(Post)Modernism in Theresienstadt: The Legacy of Viktor Ullman

(Post)Modernism in Theresienstadt: The Legacy of Viktor Ullman.

Jewish Quarterly, December 2012

That were dreamily listening to the nightingale: Musical Language and Invisible Histories in the Work of Viktor Ullman

“ 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…” 1

Listening to the songs written by composer, pianist, conductor and music critic Viktor Ullman, in St John’s Church opposite Waterloo Station, is not how one might envisage an average Tuesday evening. The music sung by Soprano Paula Sides and performed by pianist Jonathan Gale, is uplifting and moving, at times almost familiar. The ambiance and acoustics of the building may play its part in all this, but I wonder whether this is the result of what we now know of Ullman, born on the 1st January 1898 in Teschen, now Cieszyn Poland, who died in Auschwitz in 1944. As a contemporary listener we know before we hear the first note that many of these works were composed during difficult years in Prague, and then in Theresienstadt where Ullman remained from 1942 to 1944 before being deported to Auschwitz.

Viktor Ullman was born in now what is part of the Czech Republic, formerly part of Austrian Empire. Although both his parents were of Jewish descent, they converted to Catholicism and had their son baptised in order for the family to take part in Austrian public life. In 1909, the family moved to Vienna, where Ullmann received his education and continued to study music under Edward Steuerman and later Arnold Schoenberg before going go on to become repititeur at the German Theatre in Prague. After a short stint as musical director at Usti nad Labem (Aussig), he moved to Prague to become the owner of the Anthroposophical bookshop ‘Novalis’ in Stuttgart, before returning to Prague in 1933 to continue teaching, writing and studying until 1942. Before the war, he wrote some forty compositions including three operas, two string quartets, four piano sonatas, various orchestral works and songs for voice and piano.

In Theresienstadt, Ullman was given the task of co-organising permitted leisure activities with the Czech composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944). During this time he produced several song cycles, three piano sonatas, a string quartet, including ‘Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christophe Rilke’ and the symphonic poem ‘Don Quixote Dances a Fandango’ , while preparing the libretto for an opera based on the life of St Joan of Arc. Ullmann’s last work, The Seventh Sonata ; ‘Allegro; Alla Marcia, ben misurato; Adagio, ma con moto; Allegretto grazioso; Variationen und Fuge uber ein hebräisches Volkslied’, is full of autobiographical musical quotations and references to his influences that include Gustav Mahler’s ‘Song of the Wayfarer’ ,Richard von Heuberger’s ‘Der Opernball’ and Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’. While the fifth movement, the ‘Theme, Variations and Fugue’ is based on the melody of Yehuda Sharett’s Zionist ‘Song of Rachel’ composed in Berlin in 1932.

Sides and Gale performed Ullman’s songs from the 1930s, with music put to the Romantic poetry of German intellectual, historian and novelist Ricarda Huch, while the influences of the Anthroposophical Society remained in such works as Opus 20 put to the words of Albert Steffen in 1940. There is a moment during these performances when the music and the words seem to split between the moment of listening to the song and the memory of music heard somewhere else. The words of David Einhorn’s Yiddish poem ‘The Birch Tree’, are simple and rhythmic on their own, yet the melody moves you to another space, beyond one’s own personal memory perhaps, to another moment in time.

David Einhorn (1809-1879), leader of the Reform movement in the United States, wrote the poem imagining religious men praying, swaying like the birch tree. The tree occupies a particularly important place in Jewish literature and in the first chapter of the Torah, we find the commandment Bal Tashchit (do not destroy) forbidding the unnecessary destruction of trees they are symbols of paradise, regeneration, shelter and bounty. There is the Tree of Life, with its implied promise of immortality, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden and within the Kabbalistic tradition, it is said that the Tree of Life is an arrangement of ten interconnected sephirot through which God might reveal himself and continue to create both our physical and a higher metaphysical realms. To place the tree in more contemporary thought we then we might remember that Auschwitz- Birkenau was named after the many birch trees that surrounded the complex, a fact we can only speculate to Ullman knowing when he chose the words to place the song to. And then there is the style of the song, written in the final months at Theresienstadt before Ullman’s deportation to Auschwitz, where we know he came into contact with ‘Jewish music’, yet how might we separate this from the other influences running throughout his work, or indeed, should we? The melody rendered in this short song allows only the length it takes for the words to be expressed. One imagines the sway of the trees, the sway of men praying, an image that is representative to many as the simple act of prayer. The music takes you somewhere to link the emotional experience of sound to one’s own appreciation of the words sung, while the musical forms rendered may hint towards a memory of Yiddish songs or of the tunes to which words are sung in synagogue. And all this in a just a few minutes of a performance.

