I Remember: The Music of the Holocaust

An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death". An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau's main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death" and the railway with the remains of abandoned crockery. The railway, which was built in 1944, was the last stop for the trains bringing Jews to the death camp. REUTERS/HO-AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM
The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house, “the gate of death.”

At the end Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, Kaiser Uberall accepts his fate: he will be the sacrifice which will restore the balance of life and death that his own arrogance and brutality so tragically upset. It is one of the most powerful moments in 20th century opera. It is a moment of hope and high ideals; a plea for humanity, and a promise of peace. It is also a moment of unimaginable horror and tragedy, for the opera was never performed during its composer’s lifetime. Ullmann died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 18 October 1944.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow night. And as we approach that solemn day of remembrance for the millions murdered by the Nazis, I find my thoughts going back to the final moments of Ullman’s opera.

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Rites of Spring: The Concert Season at the End of the World

Nicholas Roerich's costumes for Le Sacre du Printemps
Nicholas Roerich’s costumes for Le Sacre du Printemps

Outrage flooded into the aisles of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on the night of 29 May 1913, and spilled into the streets of Paris’s 8e Arrondissement. The premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, a new ballet staged by Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, with choreography by Vaclav Nijinsky and a pulsing, dissonant score by 31-year-old Igor Stravinsky, had incited a riot. The well-heeled patrons from the 16e, the tony, bourgeois quartier around the Trocadero Palace, howled in disgust, demanding a refund for their tickets and the heads of the men responsible for the travesty of taste that they had just witnessed, though not necessarily in that order; the bohemians from Montmartre shouted back in defence. Epithets flew, backed with fists, umbrellas and handbags. One of the greatest works of musical theatre of the young century debuted in chaos.

It was, Diaghilev gaily commented, “exactly what I wanted.”

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