Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
A Czech composer, Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894 of German-Jewish parents and very early showed an extraordinary talent for music. Upon Dvořák’s recommendation, Schulhoff began studies at the Prague Conservatory at the age of ten. He subsequently studied in Vienna and Leipzig. Early musical influences included Strauss and Scriabin, as well as Reger and Debussy, both of whom Schulhoff briefly studied under. After a life changing stint on the Western Front with the Austrian Army in WWI, Schulhoff returned with a new political and musical resolve. He turned to the leftist avant-garde and began to incorporate a variety of styles that flourished in a heady mélange between the wars including Expressionism, Neoclassicism, Dada, American Jazz and South American dance. Schulhoff was a brilliant pianist with a prodigious love for American Ragtime as well as a technical facility for even the most demanding experimental quartertone music of compatriot Alois Hába. At least one more influence added to this wild mix: the nationalistic and native folk music of Czechoslovakia. All this combined into Schulhoff’s unique musical language culminating in the peak of his career in the 1920’s and early 30’s during which he was widely appreciated as a brilliant, complete musician. His substantial compositional output includes symphonies, concerti, chamber music, opera, oratorio and piano music.
Schulhoff’s leftist politics eventually lead him to join the communist party and establish Soviet citizenship, though he ultimately never left Czechoslovakia. His political views brought trouble: some of his music was banned and he was forced to work under a pseudonym. When the German’s invaded Czechoslovakia, Schulhoff was arrested and deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died of tuberculosis in 1942 at the age of 48.
Schulhoff composed his scