Holocaust Music Symposium: Sounds of Tragedy and Hope

While imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Viktor Ullmann composed Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a one-act opera he scribbled on the back of prisoner information forms. He scored the opera for whatever instruments were available in the camp: from banjo and alto saxophone to strings and trumpet.

Recognizing that the opera satirized Hitler, Nazi officials sent Ullmann, the librettist, and the cast to Auschwitz. Ullmann was killed two days later.

The opera had its Austin premiere this week during UT Butler School of Music’s two-day symposium “Empowering Voice: The Banned and the Damned.” Co-convened by voice professor Darlene Wiley and assistant ethnomusicology professor Sonia Seeman, the symposium featured lectures and moving concerts on music from the Holocaust.

“I want to make sure that no one forgets about the role of music within tragedy and what great music was produced under the worst possible situations,” Wiley says.

Two of the scholars who presented lectures during the day became performers by night. On Monday night, University of Chicago music professor Philip Bohlman and his wife performed a song by Ullmann. On Tuesday night, accompanying herself on accordion, Petra Gelbart of New York University sang a series of Romani songs about the Holocaust.

On Monday, the lectures and concert focused on music from Theresienstadt, including Der Kaiser von Atlantis. The opera was performed by Butler School of Music students, faculty, and alumni and conducted by Kelly Kuo, who calls the opera “one of the pinnacles of music written in Theresienstadt.”

“What’s so unsettling is that the Kaiser says these defiant things, but he sings it with a beautiful melody,” says opera lecturer Richard Masters, who played piano and harpsichord in the production. “The ending offers a little hope. Even under horrible circumstances, musicians did what musicians should do: make music.”

The second day of the symposium encompassed larger issues of music during World War II. Tuesday night’s concert began and ended with a Hebrew lullaby performed by students in the advanced Hebrew grammar class of associate Liberal Arts dean Esther Raizen. Composer Gideon Klein arranged the lullaby for voice and piano while interned at Theresienstedt.

“The students get it intuitively. It means something to them,” Raizen says. “The beauty of it is that in a grammar course, we can make connections to a broader issue of what it means to be a human being. That’s one of the great things about a university that supports this kind of event.”

Gelbart and Raizen each invited the audience—a mix of UT students, faculty, and the greater Austin community—to join them in singing their final selections.

“In contrast to the horrors of violence which dictate separation, this symposium is dedicated to the opposite: building bridges and bringing people and genres together,” Seeman said.


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