Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis (1943): An Opera Composed in Terezin Concentration Camp



Robert Rollin


Victor Ullmann was the oldest and perhaps the most influential of the four great Czech-Jewish composers incarcerated in Terezin Concentration Camp. The others were Hans Krasa, a student of Zemlinsky and Roussel; Gideon Klein, a student of quarter-tone composer Alois Haba and a leading Prague piano soloist; and Pavel Haas, a student of Janáček. All four perished after transport to the death camps.[1]


Born January 1, 1898 in T.siÁ (Teschen) on the Moravian/Polish border, the son of a high Austrian officer of noble birth, Ullmann spent his early days in Vienna studying piano with Eduard Steuermann and theory and composition with Arnold Schoenberg. He went to Prague in 1919 under Schoenberg’s recommendation to be Alexander Zemlinsky’s assistant conductor and piano accompanist at the prestigious New German Theatre.  Among young the Ullmann’s colleagues were Erich Leinsdorf and George Szell.[2]


In 1929 Ullmann was appointed senior director at the Aussig Opera (Usti Nad Labem), where he premiered Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Krenek’s Jonny Spielt auf, and other important operas. From 1930 he was a Czech Radio commentator and music critic for major newspapers and music education journals.  At the same time he studied quarter-tone composition with Alois Haba, but abandoned it after one piece for clarinet and piano, and by 1942 he had composed four piano sonatas, two operas, a piano concerto, and several song cycles.


Despite his demanding career, Ullmann also managed to run an Anthroposophical Society book store, and to direct the Zurich Theatre Orchestra; thus his pre-war life was hectic and rather disjointed. After the crowded and perilous train ride to Terezin, he soon undertook the directorship of the Terezin New Music Studio Concerts and oversaw the various Terezin rehearsal schedules. He also served as Ghetto newspaper music critic, writing some 27 reviews in less than two years.



The threat of the transport to points unknown and the constant privation somehow focused and settled him more than previously, and he became the most prolific Terezin composer, writing his marvelous Third String Quartet, the opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, three piano sonatas (the last of which includes notes for transformation to a symphony) and several song cycles and choral settings - a total of about 20 works in a scant two years.[3]


The Emperor of Atlantis was among the most important of Viktor Ullmann’s major Terezin works. Regrettably, when summer 1944 rehearsals were nearly completed, an SS delegation made a surprise visit and cancelled the production because of its allegorical references to Hitler and the World War. The one-act opera, scored for small orchestra, reflected Terezin’s limited musical forces, and its instrumentation resembled Stravinsky’s and others’ in the post World War I era. For Stravinsky and Ullmann, both, severe economic and political problems prompted new small combinations with single winds and available exotic instruments. Ullmann scored for alto sax, banjo (changing to guitar), harpsichord (changing to piano), harmonium, percussion, a small woodwind complement, one trumpet and strings, exploring Kurt Weill’s coloristic world in a more experimental musical language.[4] Peter Kien, a poet and painter and 1941 Terezin detainee, wrote the libretto in which The Loudspeaker’s opening prologue introduces the cast of the Emperor Over All, Life, Death, Harlequin, a Drummer Girl, a Boy Soldier, and a Girl Soldier.


The four-scene opera is about 70 minutes long, and begins with Life and Death commenting on a world where existence is no longer satisfying, and death no true release. Then Death decides to break his sword and not permit the unworthy world final release. In Scene Two, the Emperor decides to condemn an attempted assassin, but discovers that execution is not possible, and that his and the enemy’s soldiers simply will not die. A Soldier Boy and Girl from opposing sides meet in Scene Three, and discover that they are unable to kill each other. Despite the Drummer Girl’s exhortations, they embrace and sing a duet seeing a ray of hope in their adversity. In Scene Four, Harlequin, Death, Loudspeaker, and Soldier Girl meet the Emperor.  Death says that dying can only resume if the Emperor is the first candidate. The Emperor agrees. Death then takes him by the hand and, assuming the aura of Hermes, leads him through a magic mirror to annihilation, as the others sing a paean on Death’s release to the Lutheran chorale melody, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).                    


The expressionistic opera shows the influence of Schoenberg, but the music is more tonal and, like the Third String Quartet, reflects moderating French influences and Kurt Weill’s dry wit as well. To start the finale of The Emperor of Atlantis, Ullmann’s very literate background leads him to quote Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, the chorale that J. S. Bach used in Cantata No. 80 (the cantata employs the hymn tune in every single movement.)[5] Ullmann was well-educated in history and literature, and the pivotal presence of Ein’ feste Burg very likely reflects more than simply the spiritual resignation implicit in the text. It also connects with two works by two Jewish predecessors: Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera, Les Huguenots. Mendelssohn quotes the original chorale setting in the stately introduction to the Andante fourth movement and the chorale melody in dotted quarters against a syncopated six-eight accompaniment in the ensuing Allegro vivace. Meyerbeer opens his overture with the chorale, and further closes his powerful second act ensemble with interjections sung from the chorale[6]




Example 1a:  Ullmann, The Emperor of Atlantis.  a.  Finale, mm. 1-7

.** - pianissimo woodwinds freely double voices from m. 2;

+  - should probably be B flat,not C flat based on woodwind doubling

All reductions and translations  by the author.

