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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHULHOFF, E.: Piano Works, Vol. 2 - 5 Pittoresken / Piano Sonata No. 2 / 2 Studien / Musik fur Klavier / Esquisses de jazz (Weichert)
Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff assimilated the influence of jazz with genuinely distinctive results. The Fünf Pittoresken absorb both Dada and Scott Joplin whilst more classicist influences, such as Ravel, suffuse the Second Piano Sonata. Esquisses de Jazz (1927) is perhaps his most outstanding jazz-influenced piece—a perfect synthesis of dance rhythms, wit and irony.
ERWIN SCHULHOFF (1894–1942)
PIANO WORKS • 2
Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8 June 1894 and showed innate musical ability at an early age. A musical career was chosen on the recommendation of no less than Antonín Dvořák, with Schulhoff studying at the Prague Conservatory from 1904 followed by piano tuition in Vienna from 1906, then composition in Leipzig with Max Reger from 1908 and latterly in Cologne with Fritz Steinbach from 1911. At much the same time he was laying 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. Although his music up to the First World War shows the expected absorbing of influences from Brahms and Dvořák, via Strauss, to Debussy and Scriabin, four years spent in the Austrian army saw him adopt a more radical stance both artistically and politically. Over the next few years, he absorbed the Expressionism represented by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and the Dadaism as espoused by George Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz found its way into much of his music from this period.
The later 1920s saw something of a rapprochement between these competing musical aesthetics, evident in a number of chamber works and concertos, as well as the First Symphony, the ballet Ogelala, the ‘jazz oratorio’ HMS Royal Oak and an opera about Don Juan entitled Flammen which, however, proved to be a failure at its Brno première in 1932. That year also saw Schulhoff’s Second Symphony, its lucid neo-classicism hinting at a significant change of direction whose political motivation was soon confirmed by the cantata Das Manifest with its settings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Looking to the Soviet Union for a solution to the political and economic problems that were then besetting Europe, Schulhoff focussed on the symphony as the medium through which he was best able to convey his increasingly monumentalized idiom. Six more of them emerged between 1935 and 1942, with the Seventh and Eighth remaining unfinished. Having lived in Prague for most of the inter-war years, working there as a pianist in theatre productions and also for radio broadcasts, Schulhoff was to find himself without any means of support after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia early in 1939. He soon took out Soviet citizenship, but was arrested by the Nazi authorities before he could finalize his emigration to the Soviet Union and then deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, where he died (probably of tuberculosis) on 18 August 1942.
Schulhoff’s jazz-inspired music occupies a specific period in his output and represents a move away from the iconoclastic stance of his music soon after the First World War towards an idiom that was contemporary while remaining accessible to a broader audience, without as yet needing to sound overtly political. Such elements then fall away markedly in the face of the composer’s intensifying political commitment, though his on-going work as a freelance pianist meant that they did not disappear entirely from his music until his very last years. As is also the case with his older contemporary Martinů, jazz idioms had become integrated into Schulhoff’s musical language without needing to draw attention to themselves.
Fünf Pittoresken (1919) comes near the beginning of Schulhoff’s extensive investigation of the possibilities of jazz, and is abetted by the Dadaist tendencies which were briefly near the forefront of his thinking after the First World War. Foxtrott sounds uncannily like a take on a Scott Joplin rag from much the same period, though the piece evinces greater intricacy in its phrasing and rhythm as it proceeds. Ragtime is cooler and more nonchalant in manner, a little redolent of pieces in a similar style by Debussy or Satie, while In futurum might be said to anticipate the thinking of John Cage by almost four decades. One-Step restores the sonic aspect with its lively demeanour and appropriate harmonic side-steps, before Maxixe rounds off the sequence with a more developed interplay of the dance measures previously heard—and with a more inward-looking central passage to provide contrast, before it briefly regains its initial liveliness prior to the close.
The Second Piano Sonata (1926), however, finds Schulhoff’s jazz predilections tempered by more classicist tendencies. The first movement is a study in understatement, its main idea less than a theme as such than a harmonic sequence, not a little reminiscent of Ravel in its tonal dexterity, which is constantly transformed on the way to an expressive climax and a subdued close. The second movement is a quicksilver scherzo, its unceasing motion continuing right through to the ironic final chord, while its successor is one of Schulhoff’s most appealing and unaffected movements, its plaintive harmonies and supple rhythms exuding an air of calm contentment. Something of this also finds its way into the finale, which again recalls Ravel in its combining of deft expression and robust humour as it heads towards a decisive and no-nonsense close.
Zwei Klavierstücke was composed in Ostrava in February 1936. The first piece demonstrates its ‘originality’ with an overtly modal colouring to its harmony, which takes the music up to a brief climax before regaining its earlier poise. The second piece unfolds as a canonic dialogue between the hands over a steady march rhythm, building steadily in emotional force before it reaches an ominous and even threatening close.
Musik für Klavier (1920), by contrast, comes from near the outset of Schulhoff’s encounter with jazz, while its subtitle ‘in four parts’ suggests the intention to create a sonata whose separate movements are not related in the classical sense. The first piece is a Prelude of great delicacy and tonal subtlety, its brevity in contrast to the Theme and Variations which follows. Here the theme in question is of considerable simplicity and poise, succeeded as it is by ten variations that vary considerably in length and between them open out its expressive possibilities though without straying noticeably far from its essential character. The third piece is a scherzo, commencing without pause, whose initial agility is complemented by a moodier response that continues through to the final piece, Nachspiel (Postlude), whose elegant detachment is maintained throughout and which touches on some notably distant tonal realms before it reaches a calm though hardly serene close.
Finally, Esquisses de Jazz (1927) is perhaps the most perfectly realized of Schulhoff’s works in which the jazz element is predominant, with each of the five pieces being indebted but not beholden to the dance routine of its title. Although the composer was effectively to disown such music in his last years, its personal stamp infers a deft yet undoubted mastery. The opening Rag is typical of his music from this period in its ironic humour and almost offhand manner, while the ensuing Boston exudes wistfulness and a limpid regret that are commonly associated with this genre. There follows a discreetly syncopated Tango, then a Blues which throws up a fair measure of harmonic ambiguity over its vamping accompaniment. Next comes a fluid Charleston which is demonstrably more abstract and sophisticated in manner than its dance origin might suggest, while Black Bottom rounds off proceedings with a wry humour and nonchalant air that is very much keeping with the set as a whole—as it is of the music from Schulhoff’s most overtly jazz orientated period.
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