Music, poetry from Holocaust victim resonates with audience, performers

On Wednesday night, the audience at the Music Building Auditorium got one of the most unique performances they had listened to before.

Christine and Philip Bohlman presented Viktor Ullmann’s melodrama Die Wiese von Liebe und Tod des Cornet Christoph Rilke (The Chronicle of Love and Death of the Flagbearer Christoph Rilke) and an accompanying lecture.

Split in two parts, the first half involved Philip Bohlman, a leading authority in Jewish music, reciting and reading German poetry, half in German and half translated in English. Bohlman referred to the poetry as “beauty in a concentration camp.”

The second half involved him reciting the aforementioned melodrama, based on a text by Rainer Maria Rilke, while his wife Christine, an accomplished pianist and music teacher, performed the music accompanying the prose poem.

What made this a unique experience was not the performers or the music, but what the composer went through to finish his piece and how it came to be.

According to an information flyer from The Program in Jewish Culture and Society, the composer, Viktor Ullmann, was an Austrian/Czech composer, conductor, and pianist. He was part of the classical music avant-garde of the interwar period. In 1942, he was deported by the Nazis to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt/Terezin. He completed many compositions there, including the title piece from the concert/lecture, prior to his deportation to Auschwitz, where he was killed on October 18, 1944. Die Wiese was the last piece he completed before his tragic transfer to Auschwitz.

The Program in Jewish Culture and Society hosted the performance, along with the Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies Initiative, and the Department of Music.

Matti Bunzl, the director of The Program in Jewish Culture and Society, expressed his excitement for the concert/lecture.

“It’s a traumatic story, but an incredible story,” Bunzl said. “Once in a while, they perform his music and that’s what we’re doing.”

“They’ve been performing it for years to great acclaim, and I thought it would be great to have them here,” Bunzl said. When he first heard of this event, Bunzl thought this event was really interesting and knew this was a very rare opportunity. Not only would there be a performance, but an intriguing discussion from Philip Bohlman, a professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago.

“We’ve [Philip and his wife Christine] been working on this piece for three years and been performing it all over the world,” Philip Bohlman said. Other places this piece has been performed include other parts of the United States, Austria, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. Currently, they are planning a recording of this piece within the next year, and an accompanying book is also in the works.

Their performance, Philip Bohlman said, has connected with many people that have seen this performance. “Often we connect with Holocaust survivors with this deeply important text, and people are moved by this piece,” Bohlman said.

Laura Hastings, of Urbana, agreed. “I adored it. It was amazing,” Hastings said. “The idea that it’s never been played before [the past three years] is intriguing.”

The performance appealed to her in particular because of her family past. She felt compelled to attend this rare opportunity since her mother, a Holocaust survivor, recently passed.

The piece of music is a victory of sorts for the Holocaust survivors, Hastings claimed. “By writing like this, people will remember him [Viktor Ullmann],” Hastings said.

It is a remarkable piece of music, Bohlman said, because of where it originated. “In a period where many were lost, the music survived, even though those who wrote it did not.”

“This presentation let people’s voices be heard that were otherwise lost in the concentration camps,” Philip Bohlman said.