A New Requiem in Dresden | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features A New Requiem in Dresden Raphael Mostel reports from Dresden where, for the first time since they began performing concerts to commemorate the catastrophic World War II firebombing of the city (and amidst some 1,600 neo-Nazi and 13,000 anti-Nazi demonstrators), the Staatskapelle has commissioned and performed a new requiem.


Memorial commemorations in Dresden for the firebombing at the end of World War II —which literally incinerated almost the entire city — even after all of the intervening years is a very somber affair. In the firebombing, Dresden lost almost all of its historic buildings and at least somewhere between 25,000 or 35,000 people. Complicating their commemorations is the city's enthusiastic embrace of Nazism prior to its destruction, with its related question of collective guilt.

And even beyond this problem of the Nazi past of this ancient capital of Saxony is the fact the firebombing itself has become a symbol for which local and distant neo-Nazis have rallied there annually, a heretofore successful co-opting of the tragedy to propagandize against the American and British bombers for incinerating civilians.

The neo-Nazis grossly exaggerate the bombing’s death toll while simultaneously denying the holocaust and the existence of Nazi crematoria. At least until German reunification in 1989, their communist East German government itself promoted and taught these lies and distortions for anti-western propaganda purposes. Only relatively recently have the historical truths of the Nazi period — and about the bombing — begun to be made generally available to the public there.

In short, Dresden — a city of legendary beauty, called the “Florence on the Elbe, and for centuries a major center of the arts echoing with such names of Heinrich Schütz, Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff — is still battling the darkest forces of the twentieth century. The city has now been rebuilt to resemble what was historically there before. And just as it has recreated its buildings, Dresden is undertaking efforts just as massive, on numerous fronts, to heal and rebuild the spiritual and psychological wounds of the past.

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Lera Auerbach
photo by Matthias Creutziger

To that end, for the first time since they started giving annual commemorative requiem concerts when the city was still a pile of rubble in 1951, Dresden’s major orchestra, the Staatskapelle (one of the oldest and finest orchestras in the world) has commissioned and performed a new requiem. The work was co-commissioned by the Frauenkirche Foundation, named for the spectacular baroque Protestant church which had the symbol of the city, and which was rebuilt in 2005 with contributions from around the world.

The program book for the performances confronted the audience with two photographs. The first showed the Dresden crowds gathered to welcome Hitler on May 1, 1933, in the huge square in front of the Semper Opera. (Hitler had made his appearance in the city conditional on the opera and the Staatskapelle being made completely “Juden-frei” [Jew-free].) This is followed with a second photo showing the bombed-out city of 1945.

In the press release, Jan Nast, the managing director of the Staatskapelle Dresden, explained, “It was especially important to us to engage artists from countries which were suffering from German attacks during the Second World War. For the Staatskapelle Dresden, this also plays part in contributing to a better international understanding.” In addition to the Russian-American composer, the young Russian-born and Dresden-educated conductor Vladimir Jurowski — who is presently the Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra — directed the performances. London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir and New York’s Saint Thomas Choir of Boys were imported accompany the Staatskapelle Dresden and the State Opera Chorus Dresden, along with two boy soprano soloists, Richard Pittsinger and Mark Stone, and English baritone Mark Stone, Dutch countertenor Maarten Engeltjes. The composer chosen for this commission was the orchestra’s current 38 year-old composer-in-residence, Lera Auerbach. The now New York-based composer is Russian by birth, and of Jewish ancestry. She explained her choice of only male voices for the Requiem: “it is the boys and men who take part in military action – until today. But as long as there are also boys singing in choirs, there is hope that the suffering and devastation caused by war will end someday.” The work is dedicated “in remembrance of all the victims of nationalism worldwide.”

The Requiem is in 18 movements, with various prayers, psalms and texts in German, Latin and Hebrew. The “Kyrie” and the final “Amen” are set in dozens of languages and referencing many different religions of the world. The prayer of Father Mychal Judge, the gay chaplain to the New York Fire Department who became the first identified victim of 9/11, is one of the texts of this new requiem. The 9/11 terrorist attack in New York is also memorialized on the “Isaiah” peace bell of the Frauenkirche itself: the attack on the World Trade Center is one of the images on this, the lowest-pitched bell of the church, and which was rung to initiate the performance.

A video of the entire performance of the Staatskapelle Dresden of Lera Auerbach's new Dresden Requiem: "Ode to Peace," can be streamed by clicking here: http://staatskapelle-dresden.paraclassics.com/

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Photo by Matthias Creutziger

Streaming is without cost, but registration is required. The video is of the third and final performance of this new work, which took place in the Semper Opera, after the initial performance in the rebuilt Frauenkirche.

Auerbach’s commissioned requiem is the first world premiere performed at the commemorations since 1956, when Kurt Striegler, who conducted his own requiem in dedication to the victims of the bombing of Dresden. The prolific young Auerbach has already composed two other requiems, as well as an opera on Gogol, a full-length ballet on the Little Mermaid, and numerous other works.

Other significant efforts in Dresden to combat the co-opting the symbolism of the bombing by neo-Nazis included a “human chain” of a reported 13,000 Dresdeners, holding hands for hours in sub-zero weather to create a barrier across the city to prevent the neo-Nazi demonstrators — whose numbers were estimated at 1,600 this year, significantly less than prior years — from progressing beyond the main train station. 5,000 police were on duty between them. Unlike prior years, there was no violence reported this year. Individual small groups of neo-Nazis, however, did occasionally manage to make their presence known outside the Frauenkirche, but the police quickly and effectively encouraged them to leave.

The German army (Bundeswehr) has also joined in, this past October opening its Military Museum in Dresden, designed by Daniel Libeskind. This anti-war museum is the largest museum of any kind in Germany.

And for the third year, the new Dresden International Peace Prize was awarded, this time to American war photographer James Nachtwey. Previous recipients were Mikhail Gorbachev and Daniel Barenboim. The award ceremony, with an appreciation of Nachtwey's work by filmmaker Wim Wenders, took place in the Semper Opera, followed by the opening of the exhibition of his work, with reception, in the new Military Museum.

The press release for the Dresden Prize notes: "In its understanding of Dresden’s fate as an admonishment, the prize presented by the Friends of Dresden Deutschland recognises extraordinary services by outstanding people who above all act preventively to help prevent escalations of violence. To award a peace prize on the anniversary of the destruction of Dresden is also a gesture against the attempted co-opting of this date by right-wing radicals."



RAPHAEL MOSTEL is a composer and writer based in New York. His compositions relating to WW II include being the first American invited to compose for performance at the annual commemorations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (his "Swiftly, How Swiftly..." dedicated to the victims of the atom bombs), and his "Night and Dawn," was commissioned for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi rule. Connect via LinkedIn

photo by Matthias Creutziger

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