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Parnassus Records releases a recording of Schulhoff playing his own music

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed

Regular readers probably know that I have an ongoing interest in the music of the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. I first encountered his work in February of 2011 in a recital that violinist Daniel Hope gave with pianist Jeffrey Kahane; and I have been hooked on his unique approaches to early twentieth-century modernism since then. Biographically, Schulhoff’s life was one of ironic alternations between being at the right place at the right time and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The positive side began with a prolific period as a student, during which one of his composition teachers was Max Reger. However, while he may have acquired most of his grammatical skills from Reger, as a listener he was being drawn to the music of Richard Strauss (he was at the Prague premiere of “Salome”) and the piano music of Debussy. He even studied briefly with Debussy; but, as I have previously noted, his relationship with Debussy’s music was far more sanguine than that with Debussy-the-teacher.

The first negative swing came with the outbreak of the First World War. Schulhoff (like Arnold Schoenberg) was conscripted into the Austrian Army. He suffered nervous shock from a shrapnel wound in Hungary in 1916 and emerged from the war in a demoralized mental state. His “healing” came about through a political commitment to Socialism and a musical drive to get away from late nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Fortunately, it did not take long for Schulhoff to swing back up again. At the beginning of 1919 he moved to Dresden, where he encountered a lively modernist movement. He came to know the painter Otto Dix and also became aware of the rise of the Second Viennese School. In parallel with his exposure to Strauss, he attended the Prague premiere of Schoenberg’s Opus 21 Pierrot Lunaire and would subsequently correspond with Alban Berg and Anton Webern, as well as Schoenberg himself. However, the most important contact he made at this time was due to Dix. This was his encounter with the painter George Grosz.

Through Grosz he came to know the roots of American jazz by listening to the painter’s record collection. This included both dance music and piano rags, as well as the emergence of jazz bands. This turned out to be even more influential than the music of Debussy, and Schulhoff began to explore this new rhetoric in his own compositions for piano. Much of this has been recorded by the German pianist Caroline Weichert through her recording project with the Grand Piano division of Naxos. However, this past Tuesday Parnassus Records released an album of all of the solo piano recordings that Schulhoff made in 1928 (in Berlin) and 1929 (at Kingsway Hall while visiting London).

This CD includes two of Schulhoff’s more “European” compositions, his second suite for piano, composed in 1924, and his second sonata, composed in 1926. However, Schulhoff definitely showed a preference for his jazzy side in the Berlin studio. This included four movements from his 1922 eight-movement partita, three of the five “jazz études” composed in 1926, and two of the movements from the six-movement suite Esquisses de Jazz (jazz sketches), composed in 1927. None of these pieces involve jazz improvisation (although Schulhoff was apparently a skillful improviser in performance). Instead, the primary influence seems to be rhythm; and, as a pianist, Schulhoff certainly seemed to “get” the idea of “swing.”

The London recordings, on the other hand, offer “something completely different.” These were sessions made with the members of the Taffanel Woodwind Ensemble: René Le Roy (flute), Louis Bas (oboe), Achille Gras (clarinet), Edouard Hénon (bassoon), and Jules Vialet (horn). These four tracks include the entirety of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 452 quintet in E-flat major for piano and winds and the third (Gavotte) movement from Ludwig Thuille’s Opus 6 sextet in B-flat major. Through these tracks the attentive listener will recognize that, for all of Schulhoff’s experiments with jazzy rhythms, when it came to more conventional repertoire, he was just as capable of “playing well with others.”

This brings us to the final downward swing. With the Nazi occupation of Czech territory, Schulhoff was doubly at risk for being a Communist of Jewish ancestry. The only refuge he could find was the Soviet Union, which granted him citizenship in April of 1941. Unfortunately, his emigration to the Soviet Union was followed almost immediately by the Nazi invasion. He was arrested for being a Soviet citizen, rather than a Jew; and he was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis in August of 1942. Whether or not he was involved with any recording projects after 1929 remains to be seen.

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