Contrary to popular perception, I believe that relevance is one of the great strengths of classical music.
At it’s best, music can reflect human experience at it’s most personal, most historic, most universal, most tragic and most humorous. Because it is unhampered by the limitations of written language- where the most powerful words tend to lose their impact all too easily- abstract music can cut to the very truth of experience in a way that never dates.
In the 20th Century, it was classical music that was often at the center of our search for meaning in the great events of our time- Shostakovich is the great example of a composer who’s music became the journal of his time, but there are countless others who had the ability to speak to the great issues of the time. Britten’s War Requiem brought the truth of war into the concert hall, Copland’s great works gave America a sense of destiny and possibility when it was weakened by the depression and the war.
Today, critics and musicians often react with suspicion when a composer chooses a contemporary subject, such as 9/11, for their work, but music has a unique ability to turn the most horrific human tragedies into art that heals, inspires and improves those who come to know it.
Below is an essay I wrote two years ago about just such a piece, Viktor Ullmann’s Third Quartet.
Viktor Ullmann- String Quartet No. 3
(arr. for string orchestra by Kenneth Woods)
Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet no. 3 was completed on January 18, 1943, in the final part of a career that began with him acknowledged as one of the great hopes of German musical life, and ended in his murder at the hands of racist fanatics.
In his early career, he studied and apprenticed under Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, and his early works, especially his Schoenberg Variations op 3a (1926), attracted attention throughout Europe. A passionate humanitarian with a deep interest in literature, culture and philosophy, Ullmann took a partial hiatus from composition to study the anthroposophical philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. In 1932 he and his second wife bought a bookshop in Stuttgart where they traded primarily in books on philosophy and humanism. Only months after the purchase of the bookstore, Hitler seized power and the Ullmanns fled to Prague.
In 1933 he began work on his most significant piece to date, an opera that would eventually become “The Fall of the Antichrist,” a work he completed in 1935. This masterpiece would be the crowing achievement of his prewar years, and yet it was to be the events of WW II that would spur him on to his very greatest artistic accomplishments.
Ullmann was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto outside Prague in 1942. He was one of a handful of extraordinary creative geniuses in the ghetto, including the composers Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa. Never a particularly prolific composer in his earlier years, Ullmann composed a stunning volume of work during the two years he was in Theresienstadt, including piano sonatas, chamber music and a second opera, “The Emperor of Atlantis.”
Just hours before being deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 some friends convinced him to leave his compositions behind. It is believed Viktor Ullmann was murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz on October 18, 1944.
‘For me Theresienstadt has been, and remains, an education in form. Previously, when one did not feel the weight and pressure of material life, because modern conveniences – those wonders of civilization – had dispelled them, it was easy to create beautiful forms. Here where matter has to be overcome through form even in daily life, where everything of an artistic nature is the very antithesis of one’s environment – here, true mastery lies in seeing, with Schiller, that the secret of the art-work lies in the eradication of matter through form: which is presumably, indeed, the mission of man altogether, not only of aesthetic man but also of ethical man.
“All that I would stress is that Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was matched by our desire for life; and I am convinced that all those who have striven, in life and in art, to wrest form from resistant matter will bear me out.’
~ Viktor Ullmann, 1944
The Third Quartet can in many ways be seen as a culmination of Ullmann’s development as a composer. In it one finds an exemplary balance of rigor and passion, a compelling formal logic, and a wealth of beautiful melodic writing.Although the work unfolds in a single musical span, its structure can easily be divided into a traditional four-movement structure where each of the four movements is linked by sophisticated motivic inter-relations.
The first movement, Allegro moderato is primarily lyrical in character and full of wonderfully luxurious harmonic writing, lightened at one point by a wonderfully waltz-like melody. The second, Presto, is ferocious and violent in much the same way as the second movement of Shotakovich’s famous Eighth Quartet. If the first movement has introduced the protagonists of our story, then the second has brought us music fit for the vilest villains. The before the third movement begins Ullmann brings back a passionate and despairing reminiscence of the first movement- what was nostalgia in the first movement is now transformed into genuine despair. The third movement, Largo, is truly the work’s heart of darkness, beginning with a fugue of desolate and unrelenting intensity. The waltz theme of the first movement here returns full of sadness.
Like the Presto before it, the character of the Rondo Finale is overwhelmingly antagonistic, violent and often terrifying, and is built from a horrific manipulation of the theme of the first movement. However, just when all is despair, Ullmann brings back the music of the first movement in the shape we first encountered it, but nostalgia replaced by defiance and regret replaced by passion. A voice of passionate defiance from within the walls of the concentration camp at midnight of humanity’s darkest hour? If ever any person wrote truly courageous music, it was surely Ullmann and this is surely that music.
c. 2004 by Kenneth Woods