Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (updated 08/05/2006)

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

 

[Bullet6] String Quartet No.1 (1924)

[Bullet6] Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923)

 


Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

String Quartet No.1 (1924)

I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.

Gustav Mahler

I have a tremendous passion for the fashionable dances and there are times when I go dancing night after night with dance hostesses […] purely out of rhythmic enthusiasm and subconscious sensuality; this gives my creative work a phenomenal impulse, because in my consciousness I am incredibly earthly, even bestial…

Erwin Schulhoff from a letter to Alban Berg. Feb.2, 1921

The first quote could as well be applied to Erwin Schulhoff as to Mahler himself. Schulhoff was born on June 8, 1894 to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Recognized as a child prodigy by none other than Dvorak, he was admitted to the Prague Conservatory to study piano (1902-04). He continued his studies at the Vienna Conservatory (1904-08), after which he studied with Max Reger at the Leipzig Conservatory (1908-10), followed by a course of study at the Cologne Conservatory (1910-14), as well as some lessons from Debussy. Despite all these years of conservatory study, he emerged as a composer who plunged headlong into the twentieth century, and embraced the new currents in both popular and art music. (It’s hard to imagine Mahler uttering the second quote). Schulhoff quickly gained a reputation as a formidable pianist who, along with the classical repertoire, championed the avant-garde music of his time, giving performances of the works of Scriabin, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Hindemith, and Bartok, along with the quarter-tone piano music of Alois Haba. Schulhoff even gave free classes at the Prague Conservatory in quarter-tone music. A Prague music critic described him as "a distinguished virtuoso pianist, especially bred for new music, with a splendid technique, unequalled memory and radical interpretational will; a revolutionary composer, with both feet firmly planted on the ground." Schulhoff allied himself with the Dada art movement of the post-WWI era, dedicating a work, Pittoresken, to the artist George Grosz. One of his other Dada inspired compositions In Futurum contains, as its middle movement, only a rest, marked "with feeling". As might be expected, Schulhoff was attracted to American popular music: ragtime and jazz. Unlike Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Ravel, whose incursions into jazz were somewhat superficial and it must be said slightly condescending, Shulhoff worked as a jazz pianist in the "Hot Jazz" clubs of Europe in the Twenties. Though he composed many jazz-inspired compositions, more importantly he was also a jazz improviser. His compositions were welcomed in many of the contemporary music festivals of the time, as well as in the more traditional venues.

Another interesting aspect of Schulhoff’s musical career was his work in radio. During his tenure as pianist for the Prague Radio Orchestra, he involved himself in creating works especially for live radio broadcast, as well as studio work involving the making of recordings. The Second Symphony and Concerto for String Quartet, both dating from 1932, were created especially for radio broadcast, exploiting his knowledge of microphones and sound mixing to achieve a scale and clarity suited to the new broadcast medium.

The rise of Nazism in Germany in the early Thirties, changed his fortune, and put him in jeopardy. As a Jew, his career in Germany, which had been quite successful in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden was finished. He had always believed that there should be reconciliation between the Germanic and Czech cultures - not surprisingly, since by birth he belonged to both worlds. However, the Czech authorities of the time were suspicious of him for what they felt were his "pro-German views," despite the fact that German artists who he was associated with were being persecuted by the Nazis. As if he didn’t have enough trouble, Schulhoff had become a communist. His commitment to communist ideals was such that he even set the Communist Manifesto to music, as a cantata for four soloists, three choirs and a brass band. He became a Soviet citizen in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia he sought to emigrate to the Soviet Union. He was awaiting his Soviet visa when, with the collapse of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, he was arrested-as a Jew, a "Degenerate" (Entartige) artist, and a Soviet citizen. He was arrested in Prague and deported to the Bavarian concentration camp Wülzburg along with his son, where he died of tuberculosis according to one source, typhus according to another, and torture according to a third. Had he escaped to the Soviet Union, one doubts that he would have fared better under Stalin.

