Viktor Ullmann Remembered

A review and article on Viktor Ullmann and his music, performed at the Ravinia Festival, written by Stewart I. Cherlin

James Conlon

This article is a brief introduction to the Terezin concentration camp and a review of music by Viktor Ullmann, one of many major composers imprisoned by the Third Reich at the camp during the Holocaust.

There is a renewed interest in music of Viktor Ullmann due in great part because of James Conlon. Conlon, the new music director for the Ravinia Festival is one of the leading advocates performing and recording the music of Terezin composers. His series, "Breaking the Silence" at Ravinia provides an opportunity to experience music that was once quarantined and subsequently forgotten.

Terezin originally was a fortress built as a defensive outpost during Russian-Austrian War by the Austrian Empire. During the First World War it served as a prisoner-of-war camp. Its most notorious prisoner was Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

During World War II, The Nazis seized Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) from the Czechs converting it into a concentration camp. Its population was comprised mostly of Jewish scholars, professionals, musicians, and artists from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Holland, and Denmark.

As a Nazi propaganda ploy inmates were permitted to live creative lives. Composers composed new music; musicians played concerts including Jewish folk songs, classical, opera, and jazz. Yet, there was something terribly wrong.

Terezin was a charade camp established to deceive International Red Cross inspectors and the world that Jews were treated humanly and in a civilized matter by the Nazi regime. The camp had all the trappings of culture, art and freedom within its Ghetto walls. The Nazi deception neglected no detail. The camp included scenic glassy areas and parks, outdoor concert venues, beds of flowers, even statues.

It was an elaborate ruse, a façade that concealed its true purpose. For its imprisoned inhabitants it was a temporary stop on route to the death camps.

Of the 140,000 Jews interned at Terezin 33,000 died of starvation and disease, 87, 000 were transported and perished in the Nazi death camps. Of the 15,000 children prisoners less than 1% percent survived.

Music at Terezin

Music at Terezin remained locked inside its fortresses walls—fading whispers drowned out by planned annihilation of European Jewry. Remarkable much of the music from Terezin was saved after the war but remained relatively unknown and forgotten.

After years of neglect the silence is broken. James Conlon is passionate about performing the music of Terezin. His artistic sensibilities return this lost music to its rightful place.

Under his skillful baton, James Conlon and the consummate Chicago Symphony Orchestra commenced Ravinia's 'Breaking the Silence' series. The project is planned to span several years featuring a different Terezin composer each season. The series first honors the life and work of Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944).

Ravinia is an outdoor summer music festival held at Chicago's North Shore during summer months featuring classical, popular, world and jazz music events. It has several concert venues including a large lawn area and open-air pavilion stage. Ravinia concert and event information is available at

It is intriguing to hear Ullmann in an open air venue as is it evocative of outdoor concerts at Terezin. Of course the comparison ends there. One can freely leave the Ravinia grounds once a performance is over. The Terezin composers were imprisoned in a ghetto as harsh and cruel as the world has witnessed.

Viktor Ullmann

Viktor Ullmann was perhaps the most gifted composer held at Terezin. Both his parents were Jewish; however, they converted to Catholicism prior to Viktor's birth. In the late 1920s Ullmann was attracted to Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophic movement. He had little interest or background in Judaism.

Ullmann studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky. From 1920–1927 Ullmann assisted Zemlinsky at the New German Theatre in Prague.

On September 8th 1942, Ullmann and his family were deported to Terezin. He was assigned to the "Leisure Time Administration" (Freizeitgestaltung). His official duty was to work as a performer, composer, critic and lecture.

At Terezin, Ullmann organized chamber concerts, musical lectures, and promoted new music. He composed twenty plus compositions during his two years of captivity, including three piano sonatas, a string quartet, dozens of songs and an opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis).

Conlon's Ullmann

recording of Ullmann's 2nd symphonyDuring the opening week of the 2005 Ravinia festival, James Conlon lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest artists in four major concerts of Viktor Ullmann compositions. These included Symphony No 2, the Piano Concerto, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, and a short work titled Don Quixote tanzt Fandango.

Each concert was masterfully performed to include a major work by Ullmann alongside works by Mahler, Brahms, Richard Strauss and contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Conlon's programming was balanced enhancing the overall expression of the music. It places Ullmann as a significant musical voice of the 20th century classical music.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major is an unfinished work. Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz on October 16 1944 and perished in the gas chambers. He planned to compose a symphony based on material from his final Piano Sonata No. 7 (1944). His marginal notes in the manuscript indicate orchestration. The Symphony in its current incarnation was reconstructed by Bernard Wulff (1994).

Ullmann, in the piano version of the work freely quotes from several musical sources including a theme and variations based on Yehuda Sharett's Jewish folk song, "Rachel". The work also includes quotes paradoxically from "Tristan und Isolde" by Richard Wagner, a Protestant chorale by Johann Crüger, and the Czech national anthem "Má vlast" (My Country) by Bedøich Smetana which was banned by the Nazis.

Ullmann's defiance of his Nazi repressors is subtle but evident. His candid use of music material from the above mentioned sources was a bold move considering the circumstances. This was Ullmann's chutzpah.

Ullmann's Symphonies are available on CD with James Conlon leading the Gürzenich Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker (Capriccio 67-017). This is an historic performance that captures the vitality of Ullmann's music.

The final movement of the Symphony concludes with a triumphant fugue. It reflects melancholy, intense longing and a spirit to create something of value while shackled under chains of tyranny. James Conlon in this recording and at the Ravinia performance captured this spirit.

The CD is a welcome addition to music once repressed and then set aside for too many years.

Written by Stewart I. Cherlin, revised 16 Aug '05

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