Ullmann: Symphony No.2

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
Symphony No.2 in D major (“Theresienstadt Sketchbook”)
(Reconstructed from the Piano Sonata No.7 by Bernhard Wulff)

1. Allegro
2. Alla marcia, ben misurato
3. Adagio, ma non tanto
4. Scherzo: Allegretto grazioso
5. Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong

Terezín (Theresienstadt), about an hour's drive from Prague, was built in 1780, as a garrison town. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph II wanted to ensure that the borders of the Czech territory he had conquered would not be overrun by German hoards from the north. In the event, the town was never used for its intended purpose. Instead it found an effective alternative role as a high security prison. When the German invasion finally came in 1940, Terezín reached its final form as a concentration camp. At its height, the ghetto was home to over 60,000 Jews. The town had been designed to house a population of 5,000. Food was scarce and disease rife.

This was not so different from any other concentration camp. But Terezín was distinguished by one extraordinary fact: its cultural life, which flourished. The plan was to dispel rumours of death camps by promoting Terezín as a cultural beacon. To this end, many Jewish intellectuals were sent there. Artistic activity and the performance of otherwise banned musical and theatrical works was at first tolerated, and later actively encouraged. The results, paraded to visiting representatives of the Red Cross and filmed for a propaganda film, were held up as proof that the Czech Jews were living an idyllic life, separate from the “native” Ayrians (who had been encouraged to immigrate by the Nazis).

Terezín was host to many talented composers, but Viktor Ullmann was perhaps foremost. A former pupil of Schoenberg, he had in the years preceding the war forged his own style, building on but completely distinct from his teacher’s. When war broke out and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia Ullmann found himself transformed overnight from an internationally renowned composer into a nonentity. His music was barred from performance and he was forbidden to appear in public. In 1942 he was sent to Terezín. For the next two years he was heavily involved in the musical life there, not only as a composer and pianist, but also as a critic. His surviving (by no means always kind) reviews of the musical productions there are one of the most important sources of information about artistic life in the ghetto.

That a vivacious artistic culture should thrive in a concentration camp seems scarcely believable. In an essay written towards the end of his time there, Ullmann reflected on the morality of art in captivity. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure. Before, when one did not feel the force and weight of existence because of comfort, this magic of civilisation, it was easy to create beautiful form. Here, where one must daily overcome the substance of life, where everything goes against the Muses: here is the masterclass... I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work at Theresienstadt, without inhibition, and that in no way did we merely sit down and weep by the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was inadequate to our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who have struggled to wrest Form from Art and Life will say that I was right.”

The symphony you hear tonight is a reconstruction: it has a dual existence as Ullmann’s seventh piano sonata. By the time he wrote it in August 1944, dedicating it to his children, such luxuries as manuscript paper were a distant memory. He wrote piecemeal on whatever paper came to hand. The manuscript is a fragmentary piano score, with notes for orchestration. It is unclear to what degree it was intended as a piano work or a short score for an orchestral work. Quite possibly Ullmann abandoned his initial ideas for orchestration simply because the resources were not available. Perhaps they reflect a hope for a day when he might be free again and able to write for a symphony orchestra once more.

The music contains many quotations, partly autobiographical, and partly coded messages to his fellow inmates. Mahler’s Song of a Wayfarer, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Richard von Heuberger’s operetta The Opera Ball are all quoted, as is Ullmann’s own opera The Emperor of Atlantis, also written for performance in Terezín. The latter is the source of an unusual feature of the symphony: the presence in the orchestra of a harpsichord, which also appears in the opera.

The “Hebrew folksong”that forms the basis of the Finale is in fact a Zionist song by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the Russian Jewish poet Rachel, in which the she imagines herself as her biblical namesake. Ullmann’s variations draw attention to its resemblance to the Slovak national anthem (also banned by the Nazis) and the Hussite hymn “Ye Who Are God’ s Warriors”. The famous chorale “Now thank we all our God” and the four-note motto derived from Bach’s name. Such Germanic Protestant music may seem incongruous in a Jewish ghetto, but it should be remembered that many of the prisoners would have previously considered themselves secular and German. Bach’s music especially was cherished as an important, and comforting part of their own culture.

Liberation came to Terezín in early 1945, too late for Ullmann: On October 16th 1944, having been persuaded by his friends to leave his manuscripts in their care, he was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On arrival he was sent directly to the gas chambers. For all the darkness surrounding its creation, however, the lasting impression left by the music is one of great courage and determination. The music itself, and the fact of its survival, is a remarkable testament to the tenacious spirit of Ullmann and his fellow prisoners. Its diversity of influences and materials represents a plea for tolerance that is still all too pertinent today.

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