Viktor Ullmann: Schwer ist's das Schöne zu lassen (Lieder für Sopran und Klavier). Irena Troupová - Sopran, Jan Dušek - Klavier

Songs account for a significant part of Ullmann’s oeuvre. His 1923 performance of Seven Songs with piano, mentioned in the initial quote, is the first known public presentation of his works outside of the theatre. The cycle has been lost, and it is only known that he based the pieces on verses from the Minnesang period, Chinese lyricism, and the like. The following year he premiered another cycle of Seven Songs for soprano and chamber orchestra, for which he chose the poetry of Georg Trakl, Rabindranath Tagore, the Persian poet Hafis (Hafez), and Louise Labé. This cycle has also been lost, but his choice of poets was one that Ullmann would later return to. Six Songs to the Verse of Albert Steffen op. 17 is the first of Ullmann’s extant song cycles. It was composed in 1937 to verses from Steffen’s 1921 cycle Wegzehrung (Waning), and it was dedicated to the composer’s second wife Annie Winternitz. The poet Albert Steffen (1884–1963), whose dramatic sketch The Fall of the Antichrist served as the basis of Ullmann’s eponymous opera, was Rudolf Steiner’s successor at the head of the General Antroposophical Society, and his poetic and dramatic work occupies a special place in Ullmann’s oeuvre.

Viktor Ullmann in 1929

Viktor Ullmann in 1929

The composer respects the form of his poems, in which metrically uniform verse alternates with free verse, he applies extended tonality and makes frequent use of altered seventh chords while keeping to a definable tonal base. Melodically, the songs are of a kindred spirit, but this melodic monothematicism is counterbalanced by contrasts in rhythm and tempo. The cycle was first performed on 13 May 1937 at the Prague German society Urania, by American-born singer Harriet Henders (1904–1972), who was a soloist of the New German Theatre in Prague in the years 1935–8, to the piano accompaniment of Franz Langer (1898–1979). The cycle Seven Elegies op. 8 for soprano and orchestra probably originates from the time around the composition of The Fall of the Antichrist, that is around 1935, but it has survived only as a single song It is Hard to Leave Beauty set to Steffen’s text and arranged for piano. The song’s distinctive feature is that it builds on a linear vocal line while maintaining a balanced verticality.

The verses of poet, philosopher and historian Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), author of a historic study on Romantic literature, were a source of inspiration for a number of composers, including Karol Szymanowski, Hans Pfitzner, or Hermann Reutter. The print of Ullmann’s cycle Five Love Songs of Ricarda Huch is dated 1939, and was probably erroneously given the opus number 26; the same number was also given to Piano Sonata No. 3 from the year 1940. The original texts are from the collection Love Poems from 1912. The songs are all very lyrical in their mood, with the exception of the third one, which acts as a kind of axis or centre around which the whole cycle revolves. The cycle was probably never publicly performed in Ullmann’s lifetime. Spiritual Songs op. 20 are dedicated to people from Ullmann’s personal life: his first wife Martha, his mother, the author of a book on Eastern philosophy Karel Pokorný, the sister of his second wife Nella Urbach (she died in 1941 in a concentration camp in Łódź), his oldest son Max, and “James”, meaning Ullmann’s younger son Johannes. The lyrics draw on the works of poets whom Ullmann was akin to ideologically, or who shared his antroposophical ideals. The similarities of the songs’ thematic material is evident, and as with the cycle set to the poetry of Ricarda Huch, here also we find a turning point and dramatic culmination in Marian Song. The cycle could not be performed publicly at the time, and so it was premiered at a private concert in the flat of the singing teacher Konrad Wallerstein on 3 March 1940, the vocals were taken up by Margot Wallerstein with the composer himself playing the piano. With regards to his choice of thematic material, the works of Viktor Ullmann show a marked interest in women poets. Apart from Ricarda Huch, further song cycles were inspired by Elizabeth Barret-Browning (1806–1861) and by the French poet Louïse Labé (1525?–1566). In all cases these women were remarkably educated and emancipated for their times, and it was their love poems he chose. Three Sonnets from the Portuguese selected from the eponymous collection by Elizabeth Browning, in the German translation by Rainer Maria Rilke, are dedicated to Alexander Zemlinsky. The subtitle The Love Songs of Famous Women, Series II clearly suggests that Ullmann intended on creating a whole series set to women’s poetry. Ullmann’s music does not respect the sonnet form, the composer focuses on the content of the texts. He makes ample use of polyphonic techniques, chromaticism and leaps in pitch, his harmony is very loose; each of the songs is concluded by a piano coda derived from the main melodic theme. The songs were performed at the aforesaid concert on 3 March 1940 by Marion Podolier (1906–1975), a singer who was later also imprisoned in Terezín, where she took up the role of Mařenka in the staging of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, among others. Ullmann dedicated his Six Sonnets of Louïse Labé to his third wife Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Ullmann

