Personalities | Viktor Ullmann | Modern Era | Opera
Among the most heart-breaking of musicians’ stories is the brutally curtailed life and career of Viktor Ullmann. A Jewish victim of the Nazi genocide, he reached his creative zenith during two harrowing years inside Terezín (known as Theresienstadt by the Nazis). As he noted about himself and other musician prisoners before their death in the concentration camp, ‘Our desire to create matched our will to live’.
Raised in a Moravian-Czech border town, Ullmann studied composition in Vienna under Schoenberg and developed a music style that, although not atonal, still exhibited the chromaticism of the Viennese school. Returning to Prague when Hitler seized power, Ullmann composed prize-winning works such as the opera Der Sturz des Antichrist (‘The Fall of the Antichrist’, 1935), whose Hitlerian central character ensured it was never performed during Ullmann’s lifetime. Other projects met with a similar fate, before he was transported to the Terezín camp in September 1942.
As the Nazis encouraged artistic activity in order to fool visiting Red Cross delegates, within 24 months Ullmann composed an astounding 23 works, including the remarkable Der Kaiser von Atlantis (‘The Emperor of Atlantis’, 1943), an allegorical satire alluding to Hitler’s downfall. It was not performed until the 1970s. Ullmann served as a concert organizer and music critic at Terezín until, on 16 October 1944, once he and the other musicians and composers had outlived their usefulness, they were transferred to Auschwitz and delivered to the gas chamber the following day.
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