About this Recording
GP723 - SCHULHOFF, E.: Piano Works, Vol. 3 - Suite dansante en jazz / 9 kleine Reigen / 5 ├ętudes de jazz / Ostinato (Weichert)
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Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942)
Piano Works • 3


Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8th 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 a Mendelssohn Prize in 1918 for a piano sonata. If his music up to the First World War shows the expected absorbing of influences from Brahms and Dvořák, via Strauss, to Debussy and Scriabin, the four years spent in the Austrian army saw him adopt a more radical stance both artistically and politically. Over the ensuing few years, he absorbed the Expressionism represented by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, along with the Dadaism espoused by George Grosz, whose advocacy of jazz found its way into much of Schulhoff’s music of this period.

The later 1920s saw something of a rapprochement between 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 rapidly besetting Europe, he focussed on the symphony as the medium by which he was best able to convey an ever more monumentalised idiom. A further six of these emerged between 1935 and 1942, though the Seventh and Eighth were to remain 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 was then deported to a concentration camp near Wülzburg, where he died (most probably of tuberculosis) on 18th August 1942.

Schulhoff’s jazz-inspired music occupies a specific period in his output and also 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 the very last years. As is equally the case with his older contemporary Martinů, jazz idioms had become integrated into Schulhoff’s mature musical language without needing to draw attention to themselves.

Composed in 1931, and dedicated to the writer and musicologist Henry-Gil Marchex, Suite dansante en Jazz is among the last of Schulhoff’s works to be overtly indebted to jazz idioms. Stomp opens the cycle with its breezy nonchalance and deft syncopation, then Strait takes a decidedly different tone with its alternation between sly insinuation and capricious humour in a manner redolent of Satie. Waltz continues this more inward mood with its diffident yet knowing tale on the dance rhythm such as recalls Ravel, while Tango redresses the balance with its agile jauntiness. Slow aptly describes the languorous poise and harmonic elegance (evoking Billy Mayerl) of the piece in question, before Foxtrot finds Schulhoff returning to one of his favourite dance rhythms in music which makes for a lively and effervescent close.

Composed in 1913 and dedicated to the composer’s friend Suse Eschweiler von Baumbach, Neun kleine Reigen is correspondingly among Schulhoff’s earliest works to exhibit a jazz influence, though here the idiom is equally that of the light music from this period. The first piece duly sets the tone for what follows in its pert seguing between expressive reticence and recalcitrance, complemented by the robust rhythmic and martial profile of its successor. The third piece is a brief though scintillating study, heading directly into the ensuing item with its much more forceful demeanour. The fifth and longest piece is another of those waltz-tinged numbers that were a staple of the composer’s output at this time, its appealingly coquettish manner finding ready contrast in the limpid calm and tonal obliqueness of the following item. The seventh piece is an understated take on waltz rhythm, its musing offset by the liveliness of its successor, then the final piece sees a return to the waltz for a decidedly poignant close.

The six pieces which comprise Ostinato signal the end of Schulhoff’s avant-garde period and instead show a debt to Expressionism and Dada. Subtitled ‘Sechs familiäre Angelegenheiten: Lustige Klavierstücke for große und kleine Kinder’, these six miniatures on ‘family matters’ are humorous and intimate portraits of everyday life with a child—indeed they were composed shortly after the birth of Schulhoff’s son in 1923—and mark the start of the blossoming of the composer’s career.

Published in 1927, the Cinq Études de Jazz is among the most representative of Schulhoff’s works with a jazz influence and equally underlines the breadth of his interests in the genre. The sequence opens with a Charleston for Zez Confrey (1895–1971), the American pianist and composer of jazz and ragtime music. Its somewhat acerbic resolve is contrasted with a Blues for Paul Whiteman (1890–1967), the American violinist, bandleader and composer, whose innovative and influential expressive stylings are to the fore in music which simmers with more unsettling emotions. Next comes a Chanson for Robert Stolz (1880–1975), the Austrian conductor and composer of songs and operettas—the ‘song’ of whose title unfolds in ruminative and even sombre terms. This is deftly complemented by a Tango for Eduard Künnecke (1885–1953), the German composer of operas, operettas and shows—the indelible rhythmic profile of this dance embodied in pianism as teasing in expression as it is fluid in its pianism. The sequence concludes with a Toccata for Alfred Baresel (1893–1984), the German critic and proponent of jazz—its irrepressible verve and rhythmic alacrity placing it in a line of Francophone keyboard pieces stretching from Ravel back to François Couperin.

The present recording ends with the piece on which the last of these études was based. Apparently inspired by a stay at his grandmother’s house, during which he heard her cat walk across the keyboard, Kitten on the Keys became an instant hit for Zez Confrey when it was published in 1921 and, despite a number of other successful ragtime pieces that decade, remains the piece by which he is best remembered almost a century later. A thematic connection between them is by no means explicit, though the all-round poise of Confrey’s music serves to place this and Schulhoff’s jazz-inspired music as a whole within an appropriate and relevant context.

Richard Whitehouse

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