Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke

(The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke)

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

Over the last 20 years, there has been a concerted effort to rescue the music of talented composers whose potential for greatness perished in the German concentration camps. Many of these composers were incarcerated in Hitler's "model" camp Terezin (Theresienstadt) and continued to compose, even under inhumane conditions. Along with fellow artists and musicians, they were frequently paraded before the public as "proof" of the thriving Jewish community in the camps. As these artists gradually disappeared, victims of starvation, disease or deportation to the extermination camps, some of their manuscripts were hidden or smuggled out.

One of the most notable of these artists was the Czech composer Viktor Ullmann. Born in what was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now on the border between the Czech Republic and Poland), Ullman belonged to the society of assimilated Jewish families, which also included Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler, whose families – for social reasons – converted to Catholicism.

His musical talents brought him to the attention of Arnold Schoenberg, whose composition seminar he attended in Vienna. With the creation of Czechoslovakia, Ullmann moved to Prague, where he studied with Alexander von Zemlinsky and, like Mahler, started a career as an opera conductor and composer. Initially, his music was strongly influenced by Schoenberg and Alban Berg. But by the mid-1930s he established his own voice, moving away from Serialism to more free atonality.

In September 1942, Ullmann was deported to Terezin, where he was allowed to organize concerts and seminars and continued to compose. In October 1944, he was sent on to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers.

In 1899, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) discovered a document among his uncle’s papers concerning a certain Christopher Rilke von Langenau (who turned out not to be an ancestor), who died in 1663 fighting the Turkish army as “a cornet (low-level officer) in the baron of Pirovano's company of the Imperial Austrian Heyster Regiment of Horse.”

Rilke used the document as basis for a prose poem, which he wrote in a single night. He modified it in 1904 and published it in 1912 to great success, requiring an immediate second printing. The story attracted numerous composers, one of the first being Kurt Weill in 1919. Ullmann composed his Melodrama for Narrator and Piano in early 1944 in Terezin, and it was performed in the camp that year. From surviving manuscripts it is clear that Ullmann was in the process of preparing a score for narrator and orchestra, but only a few pages of that have survived.

Ullmann extracted twelve vignettes plus the introduction from Rilke’s poem, describing a soldier’s last campaign from the vantage point of Cornet Rilke von Langenau. Ullmann’s music serves as a tone-painted “soundtrack,” much in the manner of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, although it is more directly atmospheric of the various events of the poem.

I. The narrator introduces the flag-bearer Cornet Rilke von Langenau and the events of the Turkish-Austrian encounter in 1663. He is flag bearer for his unit.

II. The cavalry rides, seemingly endlessly, over an ever changing, but monotonously dismal landscape. The music keeps up a galloping ostinato.

III. A German soldier reminisces about his mother, and although many in the polyglot unit don’t understand him, they all feel as if she is their own mother. This section is the most gentle one in the piece. “

IV. The soldiers intermingle with the company supply train in a town. In the melee, social norms are blurred, especially between flirtation and rape.

V. The Cornet writes his mother a tender but less than frank letter, which is interrupted by a skirmish with the enemy. He carries the flag and hides the letter in his tunic, hoping it will be delivered if he dies. The army finally reaches the protection of a castle.

VI. The company is able to hole up in the castle with rest, good food and girls.

VII. The respite morphs into a wild party.

VIII. The Cornet thinks this luxury is a dream. He wanders outside away from the festivities into an encounter with a young girl, but feels ashamed because he should be back in battle.

IX. In the castle tower, the two make love in a dreamlike trance in which past, present and future cease to exist.

X. With a burst of noise and light, the Cornet realizes that it isn’t morning, but rather that the castle is on fire under enemy attack.

XI. Voices call for the Cornet in an attempt to follow the flag, but there is no response.

XII. In the midst of the battle, the Cornet takes up the flag, running through the castle in an attempt to save it from the enemy, but the flag and the bearer are consumed in flames.

XIII. Months later, a courier bears a letter from the Baron of Pirovino to the grieving mother.      

Program notes by:

Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn