A Final Reckoning: Viktor Ullmann's Last Piece

January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops. Representing the many victims, especially the doomed artists of Theresienstadt, we’re listening to the Seventh Piano Sonata of Viktor Ullmann. Under the Nazi regime, Ullmann was first silenced as a “degenerate” composer owing to his Jewish ancestry, then deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto/transit camp in September 1942. After contributing to the camp’s poignantly rich artistic life for two years — and composing most of the pieces of his which survive today — he was deported to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944 along with members of his family and many colleagues such as Hans Krasa (composer of the opera Brundibar), Pavel Haas, and Gideon Klein. He’s believed to have been gassed on October 18, 1944.

Here are the Variations and Fugue from Ullmann’s last work, his 7th Piano Sonata. The fugue is on Yehuda Sharret’s Song of Rachel, a popular Zionist anthem. It’s dedicated to Ullmann’s three eldest children and dated August 22, 1944. His youngest son, Pavel, had died in the camp at the age of three and son Max would die in Auschwitz at twelve.  Felice and Jean (Johannes) were safe in the England.

As was Ullmann’s habit, this movement is full of other musical quotations, the most audible of which may be “Now Thank We All Our God.”

The seventh sonata is also the short score for a planned Second Symphony, eventually realized by Bernhard Wulff. (Look for the CD and DVD conducted by James Conlon.) Reviewing a performance of the orchestral version, James Reid Baxter offers this chilling description:

Wulff described the final Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong as a ‘final reckoning with European culture, which allowed things like Terezin to happen’. It is simply the most disturbing music I have ever heard. The little melody is lightly varied several times, then subjected to vehement, superb fugal treatment which sets alarms ringing — the possible symbolism of which is stomach-turning. The horror grows as ‘Now Thank We All Our God’is sonorously declaimed by the brass over a furious counterpoint, which builds to a general pause. Then a single, derisory blare of ‘B-A-C-H’ is heard on trombine, and the father of German music is dismissed in a ferocious stretto using the Hebrew melody, which concludes the Symphony with heartbreaking energy, singing in the face of deliberate murder of so many millions of futures. The sheer strength required to write, in those circumstances, silences all criticism. Never has the idea of ‘music as music’ seemed so small: as Wulff wrote, this is not ‘engaged composition, this is music as the will to survive.

Ullmann kept a diary in Theresienstadt in which he addressed the idea of singing in the face of… (words fail).

I have composed quite a lot of new music here in Theresienstadt, mostly at the request of pianists, singers and conductors for the purpose of the Ghetto’s recreation periods. It would be as irksome to count them, as it would be to remark on the fact that in Theresienstadt, it would be impossible to play a piano if there was none available. In addition, future generations will care little for the lack of music paper that we presently experience. I emphasise only the fact that in my musical work at Theresienstadt, I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited: we simply did not sit and lament on the shores of the rivers of Babylon that our will for culture was not sufficient to our will to exist. And I am convinced that all who have worked in life and art to wrestle content into its unyielding form will say that I was right…”