On the threshold of the air – the songs of Viktor Ullmann

Coming soon at the Inside Out Festival.

For obvious reasons, there is very little art that was created by the persecuted during the years of the Holocaust: Miklós Radnóti’s  poems, taken from the pocket of his coat as his body lay in a mass grave; Charlotte Salomon’s paintings; Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française, unread in notebooks for a lifetime; works from ghettos, hidden or buried in milk churns. Another of these very rare exceptions is the composer Victor Ullmann, held in Theresienstadt and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Some of his songs are to be performed at the Inside Out Festival at St John’s Waterloo on 23 October, and his opera, The Emperor of Atlantis composed in Theresienstadt, is currently in London, performed by the English Touring Opera company. I was lucky enough to see a full dress rehearsal.

Born in 1898, Victor Ullmann was Jewish by the "Nuremburg Laws", although his family had converted to Catholicism before he was born and his father had served in the Austro-Hungarian army. Musically very talented, Ullmann studied Schönberg with after serving in the First World War, and later worked as conductor. After 1933 he worked as a music teacher and journalist in Prague.  He was deported to Theresienstadt in the autumn of 1942, where he was able to play, compose and organise musical events. He was murdered by gas two years later.

The Emperor of Atlantis is a strange, short opera. The Emperor plans a total war, and demands Death leads his armies. Death will not, and, insulted, refuses to carry on his role as Death. This means the tortured, aged and morally ill do not die. Soldiers cannot fight: indeed, in the opera, one shoots another and he simply gets up. Instead they fall in love. Finally, Death agrees to return only if the Emperor is his first victim. The Emperor will not accept this but then, thinking on the suffering that not dying creates, changes his mind, and accompanies Death. Musically, the work seems to reference the whole of German music from Bach – the production begins with Bach's cantata "Christ Lag" – through to Schönberg, and takes in jazz and music hall, too.

But perhaps what is most striking (to a non-opera buff like me) is its difference from other, postwar Holocaust art to simplify, perhaps too much. Much Holocaust literature, film and art by survivors stresses the lack of redemption: the terrible dream, which Primo Levi discusses at the end of his account, is of waking up back in the camp, as if liberation had never happened. Much (arguably less good) art about the Holocaust seems to strive for a sort of redemption: Schindler’s list, for all its many praiseworthy qualities, is a story of survival and redemption (Schindler’s, the people he saves) in the midst of genocide. The Emperor of Atlantis seems suspended between – or, more accurately, before - these two alternatives. It neither offers redemption nor collapses into despair.

The Emperor himself, the subject of the opera, is a sign of this. At first, he is a monster, ruling his empire with no human contact, communicating solely by telephone. (Anyone outside the polis is, Aristotle points out, either “a beast or a God”: the Emperor fancies himself the latter but is clearly the former). It is the figure of the Emperor, taken as a satire of Hitler, which caused the Nazis to ban the opera in Theresienstadt. But as the opera goes on, he seems to me more complex and sympathetic: not at all a Hitler. He is more of a Wotan figure, caught in a machine both of his own making and beyond his control. And yet, that he sacrifices himself for his people is both hopeful for the future (a sign of redemption) and at the same time echoes one of the Nazis most powerful myths (Hitler as Christ saving the German people).

Similarly, the magic realism of the piece (brilliantly brought out in the current production) on the one hand makes it a sophisticated fairy tale; on the other, magical realism  is often a powerful way of engaging with oppression and persecution (as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margareta shows). Again, it is only really in recent years that this way of writing or art-making has been applied to the Holocaust (and sometimes less successfully).  

And the very "German-ness" of the music is interesting. Postwar artists and writers often found the whole of German culture – and the whole of western culture – infected with the Holocaust and tried to forge new ways of meaning, to create new languages. In contrast, The Emperor of Atlantis revels in these forms, using and reusing them. It is because of this, perhaps, that the astonishingly beautiful and moving "Christ Lag" which prefaces the opera does not seem so out of place. Thematically, this very Christian account of Christ’s resurrection might seem inappropriate for an Opera that we can now see as addressing a catastrophe imposed on the Jews: but musically it works. More, perhaps, the production asks us to reflect on the Bach and on questions of the corruptibility of even the most beautiful moments of culture.

Paula Sides and Jonathan Gale perform songs of Victor Ullmann as part of the Inside Out Festival.  For more information and to book, click here.

Robert Eaglestone is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London. He works on contemporary literature and philosophy, and in Holocaust and Genocide studies. He is Deputy Director of the Holocaust Research Centre there.

Richard Mosley-Evans (right) as the emperor (Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith)
Photo: Getty
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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