Articles & Essays

Reimagining Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann and the German-Jewish-Czech World: A Conference Overview

By Juliane Brand

On March 4 and 5 of 2012, the OREL Foundation and the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University (ASU) collaborated in sponsoring an international interdisciplinary conference in Tempe, Arizona, on the subject “Reimagining Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann and the German-Jewish-Czech World.”

Schulhoff and Ullmann are no longer obscure names encountered only in ancillary relationships to the canonic figures of music history, as was the case a mere decade or two ago. Interest in them may have begun within the context of what, for brevity's sake, is often called Holocaust studies (both composers were incarcerated and died in Nazi camps), but closer acquaintance with their oeuvres over the past couple of decades has revealed each to have been a strong, highly individual voice in his time. Performances of their works are no longer rare, and a growing corpus of recordings attests to the acceptance of this music into the twentieth-century repertoire. As the conference organizers Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Michael Beckerman and Robert Elias stated in their synopsis, the decision to place the music of these two men at the center of a two-day conference was based on the recognition that, among the composers who died or were otherwise suppressed by the Nazi regime, Schulhoff and Ullmann “stand out for their productivity, the quality of their musical imaginations and the unusual and fraught contexts in which they worked.”

Schulhoff, born into a German Jewish family in Prague in 1894, received traditional musical training first in his hometown and then in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. After having served in World War I, he joined the Communist Party. He was a chameleon-like composer who experimented with Debussyian Impressionism, Straussian post-Romanticism, Schoenbergian atonal Expressionism, jazz, ragtime, Dadaism (he helped to create the first Dada event in Dresden and was heavily involved with that movement's Berlin exponents), Neoclassicism, Janáčekian nationalism and socialist realism. In the 1920s, Universal Edition published some of his compositions, thus further encouraging performances of his works, and during the same period, Schulhoff was also active as a successful concertizing pianist and as a German-language music critic in Prague.

Ullmann, born in 1898, four years after Schulhoff, in a small town in Silesia that was then part of Austro-Hungary and is now in the Czech Republic, was also, like Schulhoff, of Jewish descent, but he was raised as a Catholic; in 1909 his family moved to Vienna, where he studied and had varied contact with members of the extended Schoenberg circle: Josef Polnauer, Eduard Steuermann, Schoenberg himself and, most of all, Alexander Zemlinsky, under whom he subsequently worked as chorus master and repetiteur at the New German Theater in Prague. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ullmann was active as a composer and conductor, and, like Schulhoff, he came to international attention during those years. But he was also in search of spiritual and esoteric knowledge, and when, in 1931, he became an adherent of anthroposophy, he moved to Germany and abandoned music for a couple of years. By the time he returned to Prague in 1933 to resume the life of a freelance composer, performance organizations and publishers were increasingly falling in line with Nazi policies; most of his works from this period remained unperformed in his lifetime.

Not atypically for members of their generation in that corner of Europe, Schulhoff and Ullmann grew up in shifting religious and cultural worlds, and both had early experiences as outsiders. Most crucially, they were German speakers in predominantly Czech-speaking Prague, and they were of Jewish descent, thus increasingly labeled as Jews, although both had been raised in nonobservant homes and apparently did not identify themselves as Jews. (How this might have changed after their incarceration is debatable, as is the significance of Ullmann's decision in Terezín to set Hebrew and Yiddish texts.) Both also had firsthand experience of active duty in World War I, which fundamentally changed their worldviews and the life choices that they made. Finally, both enjoyed promising early careers in the immediate postwar years and into the early 1930s, and both saw their professional options narrow to the vanishing point while they were still in their thirties, an age at which most creative individuals are just hitting their stride. Beginning in 1938, when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, only emigration could have saved them. Schulhoff, who had become a Soviet citizen early in 1941, was arrested in June of that year as an enemy alien (rather than for his Jewish ancestry, although the latter was the cause of his father's deportation to Terezín, where he died of the harsh conditions in 1942). He was eventually transported to the internment camp of Wülzburg bei Weissenburg, in Bavaria, where many of those who weren't sent on to an extermination camp died of malnutrition and disease; he died there in August 1942, of tuberculosis. Ullmann, who tried desperately to procure emigration visas for himself and his family, was arrested on 8 September 1942 with his wife and deported to Terezín, northwest of Prague and not far from where he had been born; on 16 October 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz, where he was gassed two days later.

Since Wülzburg was a forced labor camp, it is doubtful that Schulhoff would have been able to carry on any musical activities there. Ullmann, on the other hand, was actively involved in the musical life of Terezín, where he not only served as pianist, conductor, lecturer and official camp music critic but also composed twenty-three works, including fourteen Hebrew and Yiddish choral pieces and arrangements; these remain the only works for chorus in his oeuvre, and they were undoubtedly inspired by the ready accessibility of performers — Terezín could boast of having at least ten choral groups. The Arizona conference focused primarily on the works that Ullmann produced in captivity, but some interesting comparisons were also made with his earlier compositions.

