Matti Bunzl's Blog

Torture, Violence, and Confinement

In a humanities festival on “The Body,” attention must be paid to the sad history of violence against human beings. Several events will take account of such topics as the violated body, the body under surveillance, and the body in confinement. These will include a lecture on torture by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, a discussion of the recent Arizona immigration law by Ramon Gutierrez and other members of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, and a presentation of the historical foundation of human rights by Michael Geyer and Susan Gzesh of the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Program.

In addition to these events, we have scheduled a remarkable program that explores the creative impulse of the body in confinement. The topic is Viktor Ullmann, one of the leading avant-garde composers of the early 20th century. Ullmann, whose prodigious talents gave him access to the musical circles around Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, was a member of the German-speaking community in Prague (like Franz Kafka). Jewish by background, although a convert to Roman Catholicism, Ullmann was deported to the concentration camp Terezin in 1942.

Viktor Ullman
Viktor Ullman

That camp represented the height of Nazi cynicism. Billed and showcased by the Nazis as a model Jewish city (rather than the ghetto it was), it did afford its prisoners some degree of freedom. Ullmann took this opportunity to remain musically active, conducting an orchestra and organizing concerts. He even continued to write music, most famously the opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” which has recently been rediscovered as a major piece of 20th-century classical music.

Less well known is the melodrama “Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornet Christoph Rilke” (The Chronicle of Love and Death of the Flagbearer Christoph Rilke), based on a text by Rainer Maria Rilke. Ullmann composed it in 1944, the last piece he created before his deportation to Auschwitz where he was murdered on October 18, 1944. The composition is the last piece of music composed in the concentration camps – and as such it is one of the most remarkable testaments to the endurance of the human spirit.

We will be able to hear this fascinating piece of music written in the most inhumane of circumstances. At the CHF, it will be performed by husband-and-wife team Philip and Christine Bohlman, both faculty members at the University of Chicago. Phil, one of the world’s leading ethnomusicologists, has had a long-standing interest in Jewish and Central European music, which he regularly performs with his New Budapest Orpheum Society. Christine, an accomplished pianist and piano teacher, will accompany him.

The program promises to be among the most memorable events of the fall.

Tags: violence, The Body, human rights, music, Jewish studies, immigration

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