Music is Useless

By Professor of Music Monica Israel Spence


I began the school year by admitting to my students that music is useless. It’s not necessary to human survival and serves no definite biological purpose, and yet it is precisely music—along with other so-called “useless” things like art and theater—that makes us human, and not merely members of the animal kingdom. Music is intrinsic to human nature. We may not all enjoy the same types of music, but from the dawn of time, every culture and society, however primitive, has shared in music-making. Music has an unquantifiable power.

During college, I had the privilege of singing in two performances of the Defiant Requiem. The dean of my music school, Murray Sidlin, had devoted years to researching Rafael Schächter, a prisoner at the concentration camp of Terezin. Schächter was a rising composer and conductor in Prague when he was sent to the camp. With only one piano, Schächter brought dozens of prisoners together to learn and sing Verdi’s Requiem by rote (If you are unfamiliar with Verdi’s Requiem, it is a gorgeous, colossal, dramatic piece of music).

Instead of getting in trouble, Schächter was asked to have his group of over a hundred prisoners perform the Requiem for high-ranking Nazi officials, and despite their dwindling numbers (as many prisoners were sent off to Auschwitz), they performed it sixteen times. Members of the group say that this time of singing was salvific, helping them survive the hell of the concentration camp.

The longest movement of the work is the “Dies Irae,” which describes the final judgment, or Day of Wrath, when the wicked will be condemned, and the righteous rewarded. Although the Nazis thought the prisoners stupid for singing their own funeral (a requiem is a funeral Mass for the dead),  Schächter told his fellow prisoners to sing to the Nazis what they could not say to them: God would surely mete out justice for their evil.

Sidlin tracked down surviving members of the group, interviewed them, and ultimately created his Defiant Requiem, a dramatic performance of Verdi’s masterpiece with the story of Schächter and Terezin interpolated via narration, interviews, and a Nazi propaganda video that had been filmed at Terezin. The Defiant Requiem has been performed at Terezin, at a train station in Budapest from which Hungarians were sent to Terezin, and all over the United States. It’s a devastating testament to the power of music to raise the human spirit above the most horrendous circumstances.

Performing this work was the most powerful experience of music I’ve ever had. And thus we encounter our paradox: music is useless, but so necessary to human life. God made creation not merely useful but “good,” and all that is truly good and beautiful, including music, is a reflection of God himself.