In 1943 he wrote in Theresienstadt (Terezin) the one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis.
by Dr. David C.F. Wright
Viktor Ullmann was another casualty of the Nazis. He was put to death in Auschwitz in October 1944 and his music was forgotten for many years.
He was an Austrian composer of Jewish descent born in Teschen in 1898. It is believed that his musical training was in Vienna, where he lived with his mother from 1909. His father was a militray man and away from home a lot of the time. Before the outbreak of war Viktor was studying with Josef Polnauer a pupil of Schönberg. Viktor attended a grammar school in the third district of Vienna and he developed friendships, the most significant was that with Hanns Eisler.
Eisler was born in Leipzig in 1898, an exact contemporary of Ullmann. Eisler was a Marxist and initially wrote political songs and marches. He was exiled in 1933 and worked in Paris, London, Copenhagen and the USA, settling in Hollywood in 1938.
In May 1916, while waiting for his school exam results, Ullmann volunteered for military service. He rose to the rank of a second lieutenant. In the last year of the war he enrolled as a law student at the University of Vienna and, in October 1918, he became a pupil of Schönberg.
Here he also met Alban Berg and Eduard Steuermann, a Polish pianist and composer. All three were interested in twelve note music.
Czechoslovakia was granted independence in 1918. Ullmann arrived in Prague in 1919, newly married and with no prospects and, later, became the assistant to Zemlinsky during 1920–1927 at the Neue Deutsche Theatre in Prague as repetiteur with conducting commitments.
[For those who are unclear, a repetiteur is the member of an opera house who rehearses and coaches singers in their roles and often acts as a choirmaster.]
The Prague opera’s pianist was Franz Langer who was to become Kurt Masur’s teacher. Ullmann and Langer became good friends. Ullmann’s debut as a composer was with his Seven Leider for voice and piano of 1923, in which Langer took part, as he did with the Piano Sonata no. 1, Op 10, of 1936 written in memory of Mahler and steeped in C minor with some music sounding somewhat like Götterdämmerung. Langer was to keep several works of Ullmann in his repertoire.
Zemlinsky expected his students to be as familiar with modern composers as well as with the classical repertoire. He put rigorous demands on his pupils and staff and they had to work with him on such works as Berg’s Wozzeck, Schönberg’s Erwartung, Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, Cardillac by Hindemith and Křenek’s Johnny spielt auf.
Ullmann was the principal conductor of the Aussig Opera during 1927 and 1928 and his performances benefited from the strict discipline he had learned from Zemlinsky. Ullman put on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Smetana’s The Kiss and Křenek’s Johnny spielt auf. He also conducted orchestral works, including works he did not like, such as Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C. Ullmann was a very shy and reserved man. He greeted applause with hesitancy and modesty. He was the antithesis of Elgar and Britten. He was also a good-looking man when he was not smoking cigarettes, as someone expressed it. His modesty and desire for a change led him to give up conducting for a short while to concentrate on composing, which he did on his return to Prague. He composed a Concerto for orchestra which was very well received and his Schönberg Variations in the orchestration of 1929 which won him the Hertzka Memorial Prize.
He divided his time between 1929 and 1933 at the cities of Stuttgart and Zürich as director of the theatre orchestra at the Schauspielhaus (1929–1931). In Stuggart he was the proprietor of the anthroposophy Novalis book shop.
Anthroposophy was formulated by the Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. It is the philosophy based on the premise that human intellect has the ability to contact spiritual worlds and these spiritual worlds were fully accessible to all human beings who have an advanced dreamlike consciousness. One could acquire spiritual perception independent of the senses.
In other words, it is a form of spiritualism.
The rise of Nazism meant that Ullmann returned to Prague in 1933 and tried to build himself a career as a freelance teacher. He had lost money over the bookshop in Stuttgart and many of his compositions were in draft and unfinished. Prague had changed politically with Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party and many refugees were passing through Prague, many of whom stayed.
In 1935 Ullmann produced a study of all major and minor keys based on Steiner’s colour theories. Therefore E major was a mixture of yellow and red G flat major was reddish-blue, A flat major was pure blue, G major was the colour of the victor and, presumably, heroic, D flat major was the mystic key, E flat major was greenish-blue, A flat minor was purple or mauve and so on.
Scriabin also had a colour scheme associated with keys and developed the mystic chord based on fourths namely C, F sharp, B flat, E, A and D. Earlier composers associated keys with events or types of events. C was bright, D was military or ceremonial and C minor was tragic, for example. The piano was the mainstay of Ullmann’s output. He wrote seven piano sonatas The Sonata no. 2, Op 19, was given a private performance in 1940 by the international pianist Alice Herz-Sommer who was born in 1903. The finale are variations on Moravia folk songs in the style of Janáček. The Sonata no. 3, Op 26, was dedicated to the Hungarian pianist Juliette Aranyi, to whom he had dedicated his Piano Concerto Op 25 composed in 1939. The finale of the Piano Sonata no. 3 are variations on a theme of Mozart. The Sonata no. 4, Op 38, was dedicated to Alice Herz-Sommer and ends with a triple fugue. Three more sonatas followed.
