(Post)Modernism in Theresienstadt

The Legacy 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…” Viktor Ullmann, Goethe and Ghetto, 1944 (Trans. Michael Haas)

The songs of composer, pianist, conductor and music critic Viktor Ullman are uplifting and moving, and sound, at times, almost familiar. The ambience and acoustic of St John’s Church opposite Waterloo Station where soprano Paulo Sides and pianist Jonathan Gale performed may play its part in all this, but I wonder whether this is the result of what we now know of Ullman, that many of these works were composed during difficult years in Prague, and then in Theresienstadt in the years 1942 to 1944 before Ullman was deported to Auschwitz.

Viktor Ullman was born in what is now 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 repetiteur 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.

The St John’s concert coincided with performances of the The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis at 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. The opera’s depiction of the Emperor, taken to be a satire of Hitler, 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 libretto, by Peter Kein draws on Ullman’s experiences as an Austrian soldier in World War I. Like the fairy tales of Hungarian author Antal Szerb, here is a fable presenting humanity as paradoxical, where the delusional become comical, the powerful become frail. Yet for a contemporary audience it is 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 catastrophic circumstances. “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”.

In his book,  The Holocaust and the Postmodern, Robert Eaglestone, Professor of 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.”

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.” 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”, and as Eaglestone states, “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 and a clear sense of purpose. For Levi, our contemporary ears should be able accept this if we consider the inherent plurality of postmodernism, 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, the notion of Jewish inability to assimilate

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.” 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.

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