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Classical 101

‘Voices’ honors Holocaust victims and survivors

Composer Michael Shapiro conducting
publicity photo
Courtesy of Michael Shapiro
Composer and conductor Michael Shapiro

An estimated six million Jews perished in the Holocaust of World War II. Some Jews who survived the Holocaust have shared stories of the horrors they endured. As composer Michael Shapiro saw the generation of Holocaust survivors passing away, he sought to find an answer to one pressing question: how could he keep the memory of the Holocaust alive as a human rights warning?

Shapiro’s oratorio Voices is his response to that question. Conceived over 20 years, the work joins poetry written by Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust, original music reminiscent of the sound world of the Terezin concentration camp and Jewish liturgical music in a testament to faith, hope and endurance.

A recording of the November 2022 world premiere of Voices in New York City’s Central Synagogue is now available on all major music platforms, and features tenor soloist Daniel Mutlu, the Ember Choral Arts Society and the American Modern Ensemble conducted by Deborah Simpkin King.

The world premiere of Michael Shapiro’s Voices

The inspiration for Voices stems from Shapiro’s time serving as music consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, during the 1990s. While there, he found in the museum’s bookshop a collection of poems by Sephardic Jews from around the Mediterranean and telling of their authors’ experiences in the Holocaust.

The poems are written in languages of the Sephardic diaspora – Spanish, French, Italian and Ladino, the Spanish-hybrid language of the Sephardic Jews. All of them convey the fears, hopes and prayers of people torn from what had been typical lives and facing darkly uncertain futures in the clutches of the Nazi regime.

“The poetry just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Shapiro said. “The poems just had an emotional impact on me and an intellectual impact all at once, and I had to put my musical mind to it.”

Shapiro lived with the poems and let them steep in his psyche and soul for 20 years before he found the right musical vehicle for them.

“Then it (Voices) flew out of me in seven months,” Shapiro said.

The work’s texts at once place the listener amid the chaos of the Holocaust and seek to lay a path of hope beyond it. The opening Processional is Shapiro’s moving setting of the ancient Hebrew text Ani ma’amim (“I believe with perfect faith”). This text took on distinctly modern significance during World War II, when Azriel David Fastag composed a tune for it while being transported in a cattle car to Treblinka concentration camp. That tune was sung by countless Jews as they marched to the Nazi gas chambers.

The final movement of Voices, Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”), sets a prayer recited during the Jewish High Holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance in between.

The texts of the movements between the first and final movements reveal a range of emotional responses to the chaos of the times. In “Seven Days in Boxcars,” the author begs his family, who have perished in the camps, to pray for his release. “Sadness” tells of unspeakable hopelessness. “Here in This Land” is a prayer for liberation. “The Prayer of the Persecuted Jew” is a heartfelt supplication for a new world without war. “Ash and Smoke” is an apocalyptic image of nature and humanity shrouded in darkness.

“That poem is really putting you right into the concentration camp,” Shapiro said.

The instrumentation of the chamber ensemble in Voices also reflects the sound world of the concentration camp at Terezin, known for the musical performances its captives gave.

“I tried to recreate almost the sound of what one would have heard at Terezin, at Theresienstadt,” Shapiro said.

album cover for Michael Shapiros' 'Voices,' with barbed wire and dark, blurry background
publicity photo
Courtesy of the composer

While composing the work, Shapiro also tried to wrestle with the larger existential questions the Holocaust continues to raise – How could evil have happened on such a large scale? Where was God amid the devastation?

“There have been very few pieces that have addressed these issues post-war, and I couldn’t do it, really, until a lot of time had passed. But I felt an absolute compulsion to do it,” Shapiro said. “And that’s what this piece is about.”

Ultimately, Shapiro says, Voices is a call not just to remember the Holocaust, but to remember the terrible price of intolerance left unchecked.

“It is a warning to all peoples after the horrors of decades and hundreds of years, especially what the world went through in the 20th century,” Shapiro said. “It’s very much a human rights story.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.