What was it that caused him to seek refuge in the East rather than the West, America in particular, as did so many other musicians? Schulhoff’s story is all the more poignant, given the current events unfolding in Central Europe; the latest incarnation of evil made to sound innocuous: "ethnic cleansing." After the War his late Socialist works were somewhat revived in communist occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1962, manuscripts which he had left in Moscow during a visit in 1940, were discovered, further enabling a resurrection of his works. Today there is a sizable number of his works available on recording; symphonies, concerti, piano music, chamber music, ballet music and his opera, Flammen (The Flames).

The String Quartet No. 1 was composed after the successful premier of his Five Pieces for String Quartet Fünf Stücke fur Streichqüartett at the I.G.N.M. (International Society for New Music) chamber music festival in Salzburg, Aug.8, 1924. The String Quartet was completed in Prague on Sept.20, 1924. Dedicated to the Zika Quartet; the work received its premier performance on Sept. 3, 1925, at the I.G.N.M. chamber music festival, held this time in Venice.

The Philharmonia Pocket Score of this work contains a short essay which quotes the contemporary Prague critic Erich Steinhard as follows. "The string quartet, a fiery outburst of temperament, is made all of a piece, and one has the feeling that the composer’s pen could hardly keep pace with his inspiration, though this is in no way to decry the quality of the invention and its intellectual elaboration. But I defy anyone, (with the possible exception of Hindemith) to equal him (Schulhoff) in the tempestuous pace of the first movement, and its natural musicality, its clarity and its homophony[…] A catchy melody with simple accompaniment, which often flows along in stereotyped figures, characterizes the next movement, while the third arouses rhythmic interest with a playful Slovak theme and presents the appearance of folk music. All three movements are fast moving. Not until the last section does an Andante-like passage, where the accompaniment mimics the earlier Allegretto melody, introduce a sensitive and contemplative mood, at the close of an otherwise boisterous and cheeky piece of writing." (Die Musik, March 1927,p.438)

1998-1999 Season, Program V, Sunday June 6, 1999


" I cannot say what music is,

Nor whether it is heard correctly,

Nor why the joy of its heavenly melodies makes the heart dance,

Nor can I explain the spell it casts:

Only that it needs the right listener."

Saadi of Shiraz

from Bustan (The Orchard) 1257 A.D.

Of the three pieces that constitute today’s program, two are works by Czech composers; Dvorák who in his own way, and by design influenced American music, and Schulhoff who was greatly influenced by American music.The other work is by an obscure 18th Century Austrian composer; W.A. Mozart.

"I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed."

Gustav Mahler

"I have a tremendous passion for the fashionable dances and there are times when I go dancing night after night with dance hostesses […] purely out of rhythmic enthusiasm and subconscious sensuality; this gives my creative work a phenomenal impulse, because in my consciousness I am incredibly earthly, even bestial…"

Erwin Schulhoff

from a letter to Alban Berg Feb.2, 1921

Erwin Schulhoff (1894- 1942)

Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923)

The first quote could as well be applied to Erwin Schulhoff as to Mahler himself.

Schulhoff was born on June 8, 1894 to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Recognized as a child prodigy by none other than Dvorak, he was admitted to the Prague Conservatory to study piano (1902-04). He continued his studies at the Vienna Conservatory (1904-08), after which he studied with Max Reger at the Leipzig Conservatory (1908-10), followed by a course of study at the Cologne Conservatory (1910-14). as well as some lessons from Debussy. Despite all these years of conservatory study, he emerged as a composer who plunged headlong into the Twentieth Century, and embraced the new currents in both popular and art music (it’s hard to imagine Mahler uttering the second quote). Schulhoff quickly gained a reputation as a formidable pianist who, along with the classical repertoire, championed the avant-garde music of his time, giving performances of the works of Scriabin, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Hindemith, Bartok along with the quarter-tone piano music of Alois Haba. Schulhoff even gave free classes at the Prague Conservatory in quarter-tone music. A Prague music critic described him as "a distinguished virtuoso pianist, especially bred for new music, with a splendid technique, unequalled memory and radical interpretational will; a revolutionary composer, with both feet firmly planted on the ground." Schulhoff allied himself with The "Dada" art movement, of the post-WWI era, dedicating a work "Pittoresken" to the artist George Grosz. One of his other "Dada" inspired compositions In Futurum contains, as its middle movement, only a rest- marked "with feeling." As might be expected, Schulhoff was attracted to American popular music – ragtime and jazz. Unlike Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Ravel, whose incursions into "jazz" were somewhat superficial and it must be said slightly condescending, Shulhoff worked as a jazz pianist in the "Hot Jazz" clubs of Europe in the Twenties. Though he composed many jazz-inspired compositions, more importantly he was also a jazz improviser. His compositions were welcomed in many of the contemporary music festivals of the time, as well as in the more traditional venues.

