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