• 1898 — 1944
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Viktor Ullmann was among the most talented Czech composers of his generation and might well today be ranked just below the leading composers of the twentieth century but for the fact his life was cut tragically short at the Auschwitz death camp at age 46. Ullmann wrote music in a variety of genres, including opera, symphonic, chamber, piano solo, and song. He started out among the more progressive composers of his time, soaking up the influence of Schoenberg, but by the early '30s he was moderating his style, and during the war, as a prisoner of the Nazis, his music became even more accessible. Today, amid the rediscovery of works by many of the composers victimized by the Holocaust, Ullmann's compositions are gaining supporters, and it would seem that while he likely will not emerge from the back ranks soon, his seven piano sonatas, Schoenberg Variations (for piano solo and for orchestra), Second Symphony, Third Quartet, and several songs may gain regular performances in concert halls and recording studios.
Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen, Czechoslovakia, on January 1, 1898. He was raised a Roman Catholic by parents who had converted from Judaism. After studying music theory from 1914, he enrolled at Vienna University in 1918 for law studies, but by year's end was studying with Arnold Schoenberg. Ullmann completed studies in Prague, where he was mentored in the early part of his career by Alexander von Zemlinsky. Ullmann served as a répétiteur there and choral director, and then from 1922 as conductor at the opera house of the New German Theatre of Prague.
His earliest works, mostly songs, piano, and chamber works, were attracting attention in the mid-'20s, but it was in 1929, with the appearance of the Concerto for Orchestra and the revised version of the Schoenberg Variations, that Ullmann gained international notice.
Owing to the Nazi's rise to power, Ullmann returned to Prague in 1933, where he taught music, worked for Czechoslovak Radio, and wrote music criticism. He twice received the Emil Hertzka Prize for composition there -- in 1934 for the orchestral version of the Schoenberg Variations and in 1936 for his opera The Fall of the Antichrist. In 1942 Ullmann was arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. There he continued to compose and perform music (he was an accomplished pianist) until he was deported to Auschwitz and executed on October 18, 1944.