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Lesson Overview

Essential Questions

  • How do words take on new and different meanings in different contexts?
  • How does the speaker, audience, and subject of a text affect the purpose it conveys?


Students will analyze the libretto (written text) of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem and apply an understanding of the elements of rhetoric to it in order to analyze its changing meaning in different contexts.


ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.


Getting Started

Module 3 (English Language Arts) aligns well with the following subjects/themes:

  • English language arts: Studying rhetorical devices; interpretations of religious texts; reading memoirs or novels with themes of resistance
  • Social Studies: Teaching resistance during World War II and/or the Holocaust
  • Art and Music: Exemplars of forms of creative expression during or in response to social injustice, political conflict, war, or mass atrocity.

Pre-teaching recommendations

We recognize that English language arts students may not have had instruction in Holocaust history. Basic contextual information is provided in the film Defiant Requiem which you will screen as part of the lesson.

In addition, we recommend these pre-teaching resources:

For a basic overview of the Holocaust:

For resistance during the Holocaust:

For rhetoric or rhetorical situations:

For definitions of Holocaust terms, please visit Echoes and Reflections Audio Glossary

For a complete list of resources related to Defiant Requiem, please visit the Resources page.

Quick History Facts

  • A “requiem mass” is a Catholic mass during which people pray for the souls of the dead to find eternal peace. Composers throughout history wrote requiem masses not only for religious reasons but to express themselves through their music.
  • Rafael Schächter taught prisoners Verdi’s Requiem in Terezín because he loved the music and he believed that creative endeavors, such as singing, would nourish people in the midst of suffering. *Note that the names Terezín and Theresienstadt refer to the same ghetto and can be used interchangeably.
  • The members of Schächter’s chorus learned the Requiem by rote using a single score and practiced in a basement after long days of labor. They were often hungry, cold, and enduring terrible suffering but they found joy in singing together.
  • A sixteen-year-old Catholic girl (who had been born Jewish and was imprisoned in Terezín) translated the Requiem into Czech for the choir and assisted with the pronunciation of the Latin. After the war, she became a nun and adopted the name of Sister Anna Magdalena.
  • Jewish prisoners performed the Requiem sixteen times in Terezín. They sang it the final time before German officials and the International Red Cross on June 23, 1944.
  • Many felt that singing such beautiful, challenging music kept them connected to an essential part of their humanity while the Germans were trying to extinguish it.
  • The libretto (the words that are sung) in Verdi’s Requiem can be read as originally intended in a religious context but can also be re-interpreted in light of Jewish suffering in Terezín.

Lesson Sequence: Part I

1. OPTIONAL WARM-UP: Introduce students to one of your favorite quotations or browse Goodreads for one to share. Give them about 3-5 minutes to write down how they interpret the quote(s).  Then, have them participate in a 10-minute pair-share to compare notes on the meaning of the quote. Share with students the origin of the quote(s) and if possible, the intended meaning.  Use this activity to facilitate a brief discussion exploring how and why the same words can be interpreted differently by different people.

2. For students to successfully complete the remainder of this lesson, they should know and understand the following information. If needed, share it with them verbally or in writing.

  • Rhetoric is the art of using language effectively to convey an intended message. To use language effectively, we must not only look at the words in isolation, but we must also consider the context or situation in which they are written.
  • The elements of the rhetorical situation can be thought of as a triangle. The points of that triangle are Audience, Speaker, and Subject. The center of that triangle is the Purpose of the text. Any change in any of the three points of the triangle will also change the purpose or meaning of the text.
  • A “requiem” is a Catholic mass during which people pray for the souls of the dead to find eternal peace. Musicians throughout history, such as Mozart and Brahms, composed their own requiems not only for religious reasons but to express themselves through music.

3. Provide students with the Elements of Rhetoric graphic organizer and let them know that they will begin by filling in the first page in order to understand Verdi’s original intention for his Requiem. Have students listen to NPR’s “Verdi’s Requiem: An Opera in Disguise” and/or read the short article about it and fill in the information they learn on the first page of the graphic organizer.

4. Distribute one of the excerpts of Verdi’s Requiem (Dies irae and Libera me) and ask students to read it silently to themselves. Then, demonstrate a close reading of the excerpt, modeling for students how to annotate it to show how the words of the libretto convey the religious meaning of the Requiem.

5. In pairs, have students annotate the other excerpt of the Requiem in the same way that you modeled for them.

6. Close Part I of this lesson by assessing students’ understanding of the rhetorical situation of the Requiem.  Using the first page of the Elements of Rhetoric graphic organizer and their notes from the close reading of the libretto, have them discuss the following question:  What is the religious message of the Requiem in the original Catholic context of a funeral mass and how does the libretto convey it?

Part II

Explain to students that they will be viewing a documentary called Defiant Requiem.  Explain that it is the story of the prisoners in a ghetto called Terezín and the unique way that Verdi’s Requiem came to represent hope and resistance for the prisoners there.

1.OPTIONAL: Facilitate a brief discussion exploring the concepts of hope and resistance. Ask students to brainstorm and share examples in which people have exhibited hope or resistance in times of oppression.  Ask them if they know anything about hope or resistance in the Holocaust and, if so, to share it with the class.

2. View Defiant Requiem. (Password: survivingevil)

3. After viewing the film, assemble students into pairs or small groups. Instruct them to fill in the second and third pages of their Elements of Rhetoric graphic organizer using the information they learned in the film.

4. Close Part II of this lesson by assessing students’ understanding of the rhetorical situation in Terezín and how it differs from a Catholic mass where a requiem would be performed. Ask students to discuss the following prompts: What elements of rhetorical situations changed from Verdi’s original Requiem and its performances in Terezín? 

Part III

1. Using clean copies of the Dies Irae and the Libera Me excerpts from the Requiem libretto, have students closely read them again and annotate/analyze them according to the second and third situations they described in their Elements of Rhetoric graphic organizer (e.g., Jewish prisoners singing for their fellow prisoners and Jewish prisoners singing for Nazi officials and the International Red Cross.) They may do this on paper or online.

2. Through small group discussions, a digital discussion, and/or whole group discussion, facilitate students’ exploration of the following questions: Are the words and images they highlighted the same in both situations or are they different?  How do the changed elements of rhetoric affect the purpose or meaning that the text conveys?


  • Choose 4-6 lines from one of the excerpts of Verdi’s Requiem and write an analysis of how the message conveyed changes in the three situations you examined. In your analysis, discuss all elements of rhetorical situations and how they shape the meaning of the lines you chose.
  • Choose three elements of rhetorical situations and, using one excerpt from Verdi’s Requiem, explain how these three elements can shape and change the meaning of the excerpt.


Now that you’ve examined the libretto, consider the music and how it creates meaning. Listen to the excerpts of the Requiem and answer the following questions.

Listening to Verdi’s Requiem:

  • What adjectives would you use to describe the music?
  • What instruments do you hear most clearly? How do they shape the mood of the piece?
  • What feelings or sensations does the music evoke in you?
  • How does the music reflect the words of the libretto?

How are the two movements different from one another?