‘Degenerate’ music? Remembering composer Viktor Ullmann and the liberation of Theresienstadt

Member to Member

Volume 117, No. 7July, 2017

Lutz Rath

The Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt, where Viktor Ullmann was forced to compose. Photo: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

This year is the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. This reminds me of the many times I’ve performed an unusual piece for narrator and piano by the Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), who lived in Theresienstadt before he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed in the gas chambers.

Theresienstadt was a transit camp, or holding camp, designed to deceive International Red Cross inspectors – and the rest of the world – that the camp was a cultural paradise. There is vast documentation about the artists, poets, performers and others who were forced to perform in the camp.

The Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann.

In 1942, Viktor Ullmann was deported to Theresienstadt. Since his extraordinary career was known to the Nazis, Ullmann became a “cultural impresario,” responsible for all performances and lectures. He was also required to write inspiring compositions. As conflicted as he and all other creative artists were at the time, here is a worthwhile quote from Ullmann: “It must be emphasized that Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who, in life and in art, were fighting to force form upon resisting matter, will agree with me.”

Ullmann’s “The Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke” (Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke) for piano and narrator is a rarely-performed work based on 12 poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It was one of Ullmann’s last compositions in Theresienstadt. Its first performance was in September 1944. A month later,  Ullmann and others were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered.

I’ve performed this work numerous times in the role of the narrator, accompanied by pianist David Oei. It’s always a powerful, emotional roller coaster. Twice we met Holocaust survivors who had witnessed Ullmann working on this very piece! Texts and music are dramatically interwoven with a never-ending intensity. There is imagery of violence, tenderness, destruction, utter sadness and even sarcasm. After each performance we experience total emotional exhaustion. The brilliant piano part alone is a masterpiece and could be performed even without the text as a solo work. It is an intellectual and emotional challenge to any audience.

I have produced many concerts of what the Nazis called “degenerate music” (i.e. music by Jewish composers)  to remind audiences of history and make sure we don’t forget. Many years ago, the Long Island Philharmonic sponsored my one-hour program of “Forbidden Music” in high schools all over Long Island. In that program I integrated two songs for string quartet and soprano by Viktor Ullmann that are seldom heard.

In the present climate of nationalistic undertones in Europe and here in the U.S., along with the de-funding of intellectual and artistic institutions, our role as artists has become even more important. We must hold a mirror to the politicians who disregard culture. And we must continue to remember and honor those who have suffered for their art.

Cellist Lutz Rath has been a member of Local 802 since 1983.