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  • Ralph Allen

Prelude to Schulhoff

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


“Subconscious sensuality” is not what we usually associate with Classical Music. But Edwin Schulhoff was steeped in the late Romantic, boundary-breaking sensualism of Strauss (he attended the Prague premier of “Salome”), and was a fluent jazz improviser. His works were played in the same festivals as works by Schoenberg; he studied briefly with Debussy. As a German-speaking Czech Jew, he was born into outsider status, and, despite early success in Germany, he didn’t manage to receive the same recognition in his own country.


Schulhoff dedicated his Duo for Violin and Violincello that Iris and I recently recorded to his countryman Leos Janacek. Schulhoff, born in 1894, was forty years younger than Janacek, but unlike Janacek, who developed a style all his own, Schulhoff’s musical style was affected by different influences at different times, from the late Romanticism of Strauss and the folk elements of Dvorak in his early compositions, to American jazz in the 1920s, to the use of Eastern European modalities. As a German-speaking Czech Jew who grew up in Prague, fought for Austria in World War I, then lived in Leipzig, Berlin, and then returned to Prague, he stood at various cruxes simultaneously. Gustav Mahler wrote of himself, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.” The same could be said of Schulhoff, except, like Kafka, he was a German-speaking Czech.


Schulhoff grew up in the German-speaking community in Prague, and was recognized by Dvorak for his prodigious talent when he was still a child. He was educated in Prague, then abroad in Vienna, Leipzig (with Max Reger), and Cologne; he composed in the late Romantic vein of Wagner and Strauss until he encountered Debussy’s music, in 1912; he briefly studied with Debussy, only to find that Debussy wanted him to master old forms rather than teach his own innovations. He incorporated Debussy’s quartal harmonies (chords based on fourths rather than thirds) and use of parallel fifths and modal scales in his compositions.

Schulhoff was conscripted into the Austrian army and fought in the First World War; was wounded in Hungary and fought on the Russian Front. After the war he, like many others, was disillusioned, and abandoned the post-Romantic musical language of his pre-war works. He struck up a friendship with Alban Berg, performing Berg’s piano sonata in Dresden and Prague, and his compositions moved away from tonality, though he never adopted Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. The next work on this playlist is Schoenberg’s Serenade, Op. 24, which was premiered in the same festival as Schulhoff’s Sextet, one day later, in 1924. In this Serenade, Schoenberg uses his twelve-tone system, “emancipating the dissonance” from the hierarchy of pitches. In twelve-tone music, structures are no longer based in the consonance-dissonance binary of diatonic harmony, but rather on chords constructed from a “row,” or a set organization of the twelve pitches of the scale. The disillusionment Schulhoff and many others felt after his experience in the war is reflected in their search for authenticity in new musical language; old hierarchies were considered played out, and a revolution in the structures of expression was under way. In a time when the political structures and alliances of imperialism had lead to the horrors of war, the hierarchy of pitches—the very idea of consonance resolving dissonance—was no longer a given. This time of pandemic has been destabilizing for our contemporary world, but we are looking forward to getting back to normal. At that time, returning to normal wasn’t possible, and the language of music was up for grabs.


In Schulhoff’s sextet, next on this playlist, illustrates Schulhoff’s debt to early Schoenberg. The sextet is not overtly atonal, but the emotional depth and darkness evoke Verklärte Nacht and the Schoenberg’s Second Quartet. The textures and harmonies are more narrative than abstract; telling a story: a tone poem.



After this on our playlist come the Five Pieces for String Quartet, also from 1924; these pieces have a modern, edgy take on the familiar dance forms of a Viennese Waltz, Serenade, Czech folk music, Tango, and Tarentella. Bartokian folksy vigor comes through in the Czech folk music movement, and jazz in the Tango. Neo-classicism, the use of classical structures and baroque dance forms, was championed by Stravinsky; Schoenberg and Berg incorporated the baroque dance suite as a form. These Five Pieces are Schulhoff’s take on a suite of “modern” dances.


The Duo that Iris and I recorded and are presenting to you comes from the period in Schulhoff’s output, what Alex Ross calls “Bartokian chamber music.” And there are indeed moments in the duo that seem to refer to Bartok, like the very end of the fourth movement. But Schulhoff’s language is his own. The opening melody of the first movement, which returns in the last movement, is based on a pentatonic scale, has a searching, uneasy quality; the second movement, is his version of a gypsy dance, with left-hand pizzicato tricks and a nod to the primitivism of Stravinsky. The third movement is like a lullaby, with long, arching phrases, and the last returns to the searching instability of the first, with a Bartokian unison ending.



The next selection on this playlist is Branford Marsalis talking about the “Hot Sonata” from 1931, followed by a performance of this “Hot Sonata”. Schulhoff loved dancing in nightclubs and was a gifted improviser taken by jazz this Sonata, from 1930, puts jazz into classical form. It is both charming and quirky—as Marsalis points out, it is a bit tricky, with modernist touches.

A direct example of Dada that comes next on this playlist in Schulhoff’s Symphonia Germanica, a terrifying spoof of Nazism.


Schulhoff had a successful career as a composer and pianist in the 1920s, performing regularly and having his works played at important festivals; Universal Editions published his works. But after 1930 his personal and professional fortunes declined. After the First World War, Schulhoff had become an ardent Socialist; in the 1930s he performed in Moscow, and went so far as to set the Communist Manifesto to music in 1932. But a job as a full professor at the Prague Conservatory eluded him, his contract with Universal Editions expired, and his marriage fell apart. When the Nazis invaded in 1938-9, he was doubly at risk as a Jew and as a communist. He was in the process of emigrating to Russia when he was arrested, and taken to a concentration camp in Wülzberg, Bavaria. He died there, of tuberculosis, in 1942, at 48.


Getting to know new music is a pleasure this pandemic time gave us, and this piece, which at first we didn’t understand, had a chance to grow slowly in our minds and bodies. I identify with Schulhoff because I, too, am an outsider: a non-Jew in Israel, an American English speaker whose accent in Hebrew is immediately recognizable, a violinist playing viola in an orchestra. Musically, I was influenced in my 20s by stylistically aware Dutch players and groups; like Schulhoff, when I returned home I had a hard time fitting in. His musical language is still edgy, but comes across to an audience.


Playing different styles of music is like moving between identities, which actors practice. When we learn new styles, something in ourselves is released. The challenge of learning a new language—first to hear, then to speak—asks us to be flexible, to listen and respond, internalize, and then to speak in this language to an audience. As orchestra players, we learn music on a weekly basis, churning out known masterpieces to an audience that knows what to expect. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to absorb Schulhoff’s musical language slowly, over months. We hope that you enjoy the fruit of our work.

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