Cornet: Viktor Ullmann's Legacy from Theresienstadt
Despite degrading living conditions, despite hunger and pain, despite fear in the face of terror and death, many artists were able to be creative even in the concentration camps. Their art helped them to endure daily suffering. One of those artists was the composer Viktor Ullmann. In an essay he wrote in Theresienstadt in 1943, he said: "Therefore Goethe's maxim 'Live in the moment, live in eternity' seemed for me to reveal the basic idea, the purpose of art... We did not sit moaning at the Rivers of Babylon and our will to be creative was as strong as our will to live."
Ullmann's will to be creative was admirable. During his two-year internment in Theresienstadt, Viktor Ullmann composed some of his most beautiful song cycles, a few piano sonatas, and--most importantly--his masterpiece, the opera The Emperor of Atlantis, for which Peter Kien, another inmate and a talented graphic artist, wrote the libretto.
Cornet is the last composition that Ullmann was able to finish in Theresienstadt before he was deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944. He and his wife, Elisabeth, were killed there two days later. His music was rescued by a friend who survived the camps. The Lay of Love and Death of the Cornet Christoph Rilke is based on a text by Rainer Maria Rilke, from which Ullmann chose twelve pieces. Rilke tells the haunting tale of a young soldier who experiences love and death in a single night. Ullmann's composition features the rare combination of recitation and piano. The music underlines the dramatic action, comments on and illustrates it, thus intensifying the effect.
The adamant will to live, the unshakable hope that good will prevail no matter how horrible the attempt to crush it--this is the message of Ullmann's music from Theresienstadt. Elysium offers Ullmann's music as a powerful symbol of hope.
Viktor Ullmann was born on January 1, 1898, in Teschen, a town which spans the Olza river in present-day Poland and the Czech Republic. He lived there until 1909 when he and his mother moved to Vienna. In 1918, after serving two years in the military, he enrolled at the University of Vienna to study law. Inspired to become a composer after participating in Schoenberg's music composition seminars, and recommended by the great man, Ullmann was admitted to the managing committee of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances).
In 1919, Ullmann married Martha Koref and moved to Prague. There he became the director of the choir and later the conductor, under Alexander Zemlimsky, of the Neues Deutches Theater (New German Theater, now the Opera of Prague). During this time, he wrote numerous compositions, all of which are still missing to date. He was chairman of the 1927-28 Aussig Opera season, at which time he conducted Jonny spielt auf by Ernst Krenek and Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.
From 1929 to 1931, he was conductor and composer of stage music at the Zurich Theatre. During 1931, he remarried Anna Winternitz in Prague. Between 1931 and 1933, he put aside musical work to open a bookstore with his second wife in Stuttgart, specializing in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Ullmann, his wife, and his year-old son moved back to Prague where he worked as a music teacher, journalist, and radio broadcaster. He became involved with Leo Kestenberg's Internationale Gesellschaft für Musikerziehung (International Society for Music Education) and with German and Czech music societies in town. From 1935 to 1937, Ullmann attended "Viertelkomposition" courses under Alois Haba. During this time, his works were rarely performed due to the establishment under the Nazis of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In the summer of 1942, Ullmann entrusted parts of his already published compostions to his friend, Alexander Waulin.
On September 8, 1942, Viktor Ullmann was deported to the ghetto and concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin). On October 16, 1944, he and his third wife, Elisabeth, were taken to Auschwitz where they died in the gas chambers two days later.
Artists in the Ghetto
At the end of 1941, Theresienstadt, or Terezin, was established as a concentration camp for Jews living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. It was a collection point and labor camp, and in these terms, it did not differ much from other camps founded by the Nazis in Germany or other conquered countries.
The organization and function of the ghetto Theresienstadt changed substantially after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942. The resolutions passed at this conference started what was termed the "final solution" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). The official term for Theresienstadt became thereafter "preferential camp" or "model ghetto," and, of course German propaganda presented Theresienstadt as such. In fact, this status meant that Theresienstadt took in mainly prominent Jewish people.
The camp functioned as an intermediate station on the way to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe. Until October 26, 1942, most of the transports ended in Treblinka and thereafter exclusively in Auschwitz. In the end, more than 141,000 souls were deported to Theresienstadt. Only 23,000 survived, more than 30,000 dying in the "model ghetto" and the other 88,000 being transported to Treblinka or Auschwitz.
Images: 1. and 2. Photos of Theresienstadt by Catherine Laub 3. "The Flag" by Rune Mields with Cornet score in background 4. Drawing of Ullmann by Peter Kien, graphic artist, Theresienstadt inmate and librettist of The Emperor of Atlantis