR this morning and I think it’s a wonderful idea. I wish I could be there. As for the question posed, I suppose I disagree a bit with the premise. I don’t think people are indifferent or feel removed from the suffering around the world and especially in Darfur. If anything, the tragic images from Sudan live in our minds as reminders of how helpless we are to change anything.

    I am personally baffled as to what I can do. Send money, yes, but haven’t people sent a great deal of money already and still nothing changes. Put pressure on my representatives in Congress? Write to the President? The President has already stated, a very long time ago, that what is happening in Darfur is genocide. Both my senators have spoken out loudly about what is happening in Sudan and have demanded action. My representative, Congressman John Olver, actually participated in civil disobedience to bring attention to what is happening in Darfur. Everyone, it seems, agrees. So what is the problem? Where is the distance between words and action? If we all agree, why are people still dying?

    I think the lack of attention by most Americans is more about confusion and helplessness. We are at war, our soldiers are dying every day in Iraq, we are helpless to stop that either. There was a time when the words of an American president mattered, where the declaration of a situation as “genocide” would have meant we needed to take action to stop it. Clearly, that is no longer true.

    Perhaps, while listening to Verdi’s Requiem, as that great space of darkness fills with music, the people sitting in those plush seats will ponder the gates of hell into which we have fallen and consider what they can do to spur action and change.

  • fjgiblin

    Thankyou George Matthews for your insights. I sing in a church choir and once we preformed Verdi’s Requiem as part of a large chorale. It was compelling for me at that time because I had recently lost my father. But your comments on the npr program about the music and Darfur connected me to the depths of their pain and suffering. Because the response to art is always an awakening (on various levels as you say), we cannot help but act, together. The dynamic human community is deeply embedded in the human spirit. It is why we have suvived as a species. Music preceded language. But that is a whole other disdussion

  • Dee Abrahamse

    I was very touched by the story – not about the particular requiem as much as th though of classical musicians and choral singers gathering to donate their musicianship for Darfur. I wish this could be repeated – perhaps with different works – around the country. I told my choral director and a fellow choi member about it, and the choir member didn’t know what Darfur was. In Vaughn Williams’s words, may music awake from silence and help our country become more compassionate.

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