Minnesota Orchestra records Holocaust oratorio

The Minnesota Orchestra prepares to record in Orchestra Hall.
Photo by Greg Helgeson, courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra

When Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska began rehearsing "To Be Certain of the Dawn" just over two years ago, he said he was immediately touched by the music. A similar reaction by audiences for those first performances at the Basilica of Saint Mary convinced him that the work needed to be recorded for others to hear.

Osmo Vanska
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska says he could hear the tears during the first performances of "To Be Certain of the Dawn."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"It's funny, you can hear tears," Vanska said. "I'm sure that there wasn't one person in any of those performances who had no tears. I think that's the most powerful thing in music."

The idea for "To Be Certain of the Dawn" came from Father Michael O'Connell, currently co-rector of the Basilica of Saint Mary and pastor of the Church of the Ascension in Minneapolis.

In 2000 he traveled to Eastern Europe and visited former Nazi concentration camps with people from the Basilica congregation and members of the Minneapolis synagogue, Temple Israel.

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Father O'Connell came to the conclusion that while Christians didn't cause the Holocaust, 2,000 years of blaming Jews for the death of Christ made it possible. He was convinced that Christians had to own the Holocaust.

"We need to own it in such a way as to create what is hopefully a beautiful, strong, powerful, and compelling piece of choral and orchestral music," he said. "I want the work to teach Christian children of the 21st Century to not forget what history did and what misguided Christianity did and in some profound way help them learn to not do it again."

To create the musical work Father O'Connell had in mind, the Basilica of Saint Mary commissioned poet Michael Dennis Browne to write the libretto and St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus to write the music.

Father O'Connell
Basilica of Saint Mary Co-rector Michael J. O'Connell conceived of the oratorio as a means of encouraging tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially among the world's children.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"Michael and I had a lot of discussions about where we wanted to go," Paulus said. "We didn't want it to be just another work by the Holocaust. It had to have some special slant."

What Paulus and Browne created was a work unfolding in three sections for children's chorus, adult chorus, soloists and orchestra. The key inspiration for Browne in creating the libretto came from a series of photographic portraits of European Jewish village life from the 1930s.

"The faces of the Jewish children who were slaughtered are the sun, moon and stars of this work," Browne said. "The middle section brings to life through the soloists four portraits of children. The soloists sing as though they were those young people in the photographs."

As would be expected in a work dealing with such a horrific and overwhelming event as the Holocaust, "To Be Certain of the Dawn" is often angry, dark and intense, especially in the oratorio's first section. Yet the work has moments when it's light, lyrical and even joyous. Composer Stephen Paulus says that's because the work is not a musical documentary of atrocities.

"The work deals more with the Holocaust on a psychological level," he said. "The first section addresses what was wrong. What were we doing? What were we thinking? The last section is an expression of hope with the idea that it's possible to walk forth with a new vision, one that doesn't include hate and annihilating people and committing genocide. There are some very bittersweet moments, but in the long run the work is more hopeful."

Stephen Paulus
Composer Stephen Paulus says he and Michael Dennis Browne didn't want to create just another work by the Holocaust. They wanted it to have some special slant.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Before recording "To Be Certain of the Dawn" this week, the Minnesota Orchestra performs the oratorio in concert tonight at Orchestra Hall. And in May, musicians from the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University, and Saint Cloud State University will perform the work in Germany, France and Switzerland, including the site of the former concentration camp Natzweiler-Sturthof near Strasbourg.

Michael Dennis Browne said writing the libretto was a life-changing experience, and he hopes that everyone who hears the work either in concert or on CD will also be changed.

"I would like people to leave the work saying, 'I had no idea of the horrors. I had no idea of the vigor of a vanished life.' And somehow as they go about in the world, they put their shoulders to the wheel in a new way because something in the work has jogged something loose."

Browne had some dark, difficult times writing the libretto for "To Be Certain of the Dawn," but he said he's grateful to be a part of something that has already touched so many people's lives.