Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Viktor Ullman, the Musical Bard of Terezín

Viktor Ullmann
Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

We mark the death on October 18, 1944 – 77 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Viktor Ullmann, in a gas chamber at the concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Last week’s Music History Monday focused on a soft-rock song entitled Je t’aime… Moi non plus by the French singer-songwriter, author, filmmaker, and actor Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), and recorded in 1969 by Gainsbourg and the English singer, songwriter, and actress Jane Birkin (born 1946).

Musically, the song is, pardon, beaucoup de merde. Nevertheless, it climbed to number one on charts across the globe. That’s because over the course of the song, Ms. Birkin’s heavy breathing leads to a simulated orgasm at the “climax” of the song. As we observed last week, “sex sells.”

We also observed that those arbiters of morality – of which there is never a dearth – declared the song “obscene” and it was banned from radio play by hundreds (if not thousands) of radio stations. I pointed out then as I would again now: that at an “obscenity level” from one to ten, Je t’aime… rates – maybe – a 00.5, while the tragic fate of the Czechoslovakian composer Viktor Ullman (1898-1944) rates an eleven. 

As has been done in the past, today’s Music History Monday is in fact a two-parter, one that will be continued and concluded in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Today’s post will offer up some historical background, background that addresses the “destruction” of the sovereign nation of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, and Viktor Ullmann’s life until September 1942, at which time he was deported to the hybrid concentration camp and ghetto in the Czech town of Terezín, or what the Germans called “Theresienstadt.”…

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