I’m currently preparing for a concert where I’ll be performing Alfred Uhl’s Divertimento for clarinet quartet, a piece written during the Second World War. I discovered, after already having programmed the piece, that Uhl was in the army during the war and served as the commander of a prison camp in France. To put it lightly, this is not a quality we typically admire in our composers, so I thought it was necessary to learn more.
Not much is written in English about Alfred Uhl, and information on his activities during the war is even sparser. I was, however, able to find a biography in German. Below is my rough-and-ready translation of the passage concerning Uhl’s time as the head of a prison camp.
And then the war seized Uhl and solved all problems for him. On 24 Feb. 1940, six weeks after the birth of his son Peter, Uhl was drafted into the military; three months later he moved to Gmunden, where he underwent a hard military training. And the same musician, who once wrote to his sister from Switzerland the passionate words: “such a war is just about the worst thing that people have invented,” carried now his military duties with utter serenity: “I have just shifted into a state of desirelessness, as Schopenhauer understands it.”
The lance-corporal was assigned as the leader of a French detention camp in Neumarkt on the Ybbs, a task he received thanks to his ability to speak French, and with the help of music he imparted a humane accent to it. He accompanied church services for the prisoners on the organ French church songs, which he learned by ear and during the mass gave impromptu harmonizations. His organ preludes and improvisations lured the local residents in droves toward the church, where they were not allowed to enter, and shook the prisoners to tears. In 1960 a former camp inmate, now a priest, wrote to him a touching note of thanks from France.
On 13 Sept. 1941, Uhl was summoned to the Russian front…
Alexander Witeschnik, Alfred Uhl: Eine biographische Studie (Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1966), 28.
(As a bit of context: very shortly after being moved to the Eastern front, Uhl stepped on a mine and was severely injured. He spent the rest of the war out of commission.)
For the most part I’m reserving judgment on this issue. My impression is that Uhl was mostly wrapped up in musical matters, was drafted into the army with a low rank, ended up where he did solely because he was able to speak French, and tried to treat the prisoners well during his short time in charge of the camp. However, this is from a source obviously well-disposed toward Uhl, which does not investigate the details very closely or ask any inconvenient questions. I also don’t know what the camp conditions were like at Neumarkt. So it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from this. But I wanted to make this passage available in English for any others who may have similar concerns.