Born: January 1st, 1898
Died: October 18th, 1944
Country of origin: Czech Republic
Conductor: John Axelrod
May 29th, 2015 | Auditorium Arturo Toscanini - Torino - Italy
Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek
June 19th, 2015 | Hôtel Communal - Aubel - Belgium
I have written quite a lot of new music in Theresienstadt: it must be underlined … that we do not merely sit on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavour with respect for arts was commensurate with our will to live. (Viktor Ullmann)
Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen (Cieszyn) on 1 January 1898. He moved with his mother to Vienna in 1909 where he received his first lessons in music theory with Josef Polnauer in 1914. In 1916, he was called up to perform his military service. After the end of the war, he initially enrolled to study law at the University of Vienna, but also participated in Arnold Schoenberg’s composition seminars in Mödling from October 1918. He additionally received further piano tuition from Eduard Steuermann. Following Schoenberg’s recommendation, he was admitted into the foundation committee of the "Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen” [Society for Private Musical Performance] on 6 December 1918, but relocated to Prague a year later. Following further tuition in composition with Heinrich Jalowetz, he took over Anton Webern’s position as choir director and répétiteur at the New German Theatre in 1920 where, two years later, he was promoted to the position of Kapellmeister by Alexander von Zemlinsky. In 1927, Ullmann became head of opera for one season in Aussig and subsequently undertook an engagement as Kapellmeister and composer of incidental music from 1929 to 1931 at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. Influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, Ullmann later managed an anthroposophic bookshop for two years in Stuttgart (1931/32) before returning to Prague as a freelance musician, teacher, composer and journalist. He attended Alois Hába’s courses in quartertone composition between 1935 and 1937. Following the establishment of the “German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” in 1939, all public performances of composers of Jewish origin were prohibited. Ullmann was incarcerated in the concentration camp Theresienstadt on 8 September 1942 where he undertook the organisation of the so-called "Freizeitgestaltung" [leisure time administration] together with Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Rafael Schächter. On 16 October 1944, Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz where he was killed only a few days later.
The rediscovery of Ullmann’s works has a direct connection with the success story of the Kaiser von Atlantis. Ullmann composed this one-act opera in 1943/44 against the background of his impressions of the Theresienstadt ghetto. The libretto was written by one of his fellow inmates Peter Kien: as a result of war and mass slaughter, death refuses to carry out its services. The dictator who has thereby lost his greatest weapon – deterrence – loses all his powers. Death only regains its real purpose at the end and becomes the comforter of humans. Unlike the melodrama Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornet Christoph Rilke for narrator and piano or orchestra based on a text by Rilke (1944), the opera was not performed in Theresienstadt and the posthumous première did not take place until 1975 in Amsterdam.
Ullmann did however achieve consummate success during his lifetime with his Schoenberg Variations: the Variationen und Doppelfuge über ein Thema von Arnold Schönberg have survived in two versions for piano (1929 and 1933/34) in addition to versions for string quartet (1939) and orchestra (1934) and among Ullmann’s entire output display the greatest affinity to the Second Viennese School. A large proportion of Ullmann’s compositions from the 1920s and 1930s must be considered as having been lost, but surviving works include the Concerto for piano and orchestra (1939) and the seven Piano Sonatas, of which Nos. 5 and 7 also exist as a reconstructed symphony. The broad spectrum of Ullmann’s compositional development can be observed in the Lieder for voice and piano: from Wendla im Garten based on Wedekind’s “Frühlings Erwachen” (1918/1943) and the Liederbuch des Hafis based on Bethge (1940) to the Hölderlin Lieder composed in Theresienstadt, Late Romantic influences can be discerned alongside echoes of Zemlinsky’s tonal language and the Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] of Kurt Weill.
Ullmann was awarded the Hertzka Prize for his compositions on two occasions: 1934 for the orchestral version of the Schoenberg Variations and 1936 for the opera Der Sturz des Antichrist composed a year previously on a libretto by Albert Steffens.