Erwin Schulhoff

(8 June 1894 - 18 August 1942)

Erwin Schulhoff was a twentieth century Jewish Czech composer of German descent whose music represents his inability to fit in anywhere. His music spans an array of genres and several social movements.

Schulhoff was born on 8 June, 1894 in Prague. Schulhoff’s father, Gustav, was a wealthy merchant who lost his fortune in the 1920s. During World War II, Gustav was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died. Schulhoff possessed immense musical talent as a child and was able to play tunes by ear at the piano by the age of three. Schulhoff’s mother convinced Antonín Dvořák, who had absolutely no interest in child prodigies, to meet him in 1901. After examining Schulhoff’s abilities, Dvořák awarded him some chocolate and determined that he should study piano at the Prague Conservatory, where he stayed until 1906. Schulhoff then studied piano for two years in Vienna and piano, theory and composition in Leipzig with Max Reger until 1910 before going to Cologne to study composition, conducting and piano until 1914.

Schulhoff’s early influences were the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy. After attending the premiere of Strauss’ Salome in 1906, Schulhoff filled his works for the next five years with sounds he encountered from Strauss’ music. After being introduced to the music of Debussy in 1912, his music strays away from Strauss’ influence and begins to include more harmonies reminiscent of those found in Debussy’s works. Schulhoff reached out to Debussy for composition lessons, but their time together was unsuccessful, as Debussy insisted on rules that Schulhoff no longer wished to follow.

I have a tremendous passion for the fashionable dances and there are times when I go dancing night after night.

When World War I broke out, Schulhoff was drafted into the Austrian Army. During his service he was stationed in Prague, but also travelled to Hungary and Russia. In 1916, while in Hungary his hand was injured from a piece of shrapnel and he suffered nervous shock. Upon his return from the war, Schulhoff was a changed man; he was delusional and angry. Further, he had become a fully-committed Socialist and wished to escape the post-Romantic learning of his earlier works.

Schulhoff moved to Dresden in 1919, where he lived with his sister Viola, a painter. While in Dresden, he came into contact with the painter Otto Dix, along with many other artists, musicians and dancers. His political stance also continued to move further to the left. Schulhoff’s compositions changed dramatically during this period. He suddenly became inspired by the Second Viennese School and atonality, despite having already been introduced to the music of Arnold Schoenberg in 1913. He took up correspondence with Alban Berg, Schoenberg and Anton Webern and even performed Berg’s Piano Sonata. He was also inspired by the Vienna Society for Private Musical Performances and started a series of concerto to promote ‘music of the future’.

After World War I, Schulhoff wished to escape the post-Romantic learning of his earlier works.

Schulhoff’s next transition began with his acquaintance with George Grosz and his interest in the Dada movement in Berlin and helped organize the first Dada event in Dresden. Dada was described by Marc Lowenthal as ‘the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism’. Schulhoff moved to Berlin in 1922, after marrying Alice Libochowitz, where he created music inspired by the Dadaists.

Jazz became an important language in Schulhoff’s music in the 1920s after he was introduced to American ragtime, dance and jazz music by Grosz. Just as quickly as Schulhoff had taken up atonalism, he abandoned it for, not only the jazz, but for French neo-classicism and Slavonic folk music. It was also during this period that he and his wife moved to Prague. Universal Edition took on Schulhoff’s works and he also performed very actively in the following period, but he missed the financial stability that an academic position could provide. However, his ambiguous nationality and the split between the Germans and the Czechs in Prague led to him being in outcast everywhere. To make matters worse, his only opera, Plameny (‘Flames’, 1927-9), was a dreadful failure.

Schulhoff’s own view was that he was an intermediary between the German and the Czech communities of Prague, but he was instead viewed as an outsider. He did most of his writing in German, his native language, and became the music critic of the Prager Abendblatt in 1924. His opera, however, was in Czech and he had many contacts with Czech musicians, including the Zika Quartet. Schulhoff was eventually offered a small teaching job at the Prague Conservatory in harmony and score reading, but it was not enough to provide a stable income.

Schulhoff’s career as a pianist flourished in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He toured throughout Europe and performed his Double Concerto (1927) with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. His works also appeared frequently on the programmes for the International Society for Contemporary Music and at festivals in Venice and Salzburg.

In addition to composing and performing, Schulhoff was also interested in radio and recording. In 1928 he recorded his jazz-influenced piano works, such as Jazz (c1920), Piano Jazz (1920) and Etudes de Jazz (c1910-20), and also broadcast many concerts over the radio in the following years. He also composed his Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Orchestra (1930) specifically for the radio. During this period he also composed the Suite dansante (1931).

Schulhoff’s early influences were the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy.

After a period of great musical success, Schulhoff’s luck began to fade. His publishing contract with Universal Edition ended, as he wrote far too many works for their taste. In fact, Universal Edition published more works by Schulhoff than any other composer in his first five years with them. Furthermore, his fusion of jazz and classical styles which enjoyed great success in the 1920s was no longer popular in the 1930s.

To make ends meet, he began arranging Czech music and composing dance music under pseudonyms. He also performed as a pianist at the Liberated Theatre. In addition to his crumbling career, his family life was also falling apart because of his affair with a student and due to his wife’s illness. His mother also died in 1938.

The 1930s also marked Schulhoff’s dedication to Marxism and Soviet Communism. He composed a cantata of the Communist Manifesto, Das Manifest (1932), and wrote many communist vocal works. He also wrote many symphonic works which were to communicate the Soviet agenda.

With the threat of the German occupation, Schulhoff was in danger and sought escape to the Soviet Union. After acquiring Soviet citizenship, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, Bavaria, where he died in 1942 of tuberculosis.

Schulhoff’s output features a wide variety of pieces, from a Hot Sonata (1930) for alto sax and piano, the setting of the Communist Manifesto, jazz miniature works inspired by Czech jazz, along with string quartets, several piano sonatas and many other chamber and solo works.

Images courtesy of Naxos, Schott Music, NDR and public domain

Universal Edition published more works by Schulhoff than any other composer in his first five years with them.

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