Monday, June 13, 2011: In Sunshine and Strong Wind
“In sunshine and in strong wind flowers will bloom on mountain meadows.”
That’s a stark but hope-filled line by Czech poet Peter Kien, from the one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann entitled The Emperor of Atlantis, a work that is finding its audience only today, more than 60 years after its creation.
Ullmann was born in 1898 in Český Těšín, right on the Czech border with Poland. He began to study law in Vienna, but was snagged by Arnold Schoenberg’s composition seminar; the established composer, recognizing budding talent, then recommended Ullmann to Alexander Zemlinsky.
Ullmann moved to Prague.
There, he worked on Zemlinsky’s music staff at the Neues Deutsches Theatre (later known as the State Opera Prague), where he served as chorus master and later a conductor. He also began serious composing.
In 1927 he moved to a job in the German border town of Ustí nad Labem as head of the opera. Alas, the audience didn’t appreciate his work, and after the first year he returned to Prague without a job. He continued to compose and began to attract international attention.
Next he went to Zurich as a conductor / composer, but after two years he completely switched careers to operate a small anthroposophy bookshop in Stuttgart, to help support Rudolf Steiner’s socio-philosophical movement.However, two years later again, he was out of money, but not debt. He returned to Prague, in 1933, where he worked as a freelance musician, teacher, journalist, and even in the music department at Czechoslovak Radio.
Starting around this time, Ullmann began to synthesize some of the styles and influences of his earlier teachers and began to find his own voice, in works such as String Quartet No 2, Piano Sonata No 1, and his opera Fall of the Antichrist. His aim was to fill “the gap between romantic and ‘atonal’ harmony,” he said.
Although he continued to compose, none of his works were performed in public, and he gave his self-published works to a friend for safe keeping. In 1942 he was sent to Terezín concentration camp. Ironically, he created some of his most lasting works there, and although some were saved, many others were apparently destroyed. He was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, where he died in the gas chamber two days later.
But out of the Terezín camp came one of his most affecting and profound works, The Emperor of Atlantis. It’s the story of an emperor who plans to destroy human life but is outmaneuvered by Death.
It wasn’t performed publicly until 1975, in Amsterdam. Today, it’s more readily accessible — its final aria was performed in Prague on June 3 with Svatopluk Sem as soloist and the Orchestra of the National Theatre, at a Prague Spring music festival performance. You can watch a short video clip of another performance on YouTube, from a BBC television program, “Holocaust, A Music Memorial Film.” -oo
Photo Credits: Top: Miroslav Setnička; Bottom, Prague Spring Festival