Essays for the end of time

On Viktor Ullmann's music criticism from Terezin.

“Who in the future will understand our sounds?”

This plaintive query might well have been posed by any composer wondering if or how their music could one day outlive them and resonate in the ears of posterity.

It was posed, as it happens, by the composer Viktor Ullmann, who wrote the line in a poem while interned in the ghetto and concentration camp of Terezin.

And now it makes a bit more sense: “our sounds” points to a collective. Ullmann must have had in mind something broader than the future of his own deeply eloquent if modest-sized body of work. Indeed, he was no doubt thinking of the sounds and sights of an entire community within the camp walls, an entire culture, whose day-by-day destruction he witnessed.

At Terezin, however, arrayed against those powers of destruction was also a fierce countervailing force: the creation of music and art, works that may be seen today as this same culture’s final flowering. Among the 141,000 people deported to the camp — originally built as a fortress and military garrison, and later used for Nazi propaganda purposes — were a large number of German, Austrian, and Czech artists and musicians, most of them Jews, and many men and women who made up their former audiences. Under the sometimes watchful, sometimes passive eye of the Nazi administration, Terezin thus became the site of an almost impossibly vibrant artistic life.

Like water finding its way down a mountain, the creativity at the camp seemed to seek out all available channels. Lectures, chamber music nights, and choral and even opera performances took place often in secret in the basement and attic spaces of former barracks. One man cut up his cello and sewed its pieces into the lining of his coat to smuggle it into the camp, where it was glued back together. An opera libretto was drafted on the back of deportation lists. Viktor Ullmann, born in 1898 to an Austrian family of Jewish descent, was at the very heart of the ghetto’s culture and its artistic community. “By no means did we sit weeping by the waters of Babylon,” he wrote. “Our will to create was commensurate with our will to live.”

Ullmann’s words have a special potency today, over 75 years after the end of the Second World War, as images of ravaged urban landscapes once again dominate the media. And now for the first time, we have a lot more of Ullmann’s writings within reach. In a new book, Our Will to Live, the Boston-based violist Mark Ludwig has provided the first fully annotated translation of Ullmann’s writing from Terezin (in German, Theresienstadt). It has been a long time coming.

In the late 1980s, Ludwig, who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 36 years, first encountered the music of Ullmann and other Terezin composers such as Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Pavel Haas, all of it virtually unknown at that time. Learning their stories and poring over their scores became, in his words, “one of the most emotionally and intellectually overwhelming experiences of my life — as an artist, a Jew, and a human being.” In the three decades since that initial encounter, Ludwig has been researching this cultural community, interviewing its survivors, recording its music with the Hawthorne String Quartet, and performing it widely. In 1990, he created the Terezin Music Foundation.

The new book presents Ullmann’s criticism in the form of 26 brief essays, each of them responding to specific camp events: a piano recital, an evening of chamber music, a concert by a children’s choir, performances of the Verdi Requiem, Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” and much more. The reviews are interspersed by a remarkably rich assortment of posters, drawings, and photographs, all of them further testifying to the camp’s remarkable cultural life.

These visual materials were originally preserved by a Czech-Jewish businessman named Karel Herman, who had the wisdom to hide his collection of more than 500 documents underneath the floorboards before his transport to Auschwitz on Oct. 28, 1944. For his part, Ullmann entrusted his music criticism to Emil Utitz, a philosopher and former friend of Franz Kafka’s, who ran the ghetto library. Along with the essays given to Utitz were also the composer’s own musical scores including the chamber opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” which is today perhaps the single best-known work composed in Terezin. Ullmann was sent to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1944. Upon arrival, the composer and his third wife, Elisabeth, were immediately selected for the gas chambers.

While composing and writing in Terezin, Ullmann surely knew the broader fate that awaited him, if not its specific details. So many basic aspects of life in the camp were precarious, and the ghetto population was constantly being culled by the dreaded transports “to the East.” Yet whether thanks to some internal or external compulsion, the hardships and deprivations of everyday ghetto life are never mentioned in Ullmann’s Terezin criticism, nor is the still darker future that lay ahead for the vast majority of the performers.

