Viktor Ullmann

On 8 September 1942, the composer Viktor Ullmann was forced to enter a train in which he was deported to Theresienstadt, located 40 miles north of his habitual residence in Prague. During the following 25 months of captivity in Theresienstadt, a former citadel which the Nazis had turned into a concentration camp, he composed inter alia his 7th piano sonata, the opera "The Emperor of Atlantis" and the melodrama "Die Weise von Liebe und Tod" on a text by R.M. Rilke. It was these works which led to Ullmann's international reputation, which has been growing since 1990 in the framework of the rediscovery of composers who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis.

The tragical end of his biography should not obscure Ullmann's notoriety as a composer between the two World Wars in Czechoslovakia and abroad, whose works had been successfully performed in Prague, Geneva, Berlin, London and New York. His achievements were partly undermined by the murderous cultural and racial policies of the Nazis and unjustifiably fell into oblivion after World War II. The roots of Ullmann's impressive oeuvre are to be found in the late Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Viktor Ullmann was born on 1 January 1898 in Teschen, which today is called Cieszyn (in Polish) or Cesky Tesin (in Czech). Both his parents were descendants of Jewish families, however, they converted to Catholicism before Viktor's birth. His father Maximilian Ullmann therefore was able to become a professional soldier and during World War I he was promoted to the rank of colonel and was knighted.

In 1909 Viktor began high school in Vienna. His musical interests and abilities opened doors to the Arnold Schoenberg circle. Directly after the completion of his A-levels he volunteered for military service. Having been deployed at the Isonzo front in Italy, he was awarded a study break and he began law studies at the University of Vienna. In October 1918 he was also enrolled in Schoenberg's seminary for composition. In May 1919, however, he ended both these pursuits and left Vienna for Prague in order to devote his entire time to music.

Alexander von Zemlinsky became his new mentor and under his direction Ullmann conducted at the New German Theatre in Prague until 1927. His seven songs with piano accompaniment from 1923 initiated a series of successful first performances of compositions which continued through to the early 1930s ("Sieben Serenaden"). During the 1929 Geneva Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, Ullmann's "Schoenberg-Variations", a piano composition on a theme written by his former Vienna teacher, were highly appraised. Five years later, the orchestral version of this piece was awarded the "Hertzka" price, named after the former director of the "Universal Edition". Meanwhile, he worked for two years as a conductor in Zuerich and ran an anthroposophical bookshop in Stuttgart, before returning to live permanently in Prague in 1933.

While his works dating back to the 1920s had been heavily influenced by Schoenberg's atonal composition style (in particular by his chamber symphony op. 9, George songs op. 15 and "Pierrot Lunaire" op. 21) and by Alban Berg's opera "Wozzeck", Ullmann developed these approaches further in his compositions written after 1935 (e.g. second string quartet, first piano sonata and opera "Der Sturz des Antichrist"). Ullmann's personal new style was characterised by dissonant harmonies at the borderline of tonality, tensed musical expression and the skilful mastery of forms.

Until his deportation to Theresienstadt, Ullmann composed 41 works, including three piano sonatas, song cycles on poems by various authors, operas and the piano concerto op. 25 (which he had finished in December 1939, just nine months after German soldiers invaded Prague). Most of these works are considered missing; their manuscripts presumably were lost during the German occupation. However, thirteen printed music scores from Ullmann's own publications survived because he had asked a friend to safeguard them.

In Theresienstadt, Ullmann remained very active musically: he acted as a piano accompanist, organised concerts ("Collegium musicum", "Studio for contemporary music"), wrote musical reviews and continued composing. These compositions have survived almost in their entirety and include apart from choral works, song cycles and stage music such eminent works as his last three piano sonatas, the third string quartet, the melodrama after Rilke's "Cornet" and the chamber opera "The Emperor of Atlantis".

Especially in the works "Atlantis" and "Cornet", Ullmann was attempting to answer his fundamental artistic questions, this time under the circumstances of a Nazi concentration camp: he explored the esthetical problem of how to transform the existing matter into artistic form and the ethical problem of permanent reconciliation of spirit and matter. This discourse is exemplified in his "Atlantis" opera in the parable of the Emperor's game with allegoric Death. This "game" is the Emperor's plan to extinguish all human life and Death's opposition to this lunatic idea. Ultimately, the Emperor is doomed to vanish, which leads to a new understanding of life and death. The musical representation of this seemingly contemporary plot illustrates Ullmann's timeless ideal: the positive forces of mankind can defeat the inhumanity of every tyranny.