This and all subsequent reductions refer to the full score, 1992 Schott edition.





Example 1b: Emperor of Atlantis Final 8 measures



Ullmann’s own citation alludes to the futility of religious and political conflict throughout Western history, and for the need to seek serious spiritual support and solace in miserable, vicious times. Chorale phrases are presented with complex neo-romantic harmony over pedal tones at the beginning of the Finale. Original chromatic material (appearing first in violins 1) alternates with sung chorale phrases (Example 1a). Later, the original chromatic material makes its way to the vocal parts on the words, “You should not take the great name of death in vain” (Example 1b).


Musical paraphrase is endemic to serious music history in medieval and renaissance cantus firmus compositions, baroque chorale preludes (not to mention Bach’s wholesale citations and adaptations of Vivaldi), classical and romantic variation forms, and many more. Ullmann, closely tied to Czech and Austrian music, begins his opera with a musical allusion to the Asrael Symphony, Op. 27, by Josef Suk (1824-1953), Dvorak’s son-in-law and an important Czech composer. The symphony, composed in 1906 to mourn the deaths of Dvorak, and Suk’s wife, Otilie, became a symbol for the First Czech Republic, 1918-38, and was played on tragic national occasions. Suk’s death motive contains two ascending gestures followed by a descending one. It first appears in a slow, diatonic version and later in several more chromatic guises.



                                                Example 2:  Death Motive Versions, Suk’s Asrael Symphony. a: mm. 3-4, bass clarinet, viola, cello (diatonic).

                                   b.  No. 7, strings (whole tone).c: No. 56, winds (intervals as in b).d: No. 59 (partial with extensions).


Ullmann uses the chromatic version as an exhortation or call to attention at the very opening, in other citations, and in gestural transformations:





Example 3:  Use of Asrael motive in Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis.


a. Opening of opera, Prologue, mm. 1-7 (exact whole tone and partial whole tone statements).

b. Exact versions, Scene  II, pp. 61, 63,  and 73 (whole tone) 

c. Gestural, Scene IV, No. XV, Quartet, p. 125, voice and flute/violin 1 (partial whole tone)

d. Gestural, Scene IV, p. 130, trumpet, clarinet, voice (diatonic and octave-displaced whole tone).


The opening Suk quotation and the closing Lutheran chorale help frame the opera both emotionally and historically, and illustrate the composer’s nationalistic pride, and bond with his musical predecessors.



In Scene 1, Section 3, Harlequin, who symbolizes benevolent and positive things, presents rhythmic and melodic gestures from “The Drunken One in Spring,” Mahler’s Song of the Earth, V, though Ullmann’s use is more expressionistically Schoenbergian (Example 4a and 4b). A more subtle instrumental reference takes place in the penultimate section, thereby framing the opera with allusions to Mahler. This section also treats voice, solo oboe, and strings canonically suggesting a Bach cantata texture. Soon there is a change to a more disjunct melodic treatment reminiscent of “The Departure,” Mahler’s Song of the Earth, VI, and, shortly thereafter, another reference to “The Drunken One in Spring” (Example 4c)[7]. 




Example 4:  Comparison of Gestural Motives in Ullmann and Mahler


.                       a. Mahler, Song of the Earth, “The Drunken One in Spring,” m. 43, piccolo; mm. 52-4, voice part.

                        b Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, Scene I, p. 6 - 7, voice part.

c. Ullmann, The Emperor of Atlantis, Scene IV, p. 141, trumpet.


The sardonically parodied tune, Deutschland Über Alles, exemplifies yet another external musical source. Early in the opera, the Drummer Girl loudly proclaims the Emperor’s call for “war of all against all” in which the Nazi tune transformation appears in the first scene with Aeolian, Phrygian, and chromatic melodic elements:




[We, in God’s grace, Overall, the absolute, honored of the Fatherland, blessing of humankind ...]


Example 5:  Parody of Deutschland über Alles, Ullmann, The Emperor of Atlantis, Scene I, p. 41.



Ullmann bridges the gap between parody and the drama by using traditional formal elements. He includes a passacaglia treatment in the Drummer Girl aria closing Scene 1 to help portray Death’s relentlessness. Scene 2 is framed by an instrumental Intermezzo marked “Tempo di Menuetto (Totentanz),” giving it an arch shape. The death dance is, of course, a recurring nineteenth-century idiom which often includes the ancient “Dies Irae” theme as in  Berlioz’ “Witch’s Sabbath” in the Fantastic Symphony and Liszt’s own Totentanz. Ullmann alludes to these works in a stately parody minuet which never actually quotes the chant, but, hints at it with stepwise melodic treatment and squarely-recurring phrasing. It is a parodied dance of a death who has broken his sword, and who refuses to provide sweet rest to a mankind capable of hideous atrocities. The minuet’s strangely-mechanical quality is echoed in the loudspeaker’s sing-song and the repeated announcements that “Death is expected at any moment,” when, in fact, Death never arrives at all to take the condemned souls.


