Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Unsung Giants of Modern Music (I): Viktor Ullmann

This will be the first in a series of posts on musical artists, past and present, who have been forgotten for varying reasons. While I will discuss artists in multiple musical arenas, I will begin with who I feel is one of the most important, and unknown, composers in 20th century music: Viktor Ullmann.

Ullmann was born in 1898 in Teschen, in what is now the Czech Republic, but moved to Vienna when he was very young. As a result of his father’s stature in the army and his own clear musical abilities, he was sent to music school at a young age. Eventually, associates of atonal innovator Arnold Schoenberg took notice of his talents, and he became one of the maestro’s apprentices. His early compositions, while heavily influenced by his mentor, pushed the envelope of the atonal styling and, finally, he broke away and left for the tutelage of Alexander von Zemlinsky, where he began to develop his own style, combing the atonality of what he’d learned in his relative youth with older forms, quotations from contemporary and earlier composers (what Carl Stalling called “musical borrowings”), and a philosophy stemming from the Anthroposophic movement founded by Rudolf Steiner, a highly emotional but technical style that was met with good success in the years between WWI and WWII. However, it was the advent of the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe that caused both his greatest artistic successes and his demise.

On September 8, 1942, Ullmann, along with many, boarded a train to Theresienstadt, the Nazi "show camp," 40 miles north of his home in Prague, where the Red Cross and journalists could come into for “proof” that the Jews were treated humanely. As disgusting a fabrication as this was, it did afford those lucky enough to be here a semblance of culture. Many of the important Jewish artists of the day were shipped here and Ullmann himself, being one of those elevated, was allowed to organize concerts, lecture and, most importantly, continue to compose his own music. In his two year tenure, he composed some 25 pieces. Many were songs (remarkable, Mahler-esque pieces, in their own right), but he also composed what are often considered now his most important pieces, the 3rd [Theresienstadt] String Quartet (one of the most emotional and scintillating pieces I’ve ever had the pleasure to see in person; second only to seeing Arnold Schoenberg’s own Verklarte Nacht) and a one act opera: Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

It is Atlantis, one of the final pieces he composed, which sets him apart. It tells the story of a king (of Atlantis, that is) who declares war on the entire world with the express intention of ending all life on Earth. Death (as character) tries to intercede but, when Der Kaiser’s juggernaut proves insurmountable, Death leaves his post. As such, the thousands upon millions of people “killed” by Der Kaiser lay tattered, bloodied, and torn on the battlefield, but not dead. For the anguish of this unlife, the world suffers true horror.

Under such dire circumstances, it would have been easy for Ullmann to write nice, safe, Germanic music in the hope that he could eke out a little more time. But he knew where he was going to end up and, instead of cowing to his executioners, he threw it back in their faces. In early October 1944, not long after the opera's first performance, Ullmann was carted to Auschwitz, where he was gassed within days of his arrival. While many of his songs and chamber pieces had political subtexts and borrowings from banned music (namely, Smetana’s Ma Vlast), very little in any composer’s catalogue is as audacious or as cutting as what Ullmann presents in Der Kaiser von Atlantis. He has contributed, like nobody else, a sense of unfathomable time and place, allowing no concession.

Very little of Ullmann’s pre-camp work survives, as a result of the clean sweeps during the siege of Prague but, thanks to the German’s obsessive record keeping, they did allow all the pieces Ullmann wrote in the camp survive. This work is some of the most important of the 20th Century, and it is a shame to see that, while the scores do exist, nearly every previously available recording of his work is now out of print. Maybe someday, symphonies will break from the relentless canon, not play a single Mozart or Beethoven piece for an entire season (God forbid!!), and perform compositions by composers like Ullmann (but certainly not exclusively so). Unless they do, there will come a time where composers such as this are relegated even deeper into academic obscurity, where we admire how the score is put together, but have no idea how it sounds.