Dr. Ingo Schultz
Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1937 6 Lieder Opus 17 4.00 stars CD
Juliana Banse - Soprano
Cologne Gtirzenich Philharmonic cond. James Conlon
1943 Symphony No. 1 "On my youth" 4.00 stars CD
Cologne Gtirzenich Philharmonic cond. James Conlon
1943 Strijkkwartet Opus 46 No 3 4.00 stars CD
Ullmann Comments:
Hawthorne String Quartet
1943-1944 The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal of Death 4.00 stars CD
Opera in one acxt.
Considered Ullmann's most important work


A voice heard over a loudspeaker sets the scene and presents the characters. Scene 1 Harlequin describes his sorry life without laughter or love. Death joins him and together they lament how slowly time passes in their grim environment. Death belittles Harlequin's wish to die and explains how much more dire his own situation is than that of Harlequin. He lacks respect now that the "old-fashioned craft of dying" has been replaced by "motorized chariots of war" that work him to exhaustion with little satisfaction.
The Drummer announces the latest decree of the Emperor: Everyone will be armed and everyone will fight until there are no survivors. Death denounces the Emperor for usurping his role: "To take men's souls is my job, not his!" He declares that he is on strike and breaks his saber.

Scene 2
In his palace, the Emperor gives battle orders and monitors the progress of the universal war. He learns of a man who continues to live eighty minutes after being hanged and shot. The Loudspeaker reports that thousands of soldiers are "wrestling with life...doing their best to die" without success. Fearful that his power will not endure without death, the Emperor announces that he has decided to reward his subjects with the gift of eternal life. More honestly, he asks: "Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory, Hell?"

Scene 3
A Soldier and a Maiden (the Bobbed-Hair Girl) confront one another as enemies. Unable to kill each other, their thoughts turn to love. They dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside "meadows filled with color and fragrance." The Drummer attempts to lure them back to battle with the sensual attraction of the call. The Maiden responds: "Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!" She and the Soldier sing: "Only love can unite us, unite us all together."

Scene 4
The Emperor continues to oversee his failing realm, where his subjects angrily protest their suspension in limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him, reminding him of his innocent childhood. The Drummer urges the Emperor to maintain his resolve, but the Emperor's memories turn his thoughts from his plans for the annihilation of all. Instead he gazes into a covered mirror and asks: "What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?" He pulls away the mirror's cloth and faces the reflection of Death. "Who are you?" he demands. Death describes his role modestly, like that of a gardener "who roots up wilting weeds, life's worn-out fellows." He regrets the pain his strike is causing. When the Emperor asks him to resume his duties, Death proposes a resolution to the crisis: "I'm prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?" After some resistance, the Emperor agrees and the suffering people find release in death once more. The Emperor sings his farewell. In a closing chorus, Death is praised and asked to "teach us to keep your holiest
Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!"

Gewandhausorchester cond. Lothar Zagrosek


1944 Symphony No. 2 4.00 stars CD
Cologne Gtirzenich Philharmonic cond. James Conlon
1944 Hoelderlin-Lieder 4.00 stars CD

Iris Vermillion - Soprano
Gewandhausorchester cond. Lothar Zagrosek


1944 Don Quixote tanzt Fandango 4.00 stars 3 CD

Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra cond. James Conlon
Docu 2003 Fremde Passagiere - Auf den Spuren von Viktor Ullmann 4.00 stars DVD
"Auf den Spuren von VIKTOR ULLMANN "Fremde Passagiere" - so nannte Viktor Ullmann sein Tagebuch, und als "Fremder Passagier" sollte er selbst in der Diktatur des Nationalsolzialistischen Regimes untergehen. Eine erschuetternde Dokumentation Ueber das Leben des Komponisten von Theresienstadt bis Ausschwitz und Ueber seine verzweifelten Versuche, den Nazis zu entkommen. Aber auch ueber das Schicksal seine Kinder, die als Einzige der Familie aus Prag fliehen konnten, aber zeitlebens unter dieser Trennung von den Eltern leiden sollten."

Also on this DVD a 5.1 recording of the 2nd Symphonuy