Staging Death: Allegory in the Operas of Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann

Research output: Book/ReportBook

Abstract

From the time of opera’s inception in sixteenth-century Europe until the present, operatic works have registered changing
cultural attitudes towards death in the stories they tell. By the twentieth century, the systemization of war through the
development of new weaponry and technologies, transformed the battle fields of World War I and II into theaters of total
destruction and mass death. These radical changes in the historical conditions of death in the twentieth century have
resonated far beyond the battlefield and have become an impetus for exploring fundamental questions concerning the
meaning of the self, time, and history in both philosophy and music. While scientific explanations of death are arguably
limited in terms of what they can impart about that final moment all human being must face, can a musical work like an
opera provide a map for imagining and examining those uncharted places, which lie beyond the limits of human
experience and its representation? Exploring issues and challenges associated with the representation of death, this book
engages with aesthetics and questions of musical form to develop a conception of allegory as a basis for examining the
personification of Death on the operatic stage in works by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1944) and Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944).
Having fought as soldiers in the Austrian-Habsburg Army during the World War I, Schulhoff and Ullmann contributed to
the development of musical culture in Prague after the war, which became an important site of Czech-Jewish-German
cultural exchange and contestation after the World War I.
The book examines the central dramatic confrontation with Death staged in three operas by these composers, reading
them as profound allegories of the human condition where the musical forms and tonalities of each work provide insight
into the changed historical conditions of death and dying in the twentieth century. In Schulhoff’s 1929 Flammen, the
legend of the Wandering Jew provides a framework for engaging with an allegorical conception of both musical and
historical time in the opera, which focuses on a jazz dancing, twentieth century incarnation of Don Juan as a “tired to
death hero” in his relentless pursuit of La Morte. The theme of a deathly tired hero condemned to roam the earth until
Judgment Day must have resonated deeply with Schulhoff who returned shell-shocked from the trenches to face the grim
political and social realities of post-World War I Europe. The confrontation with death and tyranny provides the dramatic
focus of both Viktor Ullmann’s 1935 opera The Fall of the Antichrist as well as his 1943 opera The Kaiser from Atlantis.
Written in the concentration and transit camp Theresienstadt during the Second World War and prior to Ullmann’s death in
1944, The Kaiser from Atlantis is as much a critique of the political powers that perpetuate modern war as it is a profound
meditation on death and dying, shaped through its references to a rich literature associated with death in the Czech and
German musical traditions. Drawing on letters, diaries and critical writings of the composers, as well on archival sources,
the book explores how Death takes center stage in the twentieth century—not only as a character in these operas—but as
an unprecedented historical phenomenon, central to understanding European modernity in the first half of the twentieth
century.
Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherUniversity of Rochester Press
StateAccepted/In press - 2018

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