As a result, a large portion of Ullmann’s critical essays read rather surreally like everyday concert reviews by a sharp-eared composer-critic. Having studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Ullmann later became part of that composer’s heady artistic circle. Without an ounce of pedantry, he nevertheless writes from a place of deep knowledge. And he has things to say — often keenly insightful — on topics both slender and grand: the purpose of art, for instance, or how to build an effective concert program, why Nietzsche loved Bizet, the qualities of a particular baritone’s middle register, the effect of one pianist’s pedaling, the “feminine masculinity” of Chopin, whether a newly composed set of songs could be fairly grouped within the school of Janáček.

Once in a while, hints of Ullmann’s actual surroundings slip through the scrim of his urbane prose, almost as if by accident. One review of a piano trio begins, “It has been, thus far, the peculiar fate of our chamber music groups to be like meteors: they flash by promisingly and then disappear.” Elsewhere he refers to an opera’s technical requirements as “impossible to meet” in Terezin.

And on rare occasions, Ullmann allows himself to address not his proximate reality but the perspective it has instilled. Within the walls of the ghetto, for instance, he found no patience for the bubbly operettas of Johann Strauss, with their misty idealizations of the carefree, champagne-besotted culture of the Viennese waltz.

“We in Theresienstadt look with a certain amount of disillusionment at this world, at this society,” Ullmann writes in a review of a camp production of “Die Fledermaus,” adding, “Much too much euphoria and wine, women, and song it was — dancing on the tombs of the future and at our expense.” But by and large these essays are filled with eminently cultivated commentary and reportage on the ghetto’s everyday cultural life. They provide an invaluable window into the social history of Terezin. But they are also more than that.

You might call them quiet acts of resistance, but they are more than that, too. Ullmann’s unwavering respect and appreciation for the performers he writes about (even when offering gentle suggestions for improvement); his insistence by example on the inherent dignity of the critical enterprise against an unspoken backdrop of utter dehumanization; his implicit defense of the artistic act as a legitimate response to unfathomable tragedy — all of this bestows on these modest essays an outsize sense of nobility and ethical force.

Even so, one can’t help but wonder who, precisely, was Ullmann writing for? According to Ludwig, there is no evidence these reviews were ever reproduced or circulated. And in all of Ludwig’s later interviews with Terezin survivors, he has never found anyone who recalled reading one of Ullmann’s articles in the camp. This is perhaps the most poignant detail of all: Ullmann’s readership may well have been exclusively himself.

Why go to all the trouble? We will likely never know, but one can speculate. Perhaps with the terrors raging just outside the frame of these essays so decisively suppressed, the writing itself came to serve as a kind of refuge. The articles formed a protected space in which — for however long it took to fill a page or two with his prose — the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic values of a vanished world could once again be expressed, fought for, insisted upon, remembered, relived.

Ludwig also plausibly sees Ullmann’s chronicles as a kind of real-time memorialization of the Holocaust, written expressly for the future. In these reviews, then, a critic’s effort to document ephemeral musical events becomes an artist’s effort to document one small but vital part of an entire culture in the midst of its destruction.

If these were his true intentions, Ullmann succeeded brilliantly. But of course his success would not mean very much if the writing itself had remained buried in archives. Ludwig and the Terezin Music Foundation have performed a tremendous service by making it widely accessible for the first time. And the essays themselves are further enhanced by a companion website that provides a curated set of relevant recordings.

In the end, Ullmann’s original query — “who in the future will understand our sounds?” — becomes less of a question than a kind of ethical challenge. Before boarding a transport to his death, the composer entrusted these words to a future readership who might one day be capable not only of hearing these sounds but, as he writes, understanding them. A future capable of discovering in these essays his own profound act of cultural witness. He entrusted them, in other words, to us.

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Published in the Boston Globe on October 31, 2019 under the headline “From the darkness of Terezin, a critic’s voice returns.” The image, from Our Will To Live, is “Entertainment” drawn by Bedřich Fritta in Terezín, 1943. Collection of Thomas Fritta Haas.