The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2

About the Work

Viktor Ullmann Composer: Viktor Ullmann
© Richard Freed

Ullmann did not leave us any symphonies; the conductor, percussionist and scholar Bernhard Wulff, born in Hamburg four years after Ullmann's death, created two symphonies from piano sonatas in which Ullmann had indicated his thoughts on orchestrating those works. Ullmann composed the last of his seven sonatas at Theresienstadt in 1944; Wulff completed his reconstruction of that work to form the Second Symphony in 1989 and the Symphony was given its premiere in Stuttgart on October 18 of that year (the anniversary of Ullmann's death) by the Symphony Orchestra of the Baden-Württemberg High School for Music under the direction of Peter Gülke. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The Wulff score calls for 3 flutes and 2 piccolos; 3 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets in A, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, gong, castanets, xylophone, harpsichord, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.
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Viktor Ullmann was one of the most widely known of the composers sent to Terezin. He studied briefly with Schoenberg in Vienna, then returned to Prague as one of Alexander Zemlinsky's assistants at the New German Theater (today the State Opera). He became director of the opera in Usti nad Labem in 1927, and a few years later his involvement in the anthroposophic movement took him to Zurich, and from there to Stuttgart. Forced to leave Germany in 1933, he returned again to Prague as a free lance, eventually working in the music department of Czechoslovak Radio, serving as book and music critic for various journals, and teaching. He struck up a friendship with Alois Hába and enrolled in his quarter-tone course at the Prague Conservatory. In September 1942 he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he became one of the most conspicuously active figures in the camp's remarkable musical life. Ullmann was among those sent on to Auschwitz when the Theresienstadt ghetto closed down on October 16, 1944, and, together with Haas, Krása and others, he was murdered upon arrival there. A Viktor Ullmann Foundation was founded in London by the pianist Jacqueline Cole in 2002 to promote the music of Ullmann and his associates.

Ullmann composed three operas as well as songs, piano pieces, chamber music and orchestral works, amounting to some 40 titles. Some of these show the influence of his teachers Schoenberg and Hába, while his songs in particular reflect that of Mahler. His literary works and about 20 fragments of his Terezín compositions (which he was persuaded to leave behind when he was sent to Auschwitz) have been preserved, and in the last quarter-century his music has been performed and recorded with increasing frequency. His Terezín opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis was performed a few years ago at the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. James Conlon has recorded a Capriccio CD of Ullmann's works, including the two symphonies, and a DVD which includes both his discussion of ?Viktor Ullmann and the Lost Generation? and his performance of the Second Symphony.

As noted above, Ullmann did not actually compose a symphony, but he did leave indications in his Piano Sonatas Nos. 5 and 7, both composed at Theresienstadt, of his thoughts on orchestrating those works. Some 15 years ago the German musician Bernhard Wulff found that what Ullmann had written in those scores amounted to ?detailed instructions for orchestration? and that even the undesignated portions contain an overwhelmingly orchestral texture, so that clearly we have in each case a germ of the score. Regarded in this light, the Fifth Piano Sonata of Ullmann is his First Symphony (this designation appears on the title page), and the Seventh Sonata is his Second Symphony, which had been considered lost without a trace. . . .

Mr. Wulff undertook this reconstruction for an event at the Freiburg Conservatory which he and his colleague Nancy Drechsler designed under the heading Musik aus Theresienstadt , which brought together music, written texts, documentary films and an eye-witness account by the Prague singer Karel Berman, one of the few survivors able to give an accounting in 1989. The materials Ullmann left behind at Theresienstadt are preserved now at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, enabling Mr. Wulff to work from photocopies of the actual manuscripts. After creating the score of the Second Symphony from the Seventh Sonata, he proceeded to do the same for the First Symphony from the Fifth Sonata, and to produce the orchestral piece Don Quixote Dances the Tango from the composer's short score. ( Don Quixote is also on Mr. Conlon's aforementioned Capriccio CD, as is an earlier set of songs, with the soprano Juliane Banse.) Mr. Wulff's own detailed description of the Second Symphony, printed in the score, has been translated by Sandra Hyslop, especially for the present concerts.
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The stylistic characteristics, notes made with various colored pencils, and the kinds of paper he used are among the clues to the origins of the Second Symphony: Presumably Ullmann first wrote a three-movement work (movements II, III, and V) and designated it as ?Theresienstadt Sketchbook.? Framed by the short, bizarre March (second movement) and the variations on a Hebrew folk song (fifth movement), the slow third movement forms, as it were, the musical center of the piece.