The Piano Concerto is in four movements namely Allegro con fuoco, Andante tranquillo with a largo coda, Allegro and Allegro Molto and lasts just under 20 minutes. In this work the piano is the orchestra’s adversary. The first movement is rhythmically inventive but also has some tragic chords. The slow movement is elegiac and the scherzo includes a fugue and the finale in 5/4.
The work seems to me to be restrained and we must remember that Jewish people were living in dangerous, worrying and tragic days and this may be reflected in the music.
Ullmann remained friendly with both Czech and German musicians. He lived in Prague until 8th September 1942 the date that he was transported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where he was allowed to compose and organize concerts.
Edith Kraus was born in 1913 in Vienna of Czech parents. She was also Jewish and transported to Theresienstadt in 1942. She had known Ullmann in Prague. The following year Ullmann entrusted his Piano Sonata no. 6 to her. She stayed in Theresienstadt until its liberation in 1945.
Many of Ullmann’s works have been lost. But he wrote a short opera The Emperor of Atlantis, of 1943, and two other operas have survived, The Slavonic Rhapsody for saxophone and orchestra, Op 23, three string quartets, the last one written at Theresienstadt. There is the Don Quixote overture, dated 21st June 1944, and the Twelve pieces, The lay of the love and death of Cornet Christoph Rilke for speaker and piano. The short score from Theresienstadt was difficult to read with all its corrections. The dedication reads, "For the birthday of my Elly, who always goes with the century." It is dated 27 September 1944.
An opera Peer Gynt of 1928 is lost. Der Sturz des Antichrist dates from 1935, and is based on a play by the anthroposophist Albert Sieffen, which seems to lampoon Hitler and the other opera is Der zerbrockene Krug fom 1943.
There are two symphonies which grew out of the Piano Sonatas numbers 5 and 7. The Sinfonia Von Meiner Jugend was reconstructed by Wulff in 1943.
His death was not only tragic and murder, but it deprived the musical world of the possibility of further interesting compositions. Had he survived the Nazi terror he may have given us an insght into music within the camp and the circumstances in which he wrote some of his notable music.
Copyright © David C.F. Wright 1989. This article or any part of it, however small must not be used, copied, stored in any mechanical or retrieval system, downloaded without the prior written permission of the author. Failure to comply is in breach of International Copyright Law and will render any offender liable to action at law. However, the author may be prepared to give permission upon written application.
He was a (favorite) pupil of Schönberg in Vienna. Was also pupil of Aloís Hába. He belonged to the second generation of the New Viennese School, like Hanns Eisler. Was in Theresienstadt from September 1942 till October 1944, from where he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed almost immediately after arrival.
[in Dutch] Viktor Ullmann, zoon van een joodse Oostenrijkse officier, is eigenlijk de best bekende componist van zgn. „Entartete Musik” in Theresienstadt. Ullmann was een leerling van Schönberg in Wenen en onderging grote invloed van Zemlinsky. Hij werd Kapellmeister aan het Neue Deutsche Theater in Praag, als assistent van Zemlinsky. Later was hij als dirigent en componist verbonden aan het Schauspielhaus Zürich. Ullmann onderbrak zijn muzikale loopbaan door in Stuttgart een antroposofische boekhandel te leiden. Na de machtsgreep door de Nazi’s keerde Ullmann terug naar Praag met zijn vrouw en zoon, waar hij als gerespecteerd musicus leefde. Daar deed hij ook studie’s in kwart-toonsmuziek bij Hába.
Voor de tweede Wereldoorlog schreef hij ruim 40 composities voor orkest, piano, kamerensembles en ook twee opera’s. In zijn liederen weerklinkt de invloed van Mahler (het Hafis Liederbuch is geschreven in 1940).
Hij was een internationaal erkend componist, maar het „Reichsprotektorat” van Bohemen en Moravië verbood in 1939 uitvoering van zijn werken. Hij werd in 1942 gearresteerd en overgebracht naar Theresienstadt, het „model van een joods ghetto”. In de vreselijke jaren in het kamp was hij muzikaal zeer actief en productief. Hij was toonaangevend voor het muziekleven, als leider van de „Studio für Neue Musik”, recensent, interpreet en componist.
In 1944 werd Ullmann naar Auschwitz gedeporteerd, waar hij twee dagen later in de gaskamer stierf. 25 composities uit Theresienstadt, die hij bij zijn afscheid vrienden had toevertrouwd, werden gered.
Ullmann kreeg postuum opnieuw waardering nadat in 1975 in Nederland zijn opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis in wereldpremière ging. Zijn liederen zijn nog vrijwel onbekend.
(contribution by Robbert Muuse <robbertmuusehotmail.com>)