Recording Ullmann- Chamber Symphony opus 46a

Tomorrow morning, I’m off early and heading for London to attend a recording session. For once, I’m not conducting, playing or producing- I’m just listening. Still, it’s new territory for me, and I’m very excited to see how it goes. The English Chamber Orchestra and conductor David Parry are going to record my arrangement for string orchestra of Viktor Ullmann’s Third Quartet- we call it Ullman Chamber Symphony, opus 46a. It is being recorded as part of CD on Gramola Records, produced by Michael Haas, scheduled for release in October. Most of the rest of the disc is music by Erwin Schulhoff.

This is an arrangement I made while still a student in Cincinnati back in the 1990’s. It’s been played a few times (always with me conducting) but I’ve never gotten around to publishing it or putting the parts into proper shape. When producer Michael Haas called me just a few weeks ago and asked if he could record it, I was delighted but a little concerned whether we could have everything ready in time. The score, in particular, was a worry. Since the arrangement was originally made for my use, I’d simply edited a photocopy of the manuscript score of the quartet. It worked fine for me, but the notes are hard to read (not surprising given the circumstances under which it was written) and my markings only really make sense to me. Luckily, I was able to get John Yaffé and the incredible team at Ipsilon Music Services to engrave a score and set of parts just in time for this week’s recording. They look sensational, and the piece is being published by Schott and will be available very soon. I hope many of my fellow conductors will want to program it- Ullmann was a great, great composer, not just a talent, and this is a very powerful and beautiful piece. If you need something with the kind of visceral  emotional impact one gets from a piece like the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony opus 110a, that is rewarding to play and listen to, I think this piece is well-worth checking out.

The title page from Ullmann's handwritten score.

The piece is very close to my heart- I learned it from my chamber music coach and mentor, Henry Meyer, to whom I’ve dedicated the arrangement. It will be quite a feeling to sit back and hear a great orchestra play it. Of course, the real reason I want to be there is to hear whatever terrible misprint we’ve let slip through in spite of all our late nights proofreading. Hopefully it will be something truly spectacular like the 2nd violins being written in bass clef for a page!

Meanwhile, here is the dedication page from the new score and the notes I wrote for the last performance in 2004.


Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his Third String Quartet in the Terezin ghetto outside Prague. The work was completed onthe 23rd of January, 1943 — a holograph of the original manuscript survived the war.

“It must be emphasized that Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavour with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who, in life and in art, were fighting to force form upon resisting matter, will agree with me.”

Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz on16 October 1944, in one of the last transports, where he died in the gas chamber.



1. Exposition (the repeat should be observed)

2. Scherzo with Trio and abbreviated repeat

3. Development of the first subject

4.Largo(quasi fugue, with development of the secondary subject as an episode)

5. Rondo-Finale with Coda




I was introduced to Viktor Ullmann’s Third String Quartet while a student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music by my chamber music coach and mentor, Henry Meyer, the long-time second violinist of the La Salle String Quartet. Henry had been incredibly excited to learn of the work’s rediscovery, but by the time he was able to locate the score and parts, the La Salles, whose advocacy for the string quartets of the New Vienna School masters and the quartets of Zemlinsky would have made them ideal advocates for the Ullmann, had retired. “If I can’t play it, I would at least like to teach it,” he told us. We were deeply humbled and honoured by his suggestion. Henry knew all-too-well what Ullmann had faced in the camps. He himself had been interred in bothAuschwitz and Birkenau before escaping at the end of the War. I can remember coaching sessions on dazzling spring afternoons when Henry, always gregarious and witty when we worked together, would take off his jacket, exposing the serial number tattoo etched in his arm by the Nazis some fifty years earlier. The cognitive dissonance of those moments, in which shared joy in the exploration of a newly discovered masterpiece took place in the presence of visible reminders of historic horror, remains with me to this day.

I went on to perform the work often in my regular quartet, and to take it with me to many festivals. It remains a work I love to play. I began considering an arrangement of the piece for string orchestra almost as soon as I learned it. I had conducted Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra transcriptions of Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth String Quartets, and Mahler’s adaptations of Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and so I could easily imagine that the drama, violence and intensity of the Ullmann would work wonderfully with string orchestra. Likewise, Ullmann’s lyricism and coloristic genius come across equally as well in the expanded ensemble as in the original version.

Of course, the most creative aspect of such an arrangement is the creation of a double bass part. Mahler, for instance, was extremely discrete in where and how he used the double basses in his quartet transcriptions, but the art of the bass has come a long way since Mahler’s time. In making this arrangement, I was inspired by the capabilities of many of my bassist colleagues and friends, whose virtuosity concedes nothing to the finest violinists or pianists. This arrangement pre-supposes the bass player(s) will have an instrument capable of going down to a low C.

The arrangement was completed in 1999 and premiered by the Grande Ronde Symphony in February 2000.

Kenneth Woods, 2012


Program Note

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 outsidePraguein 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


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “Recording Ullmann- Chamber Symphony opus 46a”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    A quick post- session report!

    The ECO played beautifully. Bravo! It should be a wonderful disc. The Tausky and Schulhoff works are stunning, as well.

    And- only one wrong note in the whole piece in the score and parts. Bravo John Yaffe, and bravo the coffee that kept me up all night proofreading last week. Was it just last week?!?!?!?! Yikes.

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