Nine talks, interspersed with musical performances; one panel discussion; and a preconcert discussion made up the four conference sessions. Anna Cichopek-Gajraj, Theodore Solis, Sabine Feisst and Ben Levy (all from ASU), as well as Michael Beckerman (New York University) served as moderators, and Beckerman also presented a stimulating keynote address. The packed, two-day event concluded with an imaginative musical program devoted to Ullmann, titled “Music, Memory and Metamorphosis.” A rewarding bonus to the final event was its venue, the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society; the center's exhibit of documents and artifacts charting the history of Jewish pioneers in the Arizona Territory was fascinating.

The talks — most of them read from prepared papers — ranged from close studies of particular works to synthesizing overviews of the cultural and musical contexts within which Schulhoff and Ullmann were active. The ever-returning questions that engagement with this chapter of music history must grapple with threaded through the papers and fueled energetic discussions, even in cases in which a presenter's focus was tangential to the main conference themes. As often happens at thoughtfully designed scholarly meetings, a number of vexed, and frequently unresolvable, questions came increasingly and repeatedly to the fore.

The two composers' Czech-German background and the question of Jewish identity, or lack thereof, appeared in various contexts. In his keynote address, Michael Beckerman visually demonstrated the peripatetic but often intersecting geographic lines traced by Schulhoff and Ullmann's life stages — from where they were born and grew to maturity to the succession of places in which they were professionally active. The area that contained these places — Vienna, Stuttgart, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Teschen and, above all, Prague — is not geographically vast but held within it a number of cultural, social and political schisms. Hillel Kieval (Washington University) addressed some historical aspects of this backdrop in his talk “Imperial Embraces: The Politics of Jewish Identity in the Bohemian Lands, 1867—1914.” The closely related theme of Jewish identity, as reflected in the life and pronouncements of Arnold Schoenberg, was addressed by Klára Móricz (Amherst College) in one portion of her talk “The Presentness of the Past, or Looking at Pre-Holocaust European Jewish History with Its Side Shows.”

One of the most interesting recurring themes was the question of how to balance the consciously crafted aspects of a composer's personal musical language or style with the influences — some possibly still identifiable today — that may have shaped it then, perhaps even without the creator's awareness. The idea of synthesizing a recognizably personal musical style seems to have become less important to many composers of Schulhoff and Ullmann's generation than it was to earlier generations, when a personal stamp — a recognizable voice — was regarded not only as the consequence of composing in a certain style but also as one of the principal objectives of composing. Mahler, whose earliest formative years, like those of Schulhoff and Ullmann, were lived in proximity to nationally distinct local cultures, went far afield in injecting “foreign” vocabulary, syntax, even jargon, into the Austro-German musical language, but whatever may have been by nature “foreign” to that style he organically synthesized into it and made the resulting mélange his own. Schulhoff, on the other hand, experimented with most of the musical trends of his time and seems to have made no attempt to disguise his models, which leads one to wonder whether he even cared about crafting an individual, coherent voice. The sober ideal that had motivated composers of earlier generations — to find a recognizably personal voice by building on the best of what had gone before — was one among many ideals thrust aside after 1918 by many composers born between 1890 and 1900.

This set of themes was addressed by Thomas Svatos (Anglo-American University, Prague, Czech Republic), Yoel Greenberg (Princeton University), and Eli Lara (Austin Peay State University, Tennessee). Svatos, in “Fashioning the Socialist Realist Sound: Erwin Schulhoff's Symphony No. 3,” explored how Schulhoff, in 1931, came so whole-heartedly to embrace Soviet realism and the socialist-realist cause. The symphony, composed in 1935, is sonically and structurally emblematic of music written in the service of extramusical ideals, and it aims at immediately recognizable affect. Any number of related narratives can be read into the work; indeed, Schulhoff at one point considered superimposing on it stories of the 1935 Eastern Slovakian uprising. Svatos also speculated on what might have happened to Schulhoff had he managed to emigrate to the Soviet Union, which he had visited in 1933; he might well have become an important player there, though he might also of course have experienced a fate similar to that of Shostakovich.

