Like his countryman Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was attracted early on to the music of the Second Viennese School. He entered Schoenberg's composition seminar in 1918 but returned to his Czech homeland the next year to take up a position at Prague's New German Theater, which was then under the direction of Alexander Zemlinsky. Ullmann continued to follow the latest musical developments out of Vienna, attracted not only to the revolutionary potential of Schoenberg and his followers, but also to their adept use of form, which is reflected in his own Variations and Double Fugue on a Piano Piece by Arnold Schoenberg, the work that introduced him to a larger audience at the International Society for Contemporary Music's festival in Geneva in 1929.
Ullmann was living in Stuttgart, running an anthroposophical bookshop, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. The coup forced him to return to Prague, where he eked out an existence as a freelance musician, working in radio and writing reviews for the journal Der Auftakt (The Upbeat). He was sent to Theresienstadt (Terezín) on September 8, 1942; he was one of the camp's leading musical figures, composing, performing, and writing reviews. "I have written a fair amount of new music in Theresienstadt…. 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." Ullmann and his wife Elisabeth were transported to Auschwitz, where they were immediately murdered, on October 16, 1944.
Commentators agree that the String Quartet No. 3 is the instrumental masterpiece of Ullmann's Terezín period. The work is in one continuous movement, subdivided into four sections that mirror the movements of the traditional string quartet. The first section opens with a brief thematic fragment reminiscent of the finale of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony - Ullmann frequently referred to other composers' music in the works he produced in Terezín, something the culturally sophisticated audiences there enjoyed - and this sets the tone for the quartet's contemplative opening minutes. The Presto begins with each member of the quartet playing an acerbic four-note motive, and the section functions as a relentless sort of scherzo. This leads seamlessly into a return of the opening section, complete with the twisted "Pastoral" motive. The viola begins the Largo section with a desolate, serial theme gradually taken up and elaborated by the other members of the quartet. Ullmann reserves most of his declamatory fervor for the closing section, which begins with some fugato-style imitative counterpoint and elicits several effective sounds from the quartet, including some forceful pizzicato and eerie tremolos. The work ends in the major mode, more resolute and determined than triumphant.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator