The composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was labelled as „degenerate“ by Hitler’s propaganda machine. He was rediscovered in the 1970s, but it has proved incomparably more difficult to retrieve him from oblivion than was the case with composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler. Far from merely defaming Ullmann and prohibiting the performance and dis- semination of his works, the Nazi regime in fact came very close to achieving its holocaustic goal of wiping out Ullmann’s very personality and its entire sphere of influence. Ullmann’s compositions have only survived in fairly large numbers due to a succession of happy coincidences, while the fact that he was at all able to write his most mature masterpieces under the degrading circumstances of life at the concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezfn) borders on being a marvel and must be ascribed to the indomitable nature of his Creative will.
Born on New Year’s Day 1898 to assimilated Jewish parents in Teschen (Cieszyn) in the Austrian part of Silesia, Ullmann was given a Catholic christening but later converted to Protestantism. He became a free thinker and a fervent supporter of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings. Deprived of a true sense of national and cultural identity, he quested indefatigably all his life for spiritual values and was open to all the divergent trends of the Zeitgeist.
It is therefore not surprising that Viktor Ullmann was swept along in the tide of interest in the literature of the Orient that had been mounting in Europe since the beginning of the twentieth Century. After studying with Arnold Schoenberg for a year, the young composer had become musical assistant to Schoenberg’s teacher and brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky at the New German Theatre in Prague. Ullmann’s first very successfully performed work, the Seven songs with piano of 1923, originated during that period and already used oriental poetry. The work itself is unfortunately lost to us, but the Programme printed for the Prague concert makes reference to texts by Georg Trakl and Louise Labe (whose poems Zemlinsky also set to music), as well as by the Persian poet Hafez (c. 1325-1390) – in all probability in the German rendering by the lyric poet Hans Bethge.
The widespread use by composers of the „poetic adaptations“ which Hans Bethge (1876- 1946) derived from the Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Turkish Originals – without actually commanding any of the languages – owes much to the lasting popularity of the Song of the Earth of 1908, Gustav Mahler’s setting of Bethge poems which was premiered shortly after Mahler’s death in 1911.
The line of composers who followed Mahler in using Bethge’s poetry includes Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern, Egon Wellesz and Hanns Eisler, as well as Ernst Krenek, Wilhelm Grosz and Richard Strauss. Alexander Zemlinsky, a lifelong friend of Ullmänn (who performed Zemlinsky’s works in the Theresienstadt ghetto), used the principle underlying Mahler’s work in his own Lyric Symphony, which uses poems by his Indian Contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Laureate whose writings, like Bethge’s, were high on Ullmann’s list of preferred reading. Having become acquainted with German-Bohemian music during his years in Prague, Viktor Ullmann also had a special affinity with Mahler – and not only because of their common geocultural background. This emerges from Ullmann’s first piano sonata of 1936, the funeral march of which is marked „in memoriam Gustav Mahler“ and from the fact that he followed Mahler in using Bohemian and South Slavic folk music and in creating settings of Bethge’s renderings of exotic poetry.
Having finally returned to Prague after spending a lengthy period in Zürich and Stuttgart, in 1940 Ullmann set to music four more Bethge renderings of Hafez’s poems. He entitled the work Liederbuch des Hafis (Hafez Songbook) and published it himself as his Opus 30.
Even Goethe, whom the committed anthroposophist Ullmann deeply admired, had recog- nized Hafez’s poems as being encrypted declarations of love written in a society in which con- strictive moral control was perilously omnipresent. The verses of poets like Hafez, Nezami and Sa’di still serve this charming purpose in Iran today. And Ullmann was moreover altogether familiar with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg’s epochal lieder cycle op. 15 of 1908, which uses fifteen orientally garbed verbal creations from Stefan George’s Book of the Hanging Gardens and is in the same tradition.
However, in contrast to Schoenberg’s not exactly catchy musical-poetic hermetism, Ullmann’s treatment of Hafez’s chiefly erotic messages is enchantingly light-footed. The song of the dancing, drunken dervish is accompanied by fashionable, unashamedly jazzy dance rhythms of the kind that had pervaded avant-garde music since the 1920s. „Shimmy“, „Boston“ and „Ragtime“, for example, are among the movement headings Paul Hindemith chose for his Suite „1922“ for piano. Ernst Krenek’s opera Johnny Strikes Up, premiered in Leipzig in 1927, also derives a variety of alienation effects from jazz elements. Like Mahler, Ullmann conducted and composed. The very next year, 1928, Ullmann produced Krenek’s opera in the Bohemian city of Aussig (today Ústi nad Labem in the Czech Republic), where he briefly served as director of the opera. The zeal with which Ullmann helped to make Johnny Strikes Up a world success is perhaps explained by the fact that Krenek’s work uses techni- ques that are stylistically related to his own. The way the song composer Ullmann (his vocal compositions far outnumber all the others) combined elements of the jazz dance suite with those of the lieder cycle in his Hafez Songbook, made the work a lyrical gem possessing uniquely innovative charm.