Greenberg, in “Looking Back in Anger: Schulhoff's Postwar Works for String Quartet as a Rejection of Tradition,” argued that Schulhoff's “confusing” range of styles has obscured some important qualities common to all of his works. Four stylistically divergent works for string quartet — the early, Schoenbergian, unnumbered quartet op. 25; a suite of dance movements, the Fünf Stücke, from 1923; and the two numbered string quartets (1924 and 1925), which quote and parody Mozart and Haydn — provided Greenberg with evidence of an essential quality underlying all four. As he put it, “Although appearing to be preoccupied by the present, to shift allegiance in accordance with the current stylistic fads, Schulhoff in fact used these to engage the past and conduct a consistent yet provocative and original dialogue with tradition.”

Lara, in “Dance to This: Parallels in Harmonic and Metric Organization in Alla Valse Viennese of Erwin Schulhoff's Fünf Stücke for String Quartet,” gave a delightfully extemporaneous presentation, further enlivened by her illustrating particular points on the cello, which she had brought with her. (Both Greenberg and Lara are accomplished and active string quartet players.) Schulhoff was passionate about dance, and he intentionally used ostinatos, ostinato cells and rhythmic energy to forge visceral connections with his listeners. To learn that Schulhoff believed music to be something that is “first of all, supposed to induce the physical sensation of well-being, ecstasy, even; it is never philosophy,” proved a valuable key to a more informed hearing of this composer's works.

Closely related to the question of personal style versus external influences is that of the tension between what was or might have been a composer's intention and a listener's perceptions, interpretations and, ultimately — although we usually hesitate to put it so bluntly — judgments. An artist's intention is a highly volatile combination of conscious and unconscious internal and external factors that surpasses full understanding. A composer may start with a firm initial intention, but in the course of working on the piece all manner of large and small things will alter it; collectively, the factors that influence compositional decision making are sure to extend far beyond those that shaped the work's initial concept. The game of reading meaning and intention in (and into) particular works or passages was enthusiastically played and vigorously debated, particularly in discussions centered on Schulhoff and Ullmann's liberal incorporation of quotations into their works. When are quotes meant to be heard as quotes? And, even when it can be established that they are intentional, how are we to know what meanings they were intended to convey? Not everyone agreed that authorial intention might sometimes be so elusive as to be ultimately unknowable.

Just as the process of identifying intention is full of potential pitfalls, so too is that of analyzing works or events through hindsight. Móricz, in the historiographic portion of her talk, laid out the dangers of backward causation, the practice of considering historical events principally through the lens of what we know happened afterward. Adopting Gary Saul Morson's idea of side shadows to an alternative present — those multiple possibilities that, although lost to history by not having been lived, were as much part of that past's present as they are for us in our present — Móricz declared that “treating the Holocaust as a predestined future, the shadow of which affected the years that preceded it, inevitably leads to the distortion of history.” Similar dangers attend a teleological approach to pieces that “happen” to have become a composer's last works, though at the time the composer presumably saw them against a horizon of future projects.

Yet it is difficult not to read a premonition of catastrophe into works such as those produced in the Czechoslovakia of 1941. Caleb Boyd (Arizona State University), in his “Composition as Control and Transcendence in Viktor Ullmann's Six Sonnets de Louize Labé,” discussed an Ullmann work that dates from just before the composer's arrest and deportation to Terezín; Boyd analyzed the text (this seems to have been the first time that Ullmann set French literature to music, possibly in association with his wife, who was French, but perhaps also in defiance of the Germanification of Czechoslovakia) and the use of quotations from Wagner's Tristan and Josef Suk's 1906 Asrael Symphony. The latter work, which the widely revered Czech composer wrote in homage to his teacher and father-in-law, Antonín Dvořák, afterwards came to be played at times of national mourning, and the apocalyptic meaning of the “death motive” would have been clear to audiences of the time. Caleb suggested that this pre-Terezín song cycle by Ullmann was a response to Nazi terrorism, “a musical declaration of love to his wife [through which] he would be able to transcend the portending zero hour.”

Another good candidate in the hunt for eschatological meaning is Ullmann's one-act Der Kaiser von Atlantis, oder die Tod-Verweigerung (1943—1944), on a text by Peter Kien, a fellow Terezín inmate. Alessandro Carrieri (University of Trieste, Italy), in “Music Facing the Extreme: Political Expression in Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” addressed the subtle and not-so-subtle allegorical references in the text and musical setting of the work, and how they might have been both intended and perceived. Martin Hoffmann (Bonn, Germany) postulated in “Memory and Foreboding in Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis” that the work can be seen as a literal allegory of the Nazi reality being lived by the work's creators and the other inmates of Terezín. Particularly fruitful was Hoffmann's careful semantic analysis of the Haydn melody that in 1922 was adopted as the German national anthem; everyone in Terezín, Hoffmann argued, would have recognized Ullmann's satirical use of the tune in the context of two well-known earlier uses: Smetana's unambiguous incorporation of it into his Triumphal Symphony of 1853—1854 and Bartók's highly distorted references in his Kossuth of 1904.

