Articles & Essays

Existential Variations in Terezín

By Jory Debenham

On June 22, 1944, baritone Karel Berman and pianist Rafael Schächter premiered Pavel Haas's Song Cycle Four Songs on Chinese Poetry for an audience of inmates in Terezín. Although many features of the work brought it acclaim, one of the most striking aspects of the cycle is its use of an ostinato pattern that becomes the basis of the first and third songs; this results in a form that is at least reminiscent of the Baroque passacaglia and may even be a direct usage of it. In his review of the work, Viktor Ullmann noted the significance of the pattern, granting it the status of an idée fixe. Only six weeks later, on August 7, Hans Krása completed his work Passacaille et Fugue, and in the subsequent two weeks Viktor Ullmann completed his last piano sonata, which concludes with a set of variations and fugue on a Hebrew folk tune. Almost exactly one month later, on September 22, Gideon Klein completed the second movement of his string trio, which consists of a set of variations on a Moravian folk tune. The close succession of the creation of these works by composers living in such intimate proximity suggests some kind of connection between the expressive character of the variations form and the nature of this particular group's expressive needs. Why did all of the major composers in the camp simultaneously find this form most suitable for musical expression?

In his meditation on compositional process, the acclaimed Czech writer Milan Kundera connects the relationship between the “architectonic clarity” of a work and its fundamental core 1. For him, the formal structure represents a “deep, unconscious, incomprehensible drive”  2.  that allows him to explore and articulate the themes and motifs within his compositions, with the aim of exploring and examining the “enigma of the self.”  3.  This examination of the self, he argues, is the central concern of novelists (composers) and the foundation of thematic development in his own works. Although Kundera's focus is on the novel, he extrapolates his ideas to the field of music, thus affirming the connection between his use of theme and variations as an architectural model for his writing and the analogous musical manifestations of the form. His insightful connection of the formal structure of a work with its expressive capacity offers an entry point from which to begin examining the Terezín composers' use of this form.

Kundera defines a theme as an “existential inquiry”  4.  and characterizes thematic variation as a means of transforming concepts into categories of existence. His arguments about and descriptions of that process, and the central concerns in his own writing, closely correspond to those of Viktor Ullmann, who wrote about the deep connection between his experience in Terezín and his own compositional process. For Ullmann, Terezín was the ultimate school of Form; it was there that he strove to displace the ephemeral aspects of the spiritual and emotional realm of human existence through the fixed form of musical composition 5. He, like Kundera, used the formal structures of music as a means to transform the conceptual aspects of self and existence into a tangible entity.

In the tradition of Western art music, the theme and variations form does not automatically conjure a sense of the transformation of the abstract into something concrete. In many ways, it is conventionally used in the opposite manner: a concrete, recognizable theme is subjected to techniques that alter and often fragment the melody while the harmonic foundation and periodic structure remain static. In the Classical tradition, the theme is varied and shown under many guises but fundamentally retains the Urlinie upon which it is based, rarely undergoing a complete metamorphosis. If, however, we approach variation form from Kundera's modern and personal point of view, we may consider the possibility that the Terezín composers used the fundamental stasis of variation form as a foundation upon which to base their own important existential meditations - in particular those related to themes of exile and deception.

In Haas's Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, the theme of exile is prominent throughout the work. The cycle is based on four selections of poetry from ancient China, translated into Czech and reinterpreted by Bohumil Mathesius. Opening with the statement, “My home is there, far away, far away, so far away, so far away,” the text of all four songs explicitly laments the author's separation from home. The poems contain imagery of home, lost love and nostalgic memories of the sun's rays, joy and magpies. Intertwined with this imagery are evocations of feelings of coldness, darkness, sadness and yearning. The texts themselves are meditations on the theme of exile, with words such as “foreign,” “strange,” “alone” and “yearning” further illustrating the sentiment of banishment.

Although the semantic context of the text is in itself evocative of exile, Haas explores the theme further by employing music's capacity to be expressive on multiple levels simultaneously. The musical theme is a cantus firmus of four notes that corresponds to the melody associated with the word “Václave” (Wenceslas) in the “St. Wenceslas Chorale” - a work that was firmly entrenched in the Czech nationalist psyche. The chorale's ostinato returns in the third song, connecting it musically to the first song and highlighting the textual references to the yearning for home that is central to both the original hymn and Haas's songs. By using the “Wenceslas Chorale” as the musical motif over which the variations unfold, Haas adds another dimension to the depiction of exile. The nationalist associations of the hymn run deep within the Czech historical narrative, and the use of the hymn as source material is a powerful evocation of Haas's native homeland.

Haas was not the only composer to construct his variations on a melody associated with a far-off homeland. Klein's variations, too, are based on a theme from his birthplace, Moravia, and Viktor Ullmann based his variations on a poem by the Zionist poet Rachel – a poem that refers to the biblical figure of Rachel and her exile from home. The explicit references to exile in the texts associated with these melodies vary in degree, but they all refer in some way to a distant homeland. Although we cannot know whether these composers reached any definitive conclusions or were making explicit statements through their works, it is apparent that by using this material Haas, Klein and Ullmann were able to manipulate, develop and transform the references into personal meditations on their own experience of exile.