In Scene 3 a subdued instrumental cabaret-dance intermezzo punctures the intense seriousness of the Boy Soldier and Drummer Girl love duet. Later, in Scene 4, after Harlequin’s expressionistic exhortation to the Drummer Girl to sing Death’s praise, and before Death’s final aria, Ullmann inserts a trio  marked “Shimmy,” a dance popular between the world wars (Hindemith used it in his Suite 1922, Op. 26 for piano.) The Drummer Girl, Harlequin, and the Emperor, all sing different texts simultaneously, not unlike similarly-situated passages in nineteenth-century Italian comic opera. The bickering stops suddenly, and, as the instruments continue, Emperor Over All uncovers a magic mirror and sees Death. As the Emperor accepts his fate, the tragic mood resumes for the opera denouement.


There is much original material in The Emperor of Atlantis. In measure 24 of the opening, Ullmann introduces an important and frequently recurring descending chromatic motive. It appears throughout the Prelude coupled with a simple accompaniment (Example 6). 




Example 6:  Original Chromatic Material with Pedalpoints, Ullmann’s, The Emperor of Atlantis, Scene I, Prelude, mm. 1-8.



The tightly-constructed motivic content and chromaticism point to Ullmann’s study with Schoenberg.[8]


The aforementioned Drummer Girl’s aria burlesquing Deutschland über Alles introduces a four-bar passacaglia theme praising death (Example 7). The passacaglia amalgamates original and parodied material, and moves from voice to instruments and back until interrupted by a recitative.  The theme connects two triad pairs a tritone apart, and, thus, freely derives itself from the original death theme. The downbeats actually spell Suk’s whole-tone motive in free order and register. The sets, mixing thirds and half steps, (see Example 7) are free references to the aforementioned original chromatic theme (cf. Examples 6 and 7). These sophisticated relationships show great skill and musical imagination, providing one of the opera’s most powerful moments.




            Example 7:  Ullmann’s, The Emperor of Atlantis, Passacaglia Theme, Scene I, p. 46.


More than any other Terezin work, The Emperor of Atlantis embodies the struggle of life and art against death, callousness, and deceit.  Ullmann’s genius lies in his ability to illuminate this profound-yet-tortured struggle, while interspersing cabaret music, contrapuntal techniques, and references to themes by Czech and other important musical forebears among his own vibrant musical ideas.


[1] Though thousands perished there from over-crowded conditions, typhus, malnutrition, summary executions, and typhoid fever, Terezin (called Theresienstadt in German) was not considered a death camp, since there were no gas chambers there for mass murder.  The Nazis referred to it as a “paradise ghetto,” since music, art, theater, and sports were permitted.  It was constantly raised to neutralists as an example of “good treatment” of Jews, other minority groups, and political prisoners.  Erwin Schulhoff, a fifth gifted composer, passed through Terezin, but did not stay there long enough to compose music.  He also perished in the death camps.

[2] See Robert Rollin, “New Music from Terezin, 1941-45” in The South African Music Teacher, No. 137, Jan., 2001, p. 10.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Stravinsky used voices and a mixed ensemble that included the cymbalon in the rustic French language setting of the animal fable, Renard (1917) and a mixed ensemble with timpani in the setting of C. F. Ramuz’ L’Histoire du soldat (1918).  Both are powerful allegorical works using small resources.   Kurt Weill’s early collaboration with Bertolt Brecht in the Threepenny Opera (1921), though as much satirical as allegorical, certainly uses a small mixed ensemble, and even has an overture that replaces strings with saxophones, brass, percussion, banjo, and harmonium. The Emperor of Atlantis and the Threepenny Opera instrumentations are surprisingly similar.

[5] Bach uses the same chorale variation technique in his great Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden.

                        [6] See the excellent article by Paula Kennedy in the notes to the world premiere CD,  Der Kaiser von Atlantis, in the series entitled  Entartete Musik, Music Suppressed by the Third Reich (London Records 440 854-2, The Decca Record Company, Ltd., London, 1994), pp. 9-10.

[7] See Kennedy liner notes article, pp. 9-10.

[8] The rhythmic releationship between Ullmann’s melody and accompaniment here can also be likened to related passages in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.  Both composers use a simple pattern of four eighth notes as the background against which the main voices operate freely.  However,where Ullmann’s complex chromatic motive is presented in a simple metric context, Stravinsky’s frequently changes meter.