About this Recording
8.573525 - SCHULHOFF, E.: Chamber Music - String Sextet / Violin Sonata No. 2 / Duo for Violin and Cello / 5 √Čtudes de jazz (Spectrum Concerts Berlin)
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Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942)
Chamber Music


Since the 1980s, when his work experienced a cautious international renaissance, the compositions of Erwin Schulhoff, who died in 1942 in the Wülzburg internment camp near Weißenburg in Bavaria, have gradually been finding their way back into the concert hall. Nevertheless, his work has not yet become part and parcel of the professional solo, ensemble and orchestral repertoires. One of the signs that a composer’s oeuvre has become an established part of the music scene is the existence of a (sometimes controversial) performance tradition. In the case of Schulhoff’s compositions, this is gradually coming into being. Since its inception in 1988, one of the main aims of Spectrum Concerts Berlin has been to actively encourage and to act as a catalyst for the development of such traditions.

The four works on the present recording were all written in just under four years between 1924 and 1927, during Schulhoff’s middle creative phase; only the first movement of the Sextet was composed earlier, in 1920. The period between the end of galloping inflation in Germany in 1924 and the global economic crisis of 1929 was described as one of relative (economic and political) stability in Europe. The same could be said of Schulhoff’s development in the mid- and late 1920s, though with the emphasis on the “relative”. After sojourns in Dresden (January 1919 to summer 1920), where he established a concert series entitled “Werkstatt der Zeit” (“contemporary workshop”) and became acquainted with the dadaists, in Saarbrücken (autumn 1920 to January 1922), where he taught at the Conservatory and was bored stiff, but also got to hear several jazz bands, primarily in nearby France, and in Berlin (February 1922 to October 1923), where he enjoyed being close to like-minded artists, but was nonetheless unable to really settle, he and his family were back living in his home-town, Prague. His works were being played throughout Europe at the relevant festivals of contemporary music, especially in Donaueschingen and at the annual gatherings of the IGNM (ISCM, International Society for Contemporary Music) that were held in a different location each year, famous musicians, in particular from Czechoslovakia, often performing them with Schulhoff himself at the piano.

In terms of composition, 1924 was a fruitful year for Schulhoff. Among other works, he completed the Sextet that had been lying unfinished since 1920. That same year he published an article to mark Leoš Janáček’s 70th birthday in the Viennese music journal Der Anbruch. Janáček wrote to thank him in May 1925: “You got so close to me in your article that I’d say our souls touched each other. Thank you; you were speaking the truth. […] You hit the mark.” Three months earlier Schulhoff had completed his Duo for Violin and Cello, dedicating it to “the master, Leoš Janáček”; in 1927 he wrote his Violin Sonata No. 2, a work that he valued in compositional terms. In between, in 1926, he wrote the Études de Jazz, for piano, which he included many a time in his own programmes as a concert pianist.

Cinq Études de jazz (1926)

Schulhoff shared his fascination with jazz with many other composers. Claude Debussy closed his cycle Children’s Corner with the Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk; Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky wrote ragtimes; in his adopted city, Paris, Schulhoff’s Czech compatriot Bohuslav Martinů composed many jazz-inspired piano pieces as well as a Jazz Suite and a piece for orchestra entitled Le Jazz; Mátyás Seiber was the first musician to hold a chair in jazz at the Conservatory in Frankfurt. Schulhoff’s 1920 declaration that “Music should, first and foremost, produce physical well-being, ecstasy even, by means of rhythm” underlines his affinity with jazz, as does a letter to Alban Berg in which he writes: “I have an absolute passion for the dance in vogue and myself have times when I dance with barladies night after night—purely out of rhythmic intoxication and subconscious sensuality.” In his Cinq Études he stretched the definition of jazz quite considerably, not drawing a definite line between jazz and popular entertainment culture of European origin. He dedicated each piece to a musican active in that field and included Robert Stolz and Eduard Künneke, whom one associates more with operetta and popular song, alongside the ragtime and novelty virtuoso Zez Confrey and Paul Whiteman. But then, Stolz and Künneke also used the fashionable American dances of the day in their cabaret and revue numbers.

Duo for Violin and Cello (1925)

The dedication of the duo for strings—“to the master, Leoš Janáček, with my respect”—is not a formality in regard to the work. Janáček constructed his compositions from small motivic cells. Sometimes he derived these from Czech folk music, but more often from “speech melodies”: he took note of how people said particular words or names, so expressing their emotions. Schulhoff was inspired by this procedure. However, he did not take the music in colloquial speech as his point of departure, but rather musical idiom. The first bars played by the violin use the pentatonic scale that is the basis for many folksongs and nursery rhymes. Little by little he adds further notes, and with them fresh colours, expanding and compressing the tonal space traversed by his parts. Transformation and alienation enable him to arrive at something fresh. The method is reminiscent of Cubism and its art of stylisation and of distorting perspective.