Music stretches memory not only between now and the past, but also intellectually and imaginatively. While it might take us back to some personal experience, included in this is the memory of those who came before us for it reminds us that our predecessors were, “touched by the same breath of air,” the music is then part of that “echo of those who been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today.”2 In the same moment, the words to the song give us a hand, taking us on another journey perhaps, for it is likely that we can engage with language, even one that we don’t speak or understand now, when placed to music.

The concert at St John’s coincided with performances of the The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis), staged by the Royal Opera House. Ullman’s score displays an eclectic style, with influences ranging from Arnold Schoenberg to the music he heard in jazz halls. Through music, we immediately get a sense of his cultural engagement, a sense of a person. It is the character depiction of the Emperor, taken to be a satire of Hitler, that resulted in the performance being cancelled in Theresienstadt. Yet the character is not a straight-forward joke and as the opera continues he becomes more complex and the story more sympathetic of this wretch trapped and yet out of control within a system of his own making. The score written by 23 year old librettist Peter Kein is said to draws on Ullman’s experiences as an Austrian soldier in World War I. Like all good fables there is no straight-forward good and bad, yet clear lessons to be had if one looks for them. This is not so unlike the fairy tales of Hungarian author Antal Szerb, whose sense of humour and civilised voice makes the magical that much darker. Like the writing of Szerb, here is a fable presenting humanity as paradoxical, where the delusional become comical, the powerful become frail. Yet for a contemporary audience it might be difficult to suspend our understanding of history and to appreciate the simple messages of the magical when engaging with the arts that came out of such a catastrophic moment in the history of western civilisation. Meanwhile, Ullman’s musical references are broad to say the least. “The nature of the composition and performance of the Emperor of Atlantis remains ambiguous and it is difficult to quantify the relevance or the impact of the piece at the time,” explained Erik Levi, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway University. “I imagine that several of the musical references would have been obvious to most of Ullman’s audience in Terezin, but very possibly not so clear to the SS guards”, but one does wonder if it is more than character depiction that bothered them. Levi describes an urgency to the music, a claiming of German musical heritage, and redefinition of musical references that Ullman so pronounced within the context of conditions unimaginable to a contemporary listener. Levi explains there has always been a fear of music, as Plato wrote that it “gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” We can speculate that the SS wanted to obliterate the possibility of imagining beyond the camp, beyond Nazism and disbelief in capabilities of humanity. Ullman, Kien and the remaining production members were sent to Auschwitz in October 1944.

What we know surrounding the production of The Emperor of Atlantis helps us to understand and appreciate Vitkor Ullman’s wider oeuvre for it gives us a key into how we might experience his shorter, yet no less embracing songs. Less fragmented than the opera perhaps, these works still are capable of lifting and dropping us into a sound world, while remaining distinct from the sort of music that is without any space for, what Erik Levi describes as “critical faculties”, using Wagner, a composer for whom we still attach a more deeply rooted cultural association, as an example. With Ullman’s music there is a language of musical forms that a contemporary listener can engage with, although intellectually Ullman’s songs remind us that there is an expectation attached to our engagement with any art form. What is pertinent to the discussion surrounding Ullman’s work, which musically and poetically leaves us less than certain of the intention or its meaning, is what the relevance of such work has to a broader discussion on music today. Perhaps as Erik Levi says, “great art doesn’t need excuses”, and yes, we can appreciate music as an art form separate from a historical narrative, but perhaps it is something within the power of this “great art” that helps us re-evaluate and re-approach the legacy of historical events.