Inevitably, conference discussions repeatedly circled back to Schulhoff's and Ullmann's fates as victims of the Nazi genocide. This established a thematic backdrop to the paper by Francesco Lotoro (Barletta, Italy), “In Search of Lost Music: Prolegomena to a Concentration Camp Music Literature,” which was read by Bret Werb (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC). Lotoro outlined an ambitious online project to catalogue all musical works produced in circumstances of imprisonment, not limited to Nazi concentration and extermination camps. This paper sparked a debate on whether music (or any art, for that matter) produced in captivity necessarily represents direct engagement with that situation — in the form of revolt, resistance, complicity or any combination thereof — or whether a prison might simply be the place in which a creator happens to create something. Is it at all useful to consider music composed in a concentration camp as a legitimate genre — Lagermusik (music of the camps), as it is sometimes called? Would the sole fact of having been thus produced suffice as a common quality?

By the time these questions were raised, Ullmann's essay “Goethe und Ghetto,” which he wrote in Terezín and in which he declared that “our efforts in regard to Art were commensurate with our will to live,” had already several times sparked discussion of creativity within the constraints of harsh incarceration. Would the likelihood that one may soon be killed free a creator's imagination or would the fear of losing even such minuscule privileges as may remain (things as basic as food, but also human contact and permission to participate in joint activities such as those permitted in Terezín) force inmates into complicity, shackle their daring or otherwise direct their creative choices?

The music of Schulhoff and Ullmann was never far from conference attention. Throughout the two-day conference, many talks were illustrated with aural examples. Schulhoff's Sonata for Violin was played in its entirety by the ASU DMA student Michelle Vallier. And the last afternoon brought a panel discussion of one of the works scheduled for that evening's concert, Ullmann's Piano Sonata No. 7, with Rachel Bergman (George Mason University), Jory Debenham (University of Lancaster, England), Sivan Etedgee (Boston) and Gwyneth Bravo (Los Angeles), who provided rich contextualization for the sonata and discussed its layers of structure and autobiographical meaning: Ullmann had dedicated the work, which he completed on 22 August 1944, just a few months before he was transferred to Auschwitz, to his three children. Steven Vanhauwaert discussed pianistic and formal aspects of the work.

The evening concert that then followed provided a satisfying and truly memorable conclusion to the conference. In the first half, Vanhauwaert performed Ullmann's Piano Sonata No. 7. Like many others in the audience, I had heard the sonata several times before but never in such a riveting and persuasive interpretation. The second half of the program was a multimedia production of Ullmann's monodrama The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke (also 1944), based on excerpts from Rilke's poem of the same name. This poem, written in 1899, in which Rilke traces the fate of a soldier in the 1660s, became a runaway bestseller after its second printing in 1912, and during World War I that edition consoled thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers in the trenches. The production of Ullmann's setting presented at the conference was conceived and directed by Bravo, who also conceived many of the filmic images; technical production and design were by Paul Sidlow. The live portions of the production were shaped by Neal Stulberg (University of California, Los Angeles), in his role as a most compelling speaker, and Vanhauwaert at the piano. In the program notes, which warrant partial reproduction here, Bravo provided a lucid explanation of the process behind the piece:

In the spirit of early cinema and Erwin Piscator's experimental theater of the 1920s, our production reimagines the theater and concert hall as a cinematic space where the performance of these works takes place inside a filmic framework, where a kaleidoscope of projected and slowly shifting montage images serves as a visual counterpoint to the poetry and music. Employing a postmodern compositional superimposition and animation of a multilayered and harmonically conceived series of visual elements, include the early prints of the Czech photographer Josef Sudek, blurred and treated filmic stills and moving frames of cavalry from Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, among many others. These images suggest the ghostlike presence and profound absences of early photography and cinema, where the Bohemian landscapes that serve as both the historical and poetic context of these works is refracted through the sepia-hued lens of memory, to narrate the unfolding of a dreamscape evoked by the Jugendstil aesthetic of Rilke's work.
The production, whose many themes and media stimuli make for a dense weave of texture and content, received its premiere performance at this event. A documentary is planned.


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As frequently happens in the recovery of a suppressed composer's oeuvre, every performance heard at the Arizona conference brought surprises, and with them the bemused question “Why did this work disappear so completely from the repertoire?” Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the gathering was the that its participants were able to leave that question behind them, since the answers to it are in any case multiple, complex and necessarily unsatisfactory. Instead, they demonstrated that the further the pre-1945 past recedes, the better Central European music of that time is able to regain some of its original rich diversity.

Posted January 7, 2012.  © Juliane Brand, December 2012.