Elisabeth Ullmann

The musical sonnets have a more distinct form this time, for example, song No. 1 has a clear two-part form, song No. 2 has three parts and a coda (containing elements of the sonata form), song No. 3 shares the previous two songs’ motivic base; the songs contrast greatly in mood, and the whole cycle is very expressive when compared to the musical setting of Elizabeth Browning’s sonnets.

In Terezín Viktor Ullmann wrote at least fourteen compositions for solo voice, although not all of these have been preserved. His Terezín works constitute a summary of the compositional mastery that Ullmann had achieved during the past thirty years. His inquisitive and creative spirit did not abandon him even in the harshest of conditions, and he even extended his scope of genres. He drew new inspiration from the lyric verse of Friedrich Hölderlin (1780–1843); it could well be possible that he empathised with the poet, who was, in his days, labelled mentally ill and forced into seclusion. For the first time he also composed to a Yiddish text (Brezulinka). The song Wendla in the Garden, based on the script of Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening, is dedicated to the painter Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a friend of his first Viennese love; Friedl Dicker taught the Terezín children to draw – her tuition led to the creation of a collection of pictures that are a telling testimony to the tragedy of child victims of Nazism. The song was probably written back in 1918, in his dedication Ullmann notes that he composed this song many years ago as a birthday present to Dicker. It is one of those cases where the composer was able to remember one of his compositions and write it out after so many years. Ullmann also turned back to the past in his music set to the verses of Chinese poets, a source of inspiration that was especially close to his generation; the selection was also his way of remembering the admired Gustav Mahler and Alexander Zemlinsky, whose great works drew from the same source. Of Ullmann’s Three Chinese Songs from 1943, two are extant; squalor and pent-up desperation could hardly be better described than with such simple words. Both songs have a loose form with characteristically Ullmannesque dissonances in the piano and large leaps in pitch in the vocals. The French-titled cycle Chansons des enfants françaises (Songs of French Children) was probably intended for children, but only one of the songs has survived, English-titled Little Cakewalk, dedicated to Elisabeth Ullmann. In the two Songs of Consolation from 1943, originally intended for voice and string trio, Ullmann revisited the poetry of Albert Steffen.

Ullmann’s vocal works developed under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and his generation. The music is strongly impacted by the legacy of Gustav Mahler, whose compositions Ullmann greatly admired, and its synthesis of traditional forms and atonality brings it close to the works of Alban Berg. The songs of Ullmann’s cycles are ordered according to the principle of contrast, yet at the same time they constitute a conceptual complex woven out of the repetition or alteration of melodic and rhythmic motives. For the piano accompaniment, Ullmann employs diverse elements ranging from simple chord notation and harmonic support to the development and transformation of the melodic motives of the vocal part, to the creation of independent instrumental passages. The composer placed importance in expressing the content of the text, which can be seen in the musical sonnets, whose verse structure is sometimes sacrificed in favour of the text’s gradation and poetic point. On the other hand, the structure of some of his cycles and separate songs is reminiscent of the sonata and rondo, and he makes frequent use of imitation between the vocal part and the piano, always striving for motivic unity. His antroposophical and spiritual compositions favour regularity, they are sparing in both expression and harmony, whereas the three cycles of love songs to the verses of women poets employ an extended tonality, with great pitch leaps in melody, and considerable expressivity. Finally, the songs composed in Terezín, especially those set to the verses of Friedrich Hölderlin, can be seen to summarise and conclude Ullmann’s vocal oeuvre.

Vlasta Reittererová (Transl. Adam Prentis)


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