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The Emperor Of Atlantis

by Viktor Ullmann

by Carl Orff

'The Emperor of Atlantis' (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) and 'The Clever One' (Die Kluge) are two satires about oppression and dictatorship. Both works date from 1943, but they were composed in different worlds; one in the concentration camp of Terezin; the other in Frankfurt, Germany.

Viktor Ullmann’s breathtaking satire on fascism was written in the Terezin concentration camp in 1943. Set in Atlantis, where Emperor Overall advocates total war against all, even Death wishes to retire from his duties. The score is full of ironic brilliance, humor, poignancy, and an intriguing code language of musical quotations from blues to "Deutschland ueber Alles" in the style of a Bach chorale.

Carl Orff, best known for his Carmina Burana, tells the tale of a foolish, tyrannical king being bested by a clever woman, a folk tale common to many cultures. Orff’s version from 1943 delivers passages critical of dictatorship, creating a “world theater” that is both timeless and universal.

The Emperor of Atlantis - Der Kaiser von Atlantis

In the summer of 1943, Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien began collaborating on what was to later emerge as a signature masterpiece of Terezin’s musical scene. At the time it was also one of the most controversial. Their unique one-act opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, or The Emperor of Atlantis (subtitled Death Abdicates), dared to satirize the political situation of WWII while delivering timeless messages of the power of life and death. Written in four scenes, the opera required seven singers as well as a thirteen-piece chamber orchestra. A talented young artist and poet, Kien penned the libretto while veteran composer Ulmann scored the music. Together their efforts spawned a remarkable work that today provides a poignant glimpse into the lives of the suffering masses.

Kien and Ullmann revised the opera a number of times over the ensuing year. From the edited appearance of surviving manuscripts, it seems some aspects of the political allegory were too hot for the Freizeitgestaltung to handle. After adequate libretto adjustments were made to appease the Jewish cultural heads, the rehearsal process began in earnest with Rafael Schacter as conductor and Karl Meinhard as director. During a final rehearsal in September of 1944, SS officers happened by the scene and were outraged at what they heard. Any further continuance of the opera’s performance was swiftly halted as Der Kaiser von Atlantis was immediately banned. Furthermore, the entire cast, orchestra, Ullmann, Kien, and their families were promptly shipped in a transport to Auschwitz. Only the composition and the singers survived…

Read here more about Terezin history and music.


"So what are we to drink now? Blood is what we drink now. And what are we to kiss now? The devil's backside! The world is all confusion and careering like a carousel. We're in the coachman's seat!

In this poor world, what choice is there but to sell our soul at the village fair? Are there any takers? We all want to get rid of ourselfs. We'll all go to where the four winds drive us."

(from The Emperor of Atlantis)

The Loudspeaker opens the opera by setting the scene and introducing the characters. The plot develops from there as a lonely Harlequin describes woeful life in a kingdom lacking love and laughter: “we’d sell our souls at the nearest fair…will no one buy us, since every man wants to be rid of himself?” Death happens upon the scene, and together they comment ruefully on how the passing of days is hardly noticeable anymore in such a grim environment. Yet Death scoffs at the jester’s miserable request for relief through death, proclaiming his own situation to be far more severe and prolonged. In an aria, Death laments how his function no longer commands the same respect it once had, with warriors dressed in finery to meet him on the battlefield. Wearied from previous ravages of combat, Death has little interest in keeping pace with Uberall’s “motorized chariots of war,” which make a mockery of the “old-fashioned craft of dying.”

The Drummer then steps forth to deliver a new mandate from Emperor Uberall. Declaring “each against each other, no survivors,” she describes an all-encompassing war across the kingdom, one in which weapons are carried by every man, woman, and child alike. Death hears this decree and is outraged at the Emperor’s presumptuous nature. “To take men’s souls is my job, not his!” he fumes, angered that the Uberall would so easily take his services for granted. Here he declares an official strike, warning that the future of mankind will not only be great, as the Emperor suggested, but long, and breaks his sabre upon the ground.

The second act takes the listener to the Emperor’s palace, where progress of the war is being carefully monitored. Death’s scheme is discovered when word is received of a hanged man who has not died after eighty minutes, even after being shot. To the dismay and panic of the Emperor, the Loudspeaker tells of thousands of other soldiers “wrestling with life…doing their best to die.” Concerned that this turn of events will negatively affect his power as ruler, Uberall quickly demands a propaganda campaign in which the situation is spun as the gift of eternal life to his subjects. Yet he wonders, “Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory, Hell?”

