Erwin Schulhoff – Classical music


Uhwin Schulhoff, born in Prague in 1894, was a close contemporary of Martinů, a fellow Czech, and Milhaud and Poulenc in France. They were all working at the same time and wrote a considerable amount of music alike quality. So why are these other names enough well known, while Schulhoff is not?

The sad the truth is that he was silenced, dying in a nazi prison camp in 1942, then unfairly forgotten by musical history. It was a similar story for fellow Czech Jewish composers Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, who were in the Terezin Ghetto (Theresienstadt) where at least there was the opportunity to be musically creative before being transported to Auschwitz and killed.

Was Schulhof?

Schulhoff was an energetic enfant terrible in the first decades of the 20th century, fascinated by Jazz and write music in an original if not consistent style. His works include six completed symphonies (plus one in piano score and another unfinished), a Don Juan opera called Flemish (Flames), lots of piano and chamber music, and several very inventive concertos – some for unusual combinations like a Double Concerto for flute, piano and orchestra and a Concerto for String Quartet and wind orchestra. There is also the warm sonata for viola saxophone and piano, and the Erotic Sonata for female voice in which the singer achieves an orgasm – 70 years before Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. “He is a pure-blooded, witty musician who lives up to the most sophisticated expectations,” wrote Erich Steinhard, editor-in-chief of The Auftakta musical journal from Prague in 1926.

When and where was Was Schulhoff born?

At the time of Schulhoff’s birth in Prague in 1894, Prague was a major cultural center of the Habsburg Empire, described by Max Brod, Kafka’s biographer and JanacekSchulhoff’s translator knew him as “100% Czech, 100% German and 100% Jewish”. It could also be a description of Schulhoff himself. He was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family who, with the encouragement of Dvořák no less, arranged a comprehensive musical education beginning at the Prague Conservatory at the age of ten. He then traveled to Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne and became a very accomplished pianist, for which he won the Mendelssohn Price in 1913. He wrote piano music and completed a Piano Concerto around this time.

How did World War I affect Schulhoff and his music?

In 1914, Europe entered the war and Schulhoff served on the Russian and Italian fronts. “It is nothing less than a deluge, a destructive force which threatens to destroy the whole culture of European humanity”, he wrote in his diary in 1916. “I can only place the years 1914, 1915 , 1916 in the lowest rank of humanity; they make fun of the 20th century.

WWI brought about a decisive change in Schulhoff’s vision and music. He moved to Dresden, living with his sister Viola, an artist, and became acquainted with other artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, who vividly depicted decrepit war casualties, low life bars and jazz bands in a style they called ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity). Their photos are the images that define the Weimar Republic.

George Grosz in his autobiography describes his first encounter with jazz in Berlin and a bandleader pretending to be out of control, throwing drinks and instruments. “What I had just seen was a parody of what would one day be a reality,” he writes; “one in which another crazed conductor would lead a dance of death, snatching instruments from the hands of his musicians and beating their heads until they collapsed, to standing ovations that would far exceed applause lavished on his harmless predecessor.”

How did jazz influence Schulhof?

Schulhoff seized on jazz to cut himself off from a conventional past devalued by the horrors of the First World War. His first jazz-inspired pieces, Fünf Picturesque, were written in 1919 and dedicated to Grosz. With titles like ‘Foxtrot’ and ‘Ragtime’, they are related to Stravinsky’s chiffon-inspired pieces from the same period. More substantial is his Suite in six movements for chamber orchestra of 1921.

Originally called Following the New Style, its moves have titles like “Ragtime,” “Tango,” “Shimmy,” and “Jazz,” and the percussion section includes a football rattle, xylophone, swan whistle, and car horn. In a letter to the composer Alban Berg of the piece he says, “There are times when I dance night after night with the girls in the bars, just for the rhythmic pleasure and sensual undercurrents; it’s a phenomenal stimulus to my creativity, since my the personality is very down to earth, almost bestial!

Since 1920, Schulhoff taught piano in Saarbrücken, a city he hated for its petty-bourgeois mentality. In 1921 he married and early the following year moved to Berlin where his son Peter was born. He returned to Prague in 1923. The Czech capital was culturally divided, with Czech opera and German opera and most Jews leaning towards German culture. Schulhoff, comfortable with both, said: “I would like to be a cultural intermediary here in Prague between the Czechs and the Germans. This included jazz-inspired music for a production by Molière The Bourgeois Gentleman at the Czech National Theatre.