In his book, The Holocaust and the Postmodern, Robert Eaglestone, Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London explains that, as a subject the Holocaust refuses to be simply incorporated within the representational confines of a research object, thus it raises questions concerning the very character of what is historical. Instead Eaglestone identifies a moment that turns to a re-evaluation of how truth is to be understood and what the meaning of real truth might be. He claims that this is problematic because “the debates about whether history is an art or a science, about the representation of the past, about the relationship between history and memory, are really debates about the sort of truth to which history aspires.”
History, he says, relies on memory, “… it relies on that for which memory is a symptom, the existential ethical truth. There is a truth that underlies the correspondence theory of truth.” 3

Eaglestone explains that the Holocaust forces the historian to rethink the notion of evidence, for although there remains visual evidence of the event, no few objects or testimonies can sum up the far-reaching destruction that remains the legacy of the Nazis. Much of what we understand of it, like music, remains without the visible and instead we relate to it through the absent images of people lost, the music that one might sing now as our ancestors did before us. For Emanuel Levinas as Eaglestone explains, the visible and connected ideas of evidence will always tend towards a totality which can destroy an otherness. “The manifestation of the invisible [i.e., the ethical relation]” does not equate to the invisible gaining the status of the visible as this would only reproduce the same visible “counters of the game of history.”4 Instead, we have to think of the invisible as something that exists in what isn’t necessarily readily available to us, something that is made manifest through art or literature or music. It is that moment when we can take an experience and find something that doesn’t necessarily exist in the archives already. It is another version of a history or another way of thinking about history, which has the potential of opening up a discourse that reactivates a connection between us and the past.

Listening to the songs played in St John’s Church it is as if one is being taken on a musical journey through the last 17 years of the composer’s life from Stuttgart back to Prague and then to the experience of Terezin. For artists and writers in the years immediately following the war, western culture was “infected” with the Holocaust and there was an attempt to create new languages of meaning. As Erik Levi explained “The modernism of the 1950s meant that there were no longer any allusion to romanticism and so it is not surprising that composers wanted to compose music that stood on its own.” Modernism represented a break from the past, calling in an era of new forms of expression that tore dramatically from the classicism of before, the mainstay of this being Adorno’s much quoted, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”5, and as Eaglestone said, “In Theresienstadt there was no Adorno.” The Emperor of Atlantis is the absolute contrary to any modernist ideal. Fragmented, yes, but direct in its musical referencing it has an urgency of composition, a sense the purpose one might say. For Levi, our contemporary ears should be able to deal with this if we consider that postmodernism accepts a plurality, but what might be more relevant to us as listeners today is how we approach the experience of such music. It is after all this pluralism that runs together with one of the key criticisms of Judaism that the Nazis played upon, that being the Jewish people’s inability to assimilate. What Levi reminds us in his book Mozart and the Nazis and that he is keen to explain, is that the music we think of as representative of Nazi ideology was often falsely abused at the expense of our contemporary enjoyment of it.

By listening to the music of Ullman, one is able to revisit a cultural musical landscape, to enter a sonic world shared by the composer and those around him and gain a sense of a human position within the historical narrative. Another part of this might be Ullman’s own sense of nationality, the music representing a claim to what he felt was culturally his right as a citizen of the Austrian Empire. Like Mahler, Ullman was of Czech origin, so the extent of German influence on his music adds another layer to our relationship with history. We only have to consider the writing of Franz Kafka, another Czech of Jewish origin and the controversy surrounding where the papers he entrusted to Max Brod should be archived, to appreciate the complexities of the displacement of so many as a result of the Third Reich’s plans to change our social and cultural landscape. Like Kafka and so many others, Ullman is “part object and part echo of a human presence”6 of the breadth of what we lost and yet, what we can also hold on to.

In history as in art, distance allows us to objectify, or as George Steiner puts it, “For purposes of ordering perception, of placement and verdict, the critical object is reified.”7 Ullman’s use of seemingly disparate musical languages contradicts a straightforward, linear line of engagement. As an art form, it sits for the moment, outside the discourse surrounding the Holocaust and has not been indexed, resisting categorisation for the time being at least. For although it might contain a definite order of concepts and musical language, and can be placed within its contextual origin, it has the ability to push our expectations of what constitutes as ‘Holocaust Art’, to think about the conditions, the intellectual and social situation for people like Ullman prior to the Nazi regime and the devastating consequences to culture and life as a result of their gaining power. The inescapable truth about perception is that there is positivity in all experience and music can remind us of this for it has the energy that attains the sensuous and intellectual reality in a few moments. These moments that take us to another world that reminds us of our own, even in the simplest motion of the birch tree, prevents the risk of assuming the lives of people into a history taken for granted and forgotten.

1 ‘Goethe and Ghetto’ 1944, Viktor Ullmann/Trans. Michael Haas
2 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’
3 Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern, P.139
4 Ibid, quoting Levinas, p.157
5 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, 1949 vivi (Judith Butler)
6 George Steiner , ‘Critic/Reader’ p.70