An encounter between the Soldier and the Bobbed-Hair Girl comprises most of the third act. They come upon each other as enemies, but when death cannot separate them, their thoughts turn to love. Together they dream of distant places where kind words exist alongside “meadows filled with color and fragrance.” Flaunting the call of war as a sensual attraction for mankind, the Drummer attempts to entice the two back into battle. “Now death is dead and so we need to fight no more!” cries the young girl, unheeding of the Drummer’s bait, and with her soldier sings “Only love can unite us, unite us all together.”

In the final act, the frantic Emperor continues to oversee from afar his crumbling kingdom, where the desperate population rebels against the torturous limbo between life and death. Harlequin appeals to him while in his disturbed state, reminding him of his innocent childhood. Despite the Drummer’s urges to remain strong, these recollections interrupt his feverish calculations of potential deaths and give him pause, spurring him to muse before a covered mirror: “What do men look like? Am I still a man or just the adding machine of God?”

As he pulls away the mirror’s cloth, he is faced with the reflection of Death. “Who are you?” he demands of the vision, prompting a self-defining aria from Death. In it he compares his role to that of a Gardener “who roots up wilting weeds, life’s worn-out fellows.” Regretful of the anguish his abdication has caused, Death offers an ultimatum to the Emperor: “I’m prepared to make peace, if you are prepared to make a sacrifice: will you be the first one to try out the new death?” Uberall finally complies, and the mercy of death once again falls upon the suffering people. In the opera’s closing chorus, Death is praised and prevailed upon to “teach us to keep your holiest law: Thou shalt not use the name of Death in vain now and forever!”

The Clever one - Die Kluge

Carl Orff's first operas, Der Mond (The Moon, 1939) and Die Kluge (The Clever One, 1943), stand at the endpoint of a development that had begun with Kurt Weill's school opera Der Jasager (The Yes-Sayer, on a text adapted by Bertolt Brecht) of 1930, in which an unadorned re-telling of a folk tale served to illustrate a simple moral that was not without relevance to contemporary political developments.

Die Kluge was premiered in Frankfurt, Germany in 1943. Orff was reluctant to term any of his works simply operas in the traditional sense, he referred to Der Mond and Die Kluge as "Märchenoper" ("fairytale operas"). "The Clever One", referring to the peasant's daughter in the story, based on Die Kluge Bauerntochter (The Clever Farmers Daughter) of the Brothers Grimm's collection.

Both compositions feature the same "timeless" sound in that they do not employ any of the musical techniques of the period in which they were composed, with the intent that they be difficult to define as belonging to a particular era. Their melodies, rhythms and, with them, text appear in a union of words and music.


"Fides is struck dead. Justitia lives in great penury. Pietas lies on straw. Humilitas cries bloody murder. Superbia is triumphant. Patientia has lost the battle. Veritas has flown to Heaven. Honour and virtue have crossed the sea. Purity goes a-begging. Tyrannis wields its scepter far and wide. Invidia has broken loose. Caritas is naked and bare. Virtue's been driven out of the country. Dishonour and wickedness have stayed behind."

(from The Clever One)

A peasant finds on his land a mortar made out of gold. He decides to take it to the king, thinking that he will be rewarded for being a loyal subject. His wise daughter tells him not to, because the king will throw him in the dungeons thinking that he has stolen the pestle, which in truth he didn't find. The daughter's prediction comes true, and this is the beginning of the opera.

When the king learns that the daughter had wisely known what his actions would be he sends for her to come before him. He tells her she has "talked a noose around her neck" and will give her two choices for how to save her life. She can either gamble for it, or answer 3 riddles. The wise daughter chooses to answer the 3 riddles, and saves her life. The king makes her his queen and all seems happy. The opera is only half over though. Three scoundrels have stirred up some trouble between the owner of a donkey and a mule. One morning they found a baby donkey between the two beasts, and the mule owner ridiculously thought it could be his. The king agrees that since the baby was closer to the mule it must belong to it. The queen overhears this and sets up the donkey owner to show the king the error of his foolish judgment.