Enamoured of both the bar and the barmaid, the voluptuous narrator in Vorausbestimmung (predetermination) takes the stage in a somewhat portly cakewalk. Ullmann used the same untroubled dance form to provide light relief for the Theresienstadt community in an escapist French birthday song entitled Little Cakewalk, an amusing reference to the „Golliwog’s Cakewalk“ in Debussy’s Children’s Corner.
The following song Betrunken (drunk) creates a strange sense of Kafkaesque alienation and frightened breathlessness produced by agitated echoes of canonic imitations. The „staggering shadow“ becomes a grotesque doppelgänger and awakens associations of Hölderlin’s Blinder Passagier, the poetry Ullmann chose to describe the profound identity and Creative cri- sis he had been in since the early 1930s. The shattering self-revelation also documents his turning to anthroposophy, which helped him to handle the imminent Splitting of his personality after many other unsuccessful therapy attempts. The autobiographical reference in the composition may be reinforced by the knowledge that Ullmann, divorced for the second time in 1941, was himself probably confronted with a „scolding Suleima” at times …
Marked quasi Slowfox (i.e. slow foxtrot), Unwiderstehliche Schönheit (irresistible beauty) forces the voice down to its darkest bass register and proves to be the most lascivious of Hafez’s voluptuous utterances.
Set by Richard Strauss in 1928 using the original title „Schwung“ (impetus) as part of his Bethge-based Songs of the Orient, the fierily bacchanalian Lob des Weines (in praise of wine), an apotheosis of intoxication, ends Ullmann’s small cycle. Ullmann surely makes fond refer- ence to his youth and Student years in Vienna when he has his powerful Hafez soar up to the dancing spheres in waltz time.
The „deportation train“ took Viktor Ullmann from German-occupied Prague to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in September 1942. The Prague soprano Marion Podolier, to whom the Hafez Songbook is dedicated, was among the prisoners there, as were members of the composer’s family and other friends of his. Twenty-three complete works by Ullmann, all of superb quality, have survived from the time he spent in that forecourt of the extermination factory – an almost superhuman achievement.
As a deleted reference on the manuscript suggests, one of the works Ullmann was plan- ning to compose in those degrading conditions but never completed was yet another songbook. It uses poems by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), a poet who inspired many of Ullmann’s contemporaries. The Nazis themselves laid claim to Hölderlin for the way he glorified the hero’s death, while for those who fled the Nazi scourge, like Eisler and Hindemith, he be- came the poet of both intellectual and geographic exile. Ullmann, who had succeeded in sen- ding his children Johann and Felicia away from occupied Prague to England prior to his own deportation, also chose Hölderlin as his companion in the last stage of his intellectual exile.
But Ullmann’s involvement with Hölderlin went back further than that. As a Student, he must have been aware of the Hölderlin settings by the Viennese composer Joseph Matthias Hauer, to whose twelve-note system Ullmann referred in an essay published in 1935.
Then, during his crisis-filled stay in Stuttgart from 1931 to 1933, Ullmann was close to the Hölderlin Tower in Tübingen, today a kind of shrine to the poet, who spent the second half of his life there under the shadow of insanity. Hölderlin’s emphatic poem „Doppelgänger des Dichters“ from his Blinder Passagier (stowaway) makes reference to his state.
It is surely futile to ask whether Ullmann’s own schizoid tendencies explain his indomitable Creative will and the inexplicable aspect of his compositional achievement in the face of tre- mendous odds. Even the youthful „one-year volunteer gunner“ in the war years of 1916-18 broke off work on his (lost) chamber symphony only when he was sent into action on the murderous Isonzo front. It is conceivable that the psychological and physical survival test of the First World War was for Ullmann a kind of „nursery school of hell“.
The autographs of three Hölderlin settings survived Theresienstadt. The mood of Im Frühling (in spring) swings between hopeful enthusiasm and dumb resignation. As in many other songs by Ullmann, inner turmoil is given melodic expression in extremes of register that take the singer to the limits of his range. We also observe here Ullmann’s striving, fully developed in his mature style, „to penetrate the unexplored areas of tonally functional harmony and to fill the yawning gap between romantic and ‚atonal‘ harmony“. So it is that the compositional mastery underlying this 24-bar miniature succeeds in expressing, with deeply touching beauty, the rich inner life of this lonely person, who would see spring return twice more in prison be- fore he was murdered in Auschwitz.
In Sonnenuntergang (sundown), the voice reaches out into the boundless evening sky in a large-leaping melody dominated by fourths. The last rays, the moving on of the charming sun-youth to good peoples, take on supra-individual meaning when seen against the background of the Shoah. Ullmann’s falling final motif is far more than just the end of the song; it also symbolizes the end of a culture.
Seen in the light of Theresienstadt, Hölderlin’s words „Wohin denn ich?“ (where can I go?) in Abendphantasie are similarly an expression of collective identity. The long breaths and reposeful chords of this lengthy composition seem to denote an endless longing to exist in a fantasy world wrested from the powers of destruction.