Boston Secession

Testimony of Witnesses Overall Structure

oratorio: A musical composition (generally not staged) for chorus, orchestra and soloists, whose text is generally religious, serious or philosophical in nature

This is one definition of the musical form that most closely matches the structure and content of Testimony of Witnesses. The piece is a modern oratorio, with Primo Levi’s “sacred literature” as its text. It calls for a chamber orchestra of 20 players, vocal ensemble with 25 voices, and four vocal soloists.

The story of the Holocaust is at once a story that is profoundly individual and yet entirely universal; because of this, its impact and meaning are discovered only by looking at it through both of these lenses. This is part of the reason why telling the story through a work of this scale is so effective – there is room to give voice to the great variety of intimate, personal experiences, but also to the collective experience of a people. And because of the overall length of the work, there is time for the listener to fully absorb the impact of these realities.

Testimony of Witnesses grounds the listener in the universal tribal experience of the Jewish people with a choral setting of a supplication from the 2nd century (Creator, how long/Must thy snared dove endure…). The successive movements then guide the listener between the collective experience and the intensely personal. For example, “Lokomotywa,” set for chorus, is a Polish children’s poem; it introduces four settings of poems by children in the Terezin camp. The voices of these children, represented by individual soloists, pierce the horror of their experiences with undeniable emotional purity and directness.

Chor der Waisen” (Chorus of Orphans), at the center of the work and just before intermission, calls for unaccompanied unison chorus to sum up the voices of the children, who say “World, why have you taken our soft/mothers from us / And the fathers who say: My child, you are like me! / We orphans are like no one in this world. O World / We accuse you.”

The second half of Testimony of Witnesses opens with "Transport” a text rife with the chaos and confusion of families terrified and divided as they are forced onto trains. This portion of the work contains some of the most disturbing material, and also the texts of the greatest length and emotional complexity. Francois Wetterwald’s grisly and compassionate “Poème Macabre” and Charlotte Delbo’s “Love Poem” lead up to Primo Levi’s famous defiant and triumphant “Gedale’s Song.” In the final chorus, all of these disparate voices are triumphantly united in hope, moving “from the darkness of Hell / to a bright freedom.”
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