Schulhoff’s most famous pieces of music

The following decade, until Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, was Schulhoff’s most prolific and successful period. Alongside his enthusiasm for jazz, he also adopted a neo-classical style in his concerto works and the Second Symphony. He wrote a lot of chamber music, including a Sonata for solo violin (1927), a superb Duo for violin and cello dedicated to Janáček (1924), Five pieces for string quartet with dance rhythms (1923) and a powerful sextet (1924).

American music critic Olin Downes heard the five pieces in Salzburg and wrote: “A talented young composer flourished in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful to him. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves too seriously from time to time. After the concert, Downes said the composer played American ragtime at a local bar “until the walls rocked”.

Schulhoff completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1925. It is an original three-movement work with folk influences (which also feature in some of the chamber music above) and extensive percussion, including flexatone. It premiered in Berlin under the direction of Erich Kleiber in a concert including Bartók’s first piano concerto played by the composer (whose later Music for strings, percussion and celesta includes echoes of Schulhoff’s symphony). It is a measure of Schulhoff’s status at this time that his music was performed alongside bartok. His First Symphony was also conducted in Prague, London and Cincinnati by George Szell, Ernest Ansermet and Erich Kleiber, as well as across Europe by Václav Talich and Pierre Monteux.

In 1925, Schulhoff reworked his Suite into a dance-pantomime entitled Dreamer (Náměsicná in Czech, Die Mondsüchtige in German), which, after unsuccessful attempts at staging in Prague and Paris, premiered in Oxford in 1931 under the direction of Schulhoff. Symphony No. 2, written for a radio broadcast in 1932, is probably his most accessible in this genre: its neo-classical style incorporates a “Scherzo alla Jazz”, including banjo and saxophone (one of the first symphonies to include this instrument) . It was the last of his six completed symphonies to be performed during his lifetime.

From 1930, with the rise of the Nazis, Schulhoff became increasingly drawn to communism. He put texts by Marx and Lenin in his communist manifesto of 1932, and his later symphonies became simpler if not actually social realist in style. The fifth is heavy but personal, suggesting the fear of someone trapped by circumstance, which it clearly was.

When Is Schulhoff dead?

Schulhoff applied for Soviet citizenship after the Munich Agreement of 1938 (see life and times, left). His music was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis – for its modernism, its jazz and because he was Jewish. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, he worked as an arranger at Prague Radio under a pseudonym, but his Soviet citizenship emerged only weeks before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the next day, Schulhoff was arrested as a citizen of an ‘enemy power’. He was sent to the fortress of Wülzburg in Bavaria, converted into a prison camp for Jewish citizens of other states, and died there of tuberculosis on August 28, 1942, at the age of 48.

Although returning to the repertoire, Schulhoff’s music is still not performed as much as it deserves. The public will particularly appreciate the warm sonata for alto saxophone and piano, the jazzy Dadaist Concerto for piano and small orchestra and the Suite for chamber orchestra on one side and the most profound Sextet, String Quartets and Symphonies on the other. Now, 80 years after his death, it’s time for performers and listeners to explore.

Schulhoff’s style of composition


One of the first European composers to be influenced by jazz, Schulhoff used dance forms like ragtime, tango, shimmy and foxtrot in piano pieces such as Fünf Pittoresken, Partita für Klavier and 5 Etudes de Jazz. Jazz also figures in his Suite for Chamber Orchestra, the Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra and the Second Symphony.


Schulhoff’s friend, the painter George Grosz, was part of the post-war movement to reject the bourgeois art of the past. “The divine spark may be present in a liverwurst or a contrabassoon,” Schulhoff wrote in the preface to his Bass Nightingale (1922).


As Stravinsky and Martinů, Schulhoff adopted a neo-baroque style for melodic yet sharp and dissonant pieces like his Bach-inspired Concerto for String Quartet, Double Concerto for Flute and Piano, and Second Symphony.


Schulhoff wrote chamber pieces for eccentric combinations (Concertino for flute/piccolo, viola and bass), the jazzy Hot Sonata for saxophone and piano, and the Sonata Erotica.

Artwork by Matt Herring


Comments are closed.