The king realizes that his new wife is mocking him and working against his decision and he sends her away with a large box and tells her to take whatever she wishes and leave. The queen drugs her husband with opiates in his wine, and the opera happily ends with him waking up inside the box, and acknowledging that she truly is a wise woman. She contradicts him and says that no one who loves can be truly wise. Also at the end, the peasant finds the golden pestle which got him sent to the dungeons in the first place.

Viktor Ullmann

Viktor UllmanComposer, pianist, choirmaster, conductor and music critic, was one of the victims from among the Prague German Jewish musicians in World War II. He was born on January 1st 1898 in Tesin, where he also began his studies. From 1914 onwards Ullmann lived in Vienna. He probably finished his secondary school studies there also and between 1918 and 1919 he worked for several months in Schonberg s composition classes. From 1920 until 1927 Ullmann was one of Alexander Zemlinsky s assistants in the New German Theatre in Prague (now the State Opera Prague). Artistic collaboration and longtime personal friendship with Zemlinsky, the esteemed head of the Prague German Opera Company, provided Ullmann with a wealth of personal and artistic experiences to draw on in the future. He took advantage of this in the following season, 1927-28, when he was appointed head of the opera company in Usti nad Labem. Together with local and some invited artists, Ullmann managed to stage there a truly impressive repertoire (including operas by Richard Strauss, Krenek and others).

At the tum of the 1920s and 30s he became involved in the anthroposophic movement, his new-found interests taking him to Zurich and later to Stuttgart. But he was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and returned to Prague, embarking on the uneasy road of a freelance musician. He worked with the department of music in Czechoslovak Radio, wrote book and music reviews for various magazines, was employed as a critic for the Prague-based Bohemia newspaper, lectured to educational groups, gave private lessons and was actively involved in the programme of the Czechoslovak Society for Music Education. At about that time Ullmann made friends with the composer Alois Haba, whom he had known for some time. Ullmann enrolled in Haba s department of quarter-tone music at Prague's Conservatoire of Music and studied there for two years (1935-1937).

Up to the first years of the Second World War, Viktor Ullmann was the leading figure in a circle of his Czech and German friends for whom he gave private music performances, chamber concerts or parties where the host played various gramophone records. On September 8th 1942 Viktor Ullmann was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Even in the extremely difficult conditions of a Nazi concentration camp he succeeded in maintaining his artistic activity and together with Karel Ancerl, Rafael Schachter, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa and others, he wrote a glorious chapter in the camp s cultural Iife. Ullmann was then deported to the Auschwitz death camp, where he died in a gas chamber, probably on October l5th 1944.

Only a part of Viktor Ullmann's work has been found so far. Before the outbreak of the Second World War Ullmann wrote some forty works, mostly orchestral, chamber and piano compositions and two operas. His literary works and approximately twenty fragments of his almost finished or complete compositions written in Theresienstadt have also been preserved. Since the late 1970s Ullmann s music has been enjoying revived interest. His opera from Theresienstadt, written on a libretto by Peter Kien and called Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) op. 49, has been staged several t?mes since then, as so have Ullmann's piano sonatas, Theresienstadt string quartet and songs. In stylistic terms, Ullmann s early compositions bear traces of Schönberg s influences; his works from the 1930s are polytonal in the classical formal framework, while Mahlerian inspiration is discernible in Ullmann s remarkable songs.

Peter Kien

Petr KienPeter Kien (born Varnsdorf, Czech Republic, 1 January 1919, died at the age of twenty-five in Auschwitz, October 1944) was a Jewish artist and poet. His visual and literary works reflected his experiences in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin), where he was imprisoned as a Jew during World War II. Kien's watercolor drawings, created in secret on stolen paper, vividly depict the brutality of daily life in a camp the Nazis portrayed to the world as a "model Jewish community". As an author he is best known for his libretto to Viktor Ullmann's opera "The Emperor of Atlantis" (1944). Born Frantisek Petr Kien in the Czech border town of Varnsdorf, he studied in Brno and entered the Prague Art Academy in 1936. He continued to study privately after the Germans shut down Czechoslovakia's universities and art schools in 1939, finding inspiration in Expressionism and Kafka.

