03 Feb

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), composer

Festival Artists

Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen (now Český Těšín), Czech Republic on January 1, 1898. Ullmann’s father was an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army stationed in Teschen.  In 1909, the Ullmann family moved to Vienna, and Viktor began studying music theory with Dr. Josef Pohlaneur. In 1918, Viktor enrolled at the Vienna University as a law student, supplementing his studies with private piano lessons with teacher Edward Steuermann. That same year, he joined Arnold Schoenberg’s composition seminar, through which he became acquainted with Alexander von Zemlinsky. In 1920, Zemlinsky offered Ullmann the position of chorus master and répétiteur at the German Theater in Prague. Initially, Ullmann’s duties were restricted to vocal coaching, but after one year, Zemlinsky expanded his responsibilities to include conducting.

In 1933, Ullmann returned to Prague. In addition to teaching and to his work as a music critic, Ullmann became involved in Leo Kestenberg’s Internationale Gesellschaft für Musikerziehung as well as several other music societies based in Prague. Beginning in 1935, Ullmann began studying quarter-tone composition under the guidance of Czech composer Alois Hába. In 1934, Ullmann was awarded the Hertzka prize for his piece Schoenberg-Variationen, originally composed in 1925, and newly arranged for Orchestra.

On September 8, 1942, Ullmann, along with his third wife Elizabeth, were deported to Terezín. For a short time, he lived near his two previous wives and one of his sons, who had been sent to Terezín in an earlier transport. Ullman’s two children from his second marriage managed to escape to Sweden and then to England in one of the few humanitarian transports permitted by German officials.

Ullmann quickly became one of the leading figures in the camp’s musical life. He was active in Terezín during a time when musical and cultural activity was officially promoted by Nazi officials. As such, he was assigned to the Administration of Free Time Activities (Freizeitgestaltung) as a music critic and organizer of musical rehearsals. Luckily, many of his critiques of performances and individual musicians were preserved, shedding light on the culture and participants of the musical life in Terezín. In addition to his formal duties, Ullmann organized a large number of concerts under the auspices of the “Studio for New Music,” an informal group that he founded to support musicians interned in Terezín, and to give public performances of their work.

The years 1942-1944 marked Ullmann’s most prolific compositional period; he produced sixteen known compositions and an additional four that are believed to be either lost or incomplete.

Ullmann’s interest in Jewish themes peaked for the first time in Terezín, motivating him to compose a number of Hebrew songs for the various choruses active in the camp.  Ullmann’s largest-scale work produced in Terezín is undoubtedly his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, scored for five singers and a thirteen-member orchestra. The premiere was to take place in the fall of 1944 at the “Sokolovna” gymnasium, but was never staged due to the heavy deportations to Auschwitz in October of that year. Ullmann himself was transferred to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944, in one of the mass liquidation transports, and died in the gas chamber two days later. The opera was first performed in Amsterdam in 1975, and since then it’s been performed in various other countries.