Another interesting aspect of Schulhoff’s musical career was his work in radio. During his tenure as pianist for the Prague Radio Orchestra, he involved himself in creating works especially for live radio broadcast, as well as "studio work" involving the making of recordings. The Second Symphony and Concerto for String Quartet, both dating from 1932,were created especially for radio broadcast, exploiting his knowledge of microphones and sound mixing to achieve a scale and clarity suited to the new broadcast medium.

The rise of Nazism in Germany in the early Thirties, changed his fortune, and put him in jeopardy. As a Jew, his career in Germany, which had been quite successful in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden was finished. He had always believed that there should be reconciliation between the Germanic, and Czech cultures- not surprisingly, since by birth he belonged to both worlds. However, the Czech authorities of the time were suspicious of him for what they felt were his "pro-German views" – despite the fact that German artists who he was associated with were being persecuted by the Nazis. As if he didn’t have enough trouble, Schulhoff had become a communist. His commitment to communist ideals was such that he even set the Communist Manifesto to music, as a cantata for four soloists, three choirs and a brass band. He became a Soviet citizen in 1939. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia he sought to emigrate to the Soviet Union. While awaiting his Soviet visa, however, with the collapse of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, he was arrested-as a Jew, a "Degenerate" (Entartige) artist, and a Soviet citizen. He was arrested in Prague and deported to the Bavarian concentration camp Wulzburg along with his son, where he died of tuberculosis according to one source, typhus according to another, and torture according to a third. Had he escaped to the Soviet Union, one doubts that he would have fared much better under Stalin. What was it that caused him to seek refuge in the East rather than the West - America in particular, as did so many other musicians?

After the War his late "Socialist" works were somewhat revived in communist occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1962, manuscripts, which he had left in Moscow during a visit in 1940, were discovered, further enabling a resurrection of his works. Today there are a sizable number of his works available on recording; symphonies, concerti, piano music, songs, chamber music, ballet music and his opera Flammen (The Flames). Many of these works were recorded in the Czech Republic honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1994.

The Five Pieces for String Quartet were composed in December of 1923 in Prague. While the work can be seen as an updated version of a baroque dance suite, the brevity and tone color of the work also suggest an affinity to the Stücke (Pieces) composed by proponents of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg and the boys) then in vogue.

In keeping with his Dada roots, Schulhoff opens this suite with a truly "offbeat" Viennese Waltz; the 3 beats of the waltz rhythm placed within 4/4 meter! The second movement is a somewhat grotesque little serenade, replete with strummings and pluckings. The third movement is a vigorous dance, evoking Czech folk music, reminiscent of Bartok. The fourth movement, the longest of the set, is a sexy, slinky Tango (Schulhoff composed a piece for muted trumpet called Sonata Erotica which was "For Men Only" and was supposed to evoke a woman having an orgasm. Yes, the work has been recorded). The final movement is a properly frenetic tarantella.

The Five Pieces, dedicated to Darius Milhaud, were presented at a festival of the International Society for New Music in Salzburg on August 8, 1924. The great success of the work inspired Schulhoff to compose two string quartets in 1924 and 1925.The Sierra Chamber Society performed the String Quartet No. 1 during the 1998-99 concert season. The quartet was received with great enthusiasm by the musicians and audience alike.

2000-2001 Season, Program V, Sunday May 20, 2001

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