In December 1941 Kien was deported to Theresienstadt. Assigned as a draftsman to the "Technical Office of Self-Administration", he took part in the camp's bustling cultural scene by sketching portraits and writing poetry; his documentary drawings, shown only to a trusted few, would have gotten him shot had they been discovered. Kien's verse cycle "Town of Plague" (1943) and satirical play "Puppets" (1943, now lost) led to an invitation from composer Ullmann to collaborate on "The Emperor of Atlantis". An allegorical tale of a crazed monarch whose hunger to destroy all mankind causes Death himself to rebel, it received one rehearsal in the Spring of 1944 before it was banned by the camp commandant for its veiled attack of Hitler. Unfazed by this setback, the author and Ullmann decided their next project would be an opera about Joan of Arc. The Nazis decided otherwise.

On October 16, 1944, Kien, his wife and parents were among the thousands put on a transport to Auschwitz. He was not sent to the gas chambers but died from disease, probably typhus, at the end of the month. He was 25. His family also perished. Interest in Kien's work was substantially renewed after "The Emperor of Atlantis" was finally premiered in 1975. In 2005 a memorial plaque was dedicated to him at the Gymnasium of his native Varnsdorf. (bio by: Robert Edwards)

Carl Orff

Carl OrffOrff was born in Munich on July the 10th 1895. He studied at the Munich Academy of Music until 1914. He then served in the military during World War I. Afterwards, he held various positions at opera houses in Mannheim and Darmstadt, later to return to Munich to pursue further his music studies.

As of 1925, and for the rest of his life, Orff was the head of a department and co-founder of the Guenther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich, where he worked with musical beginners. Having constant contact with children, this is where he developed his theories in music education.

Orff's association with the Nazi party has been alleged, but never conclusively established. His Carmina Burana was hugely popular in Nazi Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937, receiving numerous performances. But the composition with its unfamiliar rhythms was also denounced with racist taunts.

Orff was a personal friend of Kurt Huber, one of the founders of the resistance movement Die Weiße Rose (the White Rose), who was condemned to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed by the Nazis in 1943. After World War II, Orff claimed that he was a member of the group, and was himself involved in the resistance, but there was no evidence for this other than his own word, and other sources dispute his claim. Canadian historian Michael H. Kater made in earlier writings a particularly strong case that Orff collaborated with Nazi authorities, but in his most recent publication "Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits" (2000) Kater has taken back his earlier accusations to some extent. Orff's assertion that he had been anti-Nazi during the war was accepted by the American de-nazification authorities, who changed his previous category of "gray unacceptable" to "gray acceptable", enabling him to continue to compose for public presentation.

Orff is most known for Carmina Burana (1937), a "scenic cantata". It is the first of a trilogy that also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. Carmina Burana reflected his interest in medieval German poetry. Together the trilogy is called Trionfi, or "triumphs". The composer described it as the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance. The work was based on thirteenth-century poetry found in a manuscript dubbed the Codex latinus monacensis found in a Bavarian monastery in 1803 and written by the Goliards; this collection is also known as Carmina Burana. While "modern" in some of his compositional techniques, Orff was able to capture the spirit of the medieval period in this trilogy, with infectious rhythms and easy tonalities. The medieval poems, written in an early form of German and Latin, are often racy, but without descending into smut.

With the success of Carmina Burana, Orff disowned all of his previous works except for Catulli Carmina and the Entrata, which were rewritten until acceptable by Orff. As an historical aside, Carmina Burana is probably the most famous piece of music composed and premiered in Nazi Germany.

About his Antigone (1949), Orff said specifically that it was not an opera, rather a Vertonung, a "musical setting" of the ancient tragedy. The text is an excellent German translation, by Friedrich Hölderlin, of the Sophocles play of the same name. The orchestration relies heavily on the percussion section, and is otherwise fairly simple. It has been labelled by some as minimalistic, which is most adequate in terms of the melodic line. The story of Antigone has a haunting similarity to the history of Sophie Scholl, heroine of the White Rose, and Orff may have been memorializing her in his opera.

Orff's last work, De Temporum Fine Comoedia ("A Play of the End of Time"), had its premiere at the Salzburg music festival on August 20, 1973, performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In this highly personal work, Orff presented a mystery play, in which he summarized his view on the end of time, sung in Greek, German, and Latin.

Musica Poetica, which Orff composed with Gunild Keetman, was used as the theme music for Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands. Hans Zimmer later reworked this music for his 1993 True Romance score.