The second theme that appears to be of central importance in these variations is that of deception, specifically the kind of deception that these composers encountered directly: the false pretence that concealed the true nature of their environment. The summer during which all of these works were completed was the summer of the Red Cross's well-known visit to Terezín. Although many prisoners had been deceived by the Nazis about many aspects of the camp, the physical creation of a façade that was intended to mask the reality of Terezín to outsiders in such a blatant and fraudulent manner was a major event in the lives of the inmates. No one could have ignored its meaning. All of the variations written during the summer of 1944 reflect some aspect or aspects of deception or of the façade - and of the deeper truth concealed beneath it.

The theme of deception is evident in the choices of texts for the musical themes used in these variations; at least within the titles, there is a sense of naivety and an evocation of a bygone era. Haas's songs are based on ancient Chinese poetry, as already mentioned, and Ullmann and Klein chose simple folk tunes identified by generic, seemingly innocuous titles – “Hebrew” and “Moravian” folk tunes. Krása's choice of “Passacaglia” is even more reminiscent of a historical period and has few if any politicized associations. These titles and the musical themes that they are based upon are conventional and project a simple, classic charm. As the movements unfold, however, this aesthetic gives way to a more troubled, unsettling sensibility.

Krása's musical exploration of the theme of deception is unique within the group, as his work has no explicit programmatic associations. Yet despite this, his approach is in some ways all the more representative of this existential inquiry, owing to the lack of textual content. His simple, ten-note ostinato pattern begins in a classical manner, easily evoking a Beethovenian sensibility; in fact, the theme itself is strongly reminiscent of the opening theme from the first movement Beethoven's Cello Sonata, Op. 69. As variation techniques are employed, however, a harsher and more unsettling sentiment is revealed. Classical elegance gives way to a contrapuntal melody that regularly forms an open fifth on the downbeat – a reference to the early contrapuntal technique associated with organum. This contrast with the harmonious introduction has a jarring effect. Another theme, even more unsettling than the previous one, is then introduced; a pizzicato motif in the lower register emerges in syncopation with the main ostinato theme, and this creates a strong sense of disjointedness. With each successive variation, Krása maintains the façade of the main theme and juxtaposes it against unexpected material that suggests that things are not as they seem. Not all of the material is dark or subversive (one of the variations becomes dance-like and has a folksy fiddle-like quality), but all of it seems to be a musical representation of a veneer that conceals a deeper reality.

Ullmann's variations follow a similar pattern, although dissonance is introduced at the outset. A countermelody that opens with an augmented second immediately situates the simple Hebrew folk tune within a discordant environment. Ullmann moves quickly away from the thematic material and pursues a more dissonant trajectory in which the melody is ultimately lost completely before it is regrouped and reframed into the anthem that forms his closing fugue.

Likewise, in Klein's variations the material quickly digresses from the Moravian theme's melodic material into a world of dissonance and multiplicity. The tempi and rhythmic figures move schizophrenically between a morose, dirge-like atmosphere and the maniacal energy of a diabolical dance. After the second variation, the work takes on a much different quality that contrasts significantly with the opening material. While the periodicity of the variation form (i.e., the length of each section) remains relatively intact, the internal explorations are unrecognizable, disconnected from the melody, rhythm, mood or character of the thematic material. The folksong material disappears until the very end, when it returns with a dissonant accompaniment. The final section communicates an aggravated sense of unease, heightened by the presence of a dissonant drone in the cello's lowest range. The piece does not resolve harmonically; it ends in unease and instability. Again, it is impossible to divine the composer's specific intent from these aspects of the work, but there is a clear digression from the expected trajectory that was set up at the outset, and this suggests a façade that conceals a darker subtext. Like the other composers, Klein accesses his larger meditation on façade and deception via a simple folk melody and within the larger framework of the variation form.

Although there are no obvious conclusions to be drawn from these composers' musical explorations, the grounding of their work in a form characterized by simplicity and repetition does appear to offer a means for exploring and expressing not just the musical thematic material but also personally relevant, existential themes, such as those of exile and deception. In the conclusion to his chapter, “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” Kundera states, “To bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form – that has always been my ambition.”  6.  His reverence for this juxtaposition brings to light the artistic value of connecting two apparently disparate elements - an ambition seemingly shared with the Terezín composers.

Posted 2/2/2013.  All Rights Reserved.


  • 1 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 72.
  • 2 Ibid., 86.
  • 3 Ibid., 23.
  • 4 Ibid., 84.
  • 5 Viktor Ullmann, “Goethe and Ghetto,” in Tracks to = Spuren zu = Sur Les Traces de Viktor Ullmann (Klagenfurt: Arbos; Edition Selene, 1998).
  • 6 Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 95.

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