Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894 to a German-speaking Jewish family. His relatively brief life spanned a period of incredible change in both music and world affairs, beginning under the tutelage of Antonín Dvořák in the late Romantic tradition, and ending in 1942 as a victim of the Holocaust. Something of a stylistic wanderer—moving through several artistic movements including German Expressionism, the Second Viennese School, Dadaism, and Socialist Realism—Schulhoff has never found a firm place in the repertoire. The injustice of his death also meant his artistry had no chance to coalesce in a later career, and his political leanings—toward communism and the Soviet Union, where he had hoped to immigrate—made his work less sympathetic for revival in the West after the War.

One recurring element in Schulhoff’s music was an interest in popular dance and jazz, clearly represented in this suite of five pieces from 1923. The opening Viennese waltz is barred in two, rather than in the usual meter of three, which allows phrases to be stretched unpredictably, perhaps mocking the bourgeois dance. The Serenade stands on the border of French and German styles, with an added dose of musical Chinoiserie (a European idea of Asian music). Czech Folk Music evokes Schulhoff’s native land and memories of Dvořák. The shadowy Tango ends with a distorted chord, offsetting the rest of the movement with an Expressionistic touch, while the final Tarantella spins in measured fury.

This music was considered by the Nazis to be Entartete Musik: degenerate music. The label, combined with (and related to) Schulhoff’s Jewish heritage and communist beliefs, led to his unemployment and destitution in occupied Czechoslovakia, followed by arrest, and finally death from tuberculosis in a Bavarian prison camp.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.