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)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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