It maintained this function even after Ullmann expanded the work as a symphony, to which he added a classically oriented first movement and introduced a scherzo between the third and fifth movements.

While working on the reconstruction, I had to answer the question of what to do with the parts that did not have exact indications for scoring?and to what extent does the work remain a piano sonata or has it become a symphony. Partly I fell back on conjecture: We know that Ullmann was a good pianist (he studied with Eduard Steuermann, among others)?but on the other hand, he was also a professional conductor. In addition, he was a publicist and he organized concerts?so that along with his profound imagination he brought to his work as a composer a practical sensibility that allowed him to assess precisely whether a project would or would not be feasible.

Wherever the piano part sounds like the piano reduction of a large-force orchestral work (particularly the third and fourth movements), he omitted suggestions for instrumentation?possibly because his concept was for large orchestra, and he knew that such a version would not be realizable at Theresienstadt. From the instrumentation lists, one could reconstruct the size of the whole orchestra and deduce then, by analogy, similar places in scoring the parts.

The use of a harpsichord in the middle of the symphonic sound is noteworthy. Employed sparely, in contrast to the orchestral gestures, it conveys a unique, almost symbolic sense of privacy and immediacy.

One can only speculate about the use of musical quotes as symbols. Ullmann cites not only motives or themes, but also stylistic elements. It is highly likely that the quotations were a form of communication among Ullmann's fellow prisoners in Theresienstadt.

To cite a few of these quotations:

The theme of the last movement is the song ?Rachel,? by Yehuda Sharett, from the poem of the same name by a Jewish émigrée from Russia who named herself after the Biblical Rachel. She came from a family used to luxury and she died in poverty in Tel Aviv. She was left to live in a half-world between dream and reality because of an unhappy love affair with [Zalman] Shazar, later the president of Israel.

Yehuda Sharett's melody developed from the musical impressions that he got in Israel in the 1930s and it became very popular among the Israeli settlers. In Ullmann we find no indication for instrumentation. I chose the clarinet (Klezmer), viola (the violin's big sister), and the harp (David's instrument).

A variation of this melody?but this time in major?yields the Slovak national hymn; it forms the basis for the final fugue. The old Czech chorale ?Ye Who Are Warriors of God,? known from Smetana's Má Vlast , makes its appearance as well, along with the chorale ?Nun danket alle Gott? and the B-A-C-H theme.

Like a memory, a scene from Heuberger's operetta Der Opernball appears in the scherzo. Remarkably, in the Adagio , along with the strict technique of the movement, in which one can feel the influence of his one-time teacher Schoenberg, Ullmann brings us close to Isolde's Liebestod in Wagner's Tristan. The opening motive, with the germ cell from Tristan , he mirrors and draws through the movement like a passacaglia. The instrumentation follows the corresponding chords at the close of the Tristan Prelude.

In this way, a dramatic parenthesis encloses at one and the same time the longing from the Tristan Prelude (harmonically) and the melodic nearness to Isolde's Liebestod , from which this movement gains most of its energy. Ullmann, however (and perhaps purposely) did not work it out fully: the movement remains fragmentary, even in its function as the center of the symphony. (Ullmann completed the Fifth Sonata on the August 22, 1944, with a dedication to his children. On October 16 he was shipped off to Auschwitz, where he was probably murdered two days later.)

One cannot imagine judging this music independently of its biographical context: it remains united with the events at Theresienstadt. This is music, not as an intellectual, artistic artifact, not as decoration, not as an endless flow of commercial wares, not with a borrowed sense of political engagement, but rather, simply and truly gripping: a power larger than life, and a document of a situation in which music becomes necessary for survival.

?Freiburg, December 1994, Bernhard Wulff
?translation Sandra Hyslop