The opening motif serves as an “original idea” in one way or another in all four movements. In the fiery second movement (headed Zingaresca – “in the gypsy style”) it is recognisable in rhythmically sharpened form in the cello melody. The calm third movement derives from a playful reordering—a kind of dicing of the thematic building blocks. In the fourth movement the dominant part is derived from the “original idea” by omitting or modifying individual notes. For all its variety of character, this gives the work a powerful inner cohesion. On the one hand, Schulhoff thereby realises a classical ideal: maximum diversity and variety, developing out of a single original unity and creating a new, differentiated unity in the context of a larger whole. On the other hand, as well as adopting Janáček’s procedure for composing melodies, he also takes over the Czech’s art of fluid but nevertheless clearly delineated structure. This finds expression in the numerous changes of tempo in the outer movements, among other things.

Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1927)

The Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, composed in 1927 and premiered at the ISCM Festival in Geneva on 7th April 1929, builds on the experience Schulhoff gained by writing the Duo and on the methods he employed there. The overall structure represents a move back towards the classical model of a sonata in four movements. In the opening movement, he uses a sonata form that has been, as it were, geometrically sharpened. Both the first and second themes comprise slightly contrasting sections—Schulhoff multiplies the dualistic principle of the form by two. The two themes follow immediately one after the other, their first appearance constituting the exposition and their variation and combination the development section, before they return in the same order but a slightly amended form in the recapitulation and afford the violin in particular an opportunity for virtuosity in the coda. When writing the violin part, Schulhoff probably bore in mind Alois Hába’s criticism of his Sonata for Violin Solo, namely that it failed to exploit the instrument’s potential. The violin part in the sonata with piano accompaniment is brilliant and virtuosic, laced with all manner of technical difficulties.

In the Finale Schulhoff keeps on coming back to the first movement—right at the outset, but then also as the Finale develops. In doing so, he establishes a clear unity, but at the same time points to the infinite potential of musical imagination, for each restatement is continued in a new and different way, the dynamism of open form thus operating within the closed one.

Something comparable can be said about the detail of the interrelationships. Like the Duo, the Violin Sonata derives from an original cell, the rhythm short–short–long. In all the movements the main theme and opening theme start with it and develop from it and around it. That includes the inner movements, which Schulhoff framed as striking character pieces—the slow movment as an instrumental song over bell-like accompaniment and the third, the scherzo, as a burlesque in 5/8. Allusions to folk music and the sonata’s recourse to classical structures are reminiscent of Bartók, whom Schulhoff held in high esteem. Schulhoff’s Second Sonata offers as laconic a response to the Hungarian composer’s violin sonatas as the Duo does to the corresponding compositions by Maurice Ravel and Zoltán Kodály.

String Sextet (1924)

The String Sextet that Erwin Schulhoff composed in the 1920s was to be a key work in his artistic development. Contrary to his usual practice, he did not compose it in one go. Having written the first movement in 1920, mainly in Dresden, he left the work in its early stages for four years. Only in 1924, by which time he was back in Prague, did Schulhoff go back to the Sextet, composing the remaining three movements within a single month. This slow creative process cannot only be attributed to external circumstances. In 1920 Schulhoff was far from clear what artistic direction he wanted to pursue. By 1924 there had been important changes.

Schulhoff apparently adheres to the traditional fourmovement structure for large-scale chamber works, but he does not end with a fast movement as standard practice dictated, instead concluding the work with a slow piece, an Adagio, which is partly disturbed and partly intensified by interpolated fast passages. The first movement is characterised by violent contrasts. These apply less to the themes that constitute the material for musical development than to the surroundings into which they are flung. The violence of march rhythms is answered by a plaintive interjection whose repetition briefly brings the music to a standstill. The Allegro risoluto is a movement characterised by powerful, dense expression that Schulhoff leads to the verge of eruption. It is like a play in three short acts. The slow movement that Schulhoff places second makes for a quieter contrast. He constructs it out of two elements: a continuous movement serving as an accompaniment, and a melody which is subjected to various modifications. The final variation carries sound to the verge of silence. The first movement accumulated energy; the second reduces it more and more until it is extinguished. The music becomes colourless. It loses its bluster. The first and second movements are thus musical mirror images of each other.

The third movement does not immediately respond to this constellation, instead taking evasive action and going its own way along a fresh path. Erwin Schulhoff headed it Burlesca. The piece is permeated from start to finish by a pervasive rhythm in an unusual time signature derived from Slavic folk music. This scherzo movment is a bit like a Cubist montage where perspectives are constantly shifting and changing. The final movement gathers together salient features from the previous movements once more, in a slow tempo: the second movement’s cantilena; contrasting blocks like those in the first movement; pervasive rhythms as in the third. However, the review does not end in a great summation that transfigures everything that has gone before, but sinks back into silence—the music is taking its leave.

Habakuk Traber
Translation: Susan Baxter

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