Viktor Ullmann

Viktor Ullmann, composer, pianist, conductor and music critic was born on the 1st of January in Teschen, now Cieszyn Poland, 1898. An Austrian of Jewish descent and the son of an army officer of the Austrian Imperial Army posted in Teschen, Viktor Josef Ullmann was baptised on the 27th January 1898 into the Catholic Church of St Mary Magdalene, Dominikan Square, Cieszyn. In 1909, the Ullmann family moved to Vienna, where Viktor Ullmann received his education and studying music theory with Dr Josef Polnauer. After military service in World War 1, and studies to be a Lawyer like his father Maximillian Jerzy Ullmann, while a student of piano under Edward Steuermann, Viktor Ullmann, no doubt influenced by his experiences, decided to leave the Catholic Church in 1919. He continued his musical education under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg, who in turn recommended him to Zemlinsky. In 1920 the latter appointed him repetiteur at the German Theatre in Prague, where he was involved in various rare and historic opera productions. For example in the preparation of chorus and singers for Zemlinsky’s 1923 staging of Richard von Heuberger’s ‘Der Opernball’ – an operetta which received its premiere in the year of Ullmann’s birth.

Fragment of a letter from Ullmann to Annie Wottitz in 1917

Ullmann subsequently became musical director at Usti nad Labem (Aussig) in 1927, but left his post after a year. Though he had managed to stage an impressive repertoire, including operas by Richard Strauss and Krenek, nevertheless Ullmann’s ambitions were deemed to be rather too progressive for the local audience at that time and possibly his chosen language – German – keenly felt as inappropriate for the perhaps parochial atmosphere of Usti nad Labem.

As a committed and genuine seeker of truth, with the soul of a poet and possessed of a fine intellect – Ullmann was both a Greek and Latin Scholar, and as a man of ‘faith’ drawn sincerely to the writings of Rudolf Steiner, his artistic life could function well along parallel lines, and his loyalty to the Anthroposophical Society, led him to take upon himself in trust, the role of bookshop owner of ‘Novalis’ in Stuttgart (1930-1931). Having inherited bad debts from the previous manager of ‘Novalis’ Ullmann returned to Prague because of bankruptcy and after the Nazi acquisition of power, though Steiner’s philosophy left an indelible impression upon his first opera ‘Der Sturz des Antichrist’ (The Fall of the Antichrist 1935) and his subsequent writings, literary and musical. He was also a gifted and spirited music critic who has left a profound legacy of philosophical thought, reflections, observations, concert reviews, letters and verse diaries for example ; – ‘Der fremde Passagier, Ein Tagebuch in Versen’(Prague 1938-1941).

“…Was wollen Sie hier?”

“Ich bin, zu dienen, Ihr Mitpassagier”.

“Ich dachte, dass ich der einzige sie!”

“Ein kleiner Irrtum, der nun vorbei”… (Ibsen, Peer Gynt).

In the 1930’s Ullmann, living in Prague studied composition with Alois Haba, who was also a fellow anthroposophist, however Ullmann did not adopt any of the latter’s micro-tonal technique. During his lifetime, Ullmann was never able to get the backing of a music publisher, though he wrote some forty compositions, before the Second World War including three operas, two string quartets, four piano sonatas, various orchestral works and songs for voice and piano. There is also his celebrated ‘Five Variations and Doublefuge on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg’ for solo piano Opus 3a 1925/29 (and his Opus 3a reworked into ‘Nine Variations and Doublefuge on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg’ (1935) which won for Viktor Ullmann the prestigious composition prize of the Emil Hertzka Foundation in 1936, the same work which he had also very successfully transcribed for string quartet, and orchestra.

Sadly, some of his other works are lost, for example his opera based on Henryk Ibsen’s Peer Gynt; his Symfonia Fantasyczna for orchestra inspired by Felix Braun’s ‘Tantalos’ and a theme of which is later taken up in Ullmann’s opera ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’ and an orchestral work under the guidance of Alois Haba, his ‘Symphonische Messe zur Ehren des Erzengels Michael’ Opus 13, which he completed in 1936. By this time his relationship with the anthroposophical society was in difficulties. Subsequently Ullmann decided to move on from continuing to engage with such a committed anthroposophical perspective, and was eventually reaccepted into the Catholic Church in Austria on May 11th 1940.

In the years before his deportation to Theresienstadt (1937-1942) Viktor Ullmann suffered depression, which resulted in his hospitalisation. His suffering was further compounded by the loss of his parents. To add to his bereavements, he was forced to part with two of his youngest children, who he never saw again, after they were sent on one of the final Kindertransports to the United Kingdom via Sweden. All this in an increasingly hostile and dangerous climate, with no real chance for Viktor Ullmann to find a safe haven, and all escape routes were made impossible by human indifference and officialdom. This was before he was transported to Theresienstadt on the 8th of September 1942 from Prague, and upon arrival, forced to present himself and his family at the newly inaugurated crematorium in Terezin, travelling on foot with 1000 displaced persons from the nearest railway station, Bohusovice, two kilometres south.

In Theresienstadt, Ullmann was soon given the task of co organising with the Czech composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944), the so called ‘permitted ‘ leisure activities within the ghetto, which had been initiated by the Roumanian composer Raphael Schaecter (1905-1944), taking an active part in the musical life which flourished, from within the most appalling conditions that prevailed for everyone. He produced works for which he is best remembered – several song cycles, three piano sonatas, a string quartet, the symphonic poem ‘Don Quixote Dances a Fandango’ which was to be the overture to an opera of that name in 1943. He was preparing the libretto for an opera based on the life of St Joan of Arc, and of course there is his masterpiece and perhaps one of his finest works – ‘Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christophe Rilke’ for Narrator and Piano/Orchestra completed in July 1944, which Raphael Schaecter premiered in Terezin at the piano. On the title page, Ullmann transcribed a dedication to his third wife, Elizabeth: “For my Elly’s birthday, she ‘goes along’ with the years of this century. 27.9.1944.” At the bottom of the manuscript title page is written: Theresienstadt Juli 1944.

Paul Aron Sandfort (4th from left), survivor and fellow musician, remembered seeing Ullmann leave on the “transport to the East”

Ullmann’s last work, written on scraps of lined paper, was composed and dedicated to three of his four children, Max. Jean and Felicia. There are five movements and the work was completed on 22nd of August 1944. (The youngest child, Pavel Ullmann was born in Prague on the 21st of November 1940 and he died on the 14th of December 1943 in the Terezin ghetto; Max – Maximillian Rudolf, born in 1932, did not survive and perished in Auschwitz 1944) The Seventh Sonata ; Allegro; Alla Marcia, ben misurato; Adagio, ma con moto; Allegretto grazioso; Variationen und Fuge uber ein hebräisches Volkslied, draws its inspiration from Ullmann’s most personal references, and is full of autobiographical musical quotations, for example from Gustav Mahler’s ‘Song of the Wayfarer’ and Richard von Heuberger’s ‘Der Opernball’. In the grotesque ‘allegretto grazioso’, the Scherzo and Trio of Ullmann’s Seventh Sonata, ‘Der Opernball’ is quoted as if in a dream, but offers no respite even in fleeting distraction, from the grim and violent reality of life in the Terezin ghetto. “Leise ist mir noch Hoffnung spatter Wiederkehr…” — “Silently there is still hope (in me) for a late return…” Viktor Ullmann writes at that time. The climax of his last work is the fifth movement, the Theme, Variations and Fugue based on the melody of Yehuda Sharett’s Zionist song, composed in Berlin in 1932. Each of the minimalist eight variations weave in and out of Sharett’s ‘Song of Rachel’ which is the setting of a poem by the Russian Jewish poet Rachel, in which she imagines herself as namesake to the Biblical matriarch: “Behold, her blood flows in my blood, her voice sings in mine – Rachel who tends Laban’s flock, Rachel mother of all mothers.”

Widely sung by the pioneers settling the land of Israel, Ullmann may well have come across this song from members of the Zionist youth movements in Terezin. Ullmann also finds the similarity in this melody to the Slovak national anthem ‘Lightning is over the Tatra’ which was banned by the Nazi’s and the Hussite Hymn – ‘Ye who are God’s Warriors’, combining them as with great flair to appear as an audible illusion of one single song. He quotes J Cruger’s Chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God) and the name of B-A-C-H and there is even an allusion to Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ in the glorious and final resolution of Ullmann’s epic seventh sonata. The Fugue ends majestically and triumphantly in the key of D Major, with greatness of spirit and the best of humanity. What possible better testament to a life lived with an intense search for Truth, than one that is lived to the very end with such courage and heroic commitment to real artistry, musicianship and human dignity?

“…es ist das Ferne nicht beklagenswert, vielmehr das Nahe, das in ewigem Schatten ruht”

“…One should not mourn the far away, but the one which is close, in eternal shadow…”

Quotation of the verse-tradegy ‘Tantalos’ of Felix Braun, which Viktor Ullmann set to music as his ‘Symphonische Phantasie’ (the work is lost) and which he also used as a theme in his opera ‘Der Kaiser von Atlantis’

“…Zu betonen ist nur, – das unser Kulturwille unserem Lebenswillen adaquat war…” Viktor Ullmann


“…The ‘Greats’ whom we take as examples, influence the ‘habitus’ by reaching into the very life-ducts of subsequent generations. And it seems to me that the cultivated European has had his behaviour and thoughts, world-view, language, relationship to life and art, determined by Goethe, regardless of how different the dialectical idealogies may fundamentally be. (The second great influence being the ‘anthithesis’, the ‘counter-stream’ which comes from Darwin and Nietzsche). For that reason, Goethe’s maxim, ‘Live in the moment, live in Eternity’ always seemed to me to reveal the puzzling nature of art. Painting displaces the ephemeral, such as that of the still life with flowers that then wilt, or landscapes that change, the faces of people that grow older, or historical events of the past. Music does the same for the spiritual, for the emotions and passions of people, for the ‘libido’ as we in the west say, for Eros and Thanatos. It is from this point that the structure or the composition of a work must then become the conqueror of its substance.

Theresienstadt was and remains for me a school that teaches structure. Previously, where one was unable to experience that weight of cruelty due to ‘comfort’, (this magic of civilisation), one was allowed simply to disregard it; it was easy to create the beautiful form. Here, where artistic substance has to try and endure its daily structure, where every bit of divine inspiration stands counter to its surroundings, it is here that one finds the masterclass. It is here that one understands with Schiller: ‘substance must be consumed by form’. This indeed is presumably the mission of mankind, and not just aesthetic mankind, but ethical mankind as well. I have composed quite a lot of new music here in Theresienstadt, mostly at the request of pianists, singers and conductors for the purpose of the Ghetto’s recreation periods. It would be as irksome to count them, as it would be to remark on the fact that in Theresienstadt, it would be impossible to play a piano if there was none available. In addition, future generations will care little for the lack of music paper that we presently experience. I emphasise only the fact that in my musical work at Theresienstadt, I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited: we simply did not sit and lament on the shores of the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was not sufficient to our will to exist. And I am convinced that all who have worked in life and art to wrestle content into its unyielding form will say that I was right…”

‘Goethe and Ghetto’ 1944, Viktor Ullmann/Trans. Michael Haas

Biography © 2004 Jacqueline Cole.