Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). An introduction.

This week’s blog marks the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, on 8 June 1894. His artistic abilities soon became apparent, and a musical career was decided on following a recommendation from no less a figure than Antonín Dvořák. Schulhoff studied at the Prague Conservatory from 1904, followed by piano tuition in Vienna from 1906, then composition in Leipzig with Max Reger from 1908 and subsequently in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach from 1911. In the meantime he had laid the basis of a career as a pianist, while his efforts at composing were rewarded with the Mendelssohn Prize in 1918 for a piano sonata.

Schulhoff’s music up to the First World War reflected the expected influences of Brahms and Dvořák and, by way of Strauss, to Debussy and Scriabin, but four years in the Austrian army saw him adopt a more radical stance, both artistically and politically. In the next few years he absorbed the values of the Expressionism represented by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as well as the Dadaism espoused by the artist Georg Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz was to find its way into many of his future compositions.

We’ve made a compilation of Schulhoff’s works to give an overview of his generic and stylistic output, beginning with Landschaften (C056031A), a symphony for mezzo-soprano and orchestra which he began in 1918 and sets to music five poems by Johannes Theodor Kuhlemann. The first movement, Die Türen sind zugeweht, will no doubt have your ear recalling comparable works of opulent romanticism.

The ballet Ogelala was written in 1923 and premiered in 1925. The score is colourful, exotic and a perfect vehicle for Schulhoff’s wonderfully varied orchestral palette. Ballet was one of the more important musical genres during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In Paris, for example, Igor Stravinsky had revolutionised the scene with Petrushka (1910-11) and Le sacre du printemps (1913). Listening to Ogelala may well have you recalling that latter work, or Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, showing us how Schulhoff at the time was still absorbing the influence of what surrounded him. Here’s the music from part of Ogelala’s twelfth and penultimate scene, Waffentanz (ODE894-2).

In 1920, Schulhoff had stated: “Music should primarily produce physical well-being through rhythm, indeed even ecstasy, it is never philosophy, it emanates from the state of ecstasy and finds its expression in rhythmical movement.” The association of rhythm with dancing was a constant for Schulhoff, who was no stranger to the delights of intertwining on night-club dance floors. We can hear an early example of this rhythmic ’manifesto‘ in the final movement of his Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923). Here’s the Tarantella (C5257).

Written in 1919, Fünf Pittoresken (GP631) for solo piano comes near the beginning of Schulhoff’s extensive investigation of the possibilities of jazz, abetted by the Dadaist tendencies which he briefly flirted with after the First World War. For example, In futurum, the central movement, lives up to its name by preceding the premise of John Cage’s 4’ 33” by more than 30 years. You can click here to meditate on the fact that Schulhoff’s prototype comes in at around a third of Cage’s stretch of silence. But maybe you’d prefer to hear the fourth movement, One-Step.

We’ll end by forwarding to the 1930s and the lead-up to Schulhoff’s tragic demise in the onslaught of the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. The rich, long-established German-Jewish culture in Prague was among the first victims, after Vienna, of the German drive for expansion. Despite the fact that Schulhoff had enjoyed great success in Germany, he had returned in 1923 to his native city of Prague. Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, however, he made efforts to leave the country. While he was still waiting for his Soviet visa in 1941 he was interned in Prague and then deported to a Bavarian concentration camp, where he died on 18 August 1942 from tuberculosis of the throat and lungs.

Our first piece from the decade preceding those dark events continues his penchant for jazz-inspired piano works, though the artless titles are now clothed in a more mature style. Composed in 1931, Suite dansante en Jazz (GP723) is among the last of Schulhoff’s works to be overtly indebted to jazz idioms. It’s cast in six movements, ending with Fox-Trot.

The Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Ensemble (C5197) dates from 1930, the instrumentation turning on its head the usual numerical dominance of an orchestra’s string section over the wind, brass and percussion departments. Although the work, a type of modern concerto grosso, is cast in the traditional three movements, its style is noticeably more austere. The elements of rhythmic propulsion and jazz influences continue to make their mark, however, as this extract from the finale demonstrates.

Finally to Schulhoff’s Second Symphony (C337941A), composed in Prague in 1932 and premiered there three years later. We’ll play out with the third movement marked, perhaps unsurprisingly by now, Scherzo alla Jazz, as it gently shimmies between a foxtrot and the blues.

Leave a Reply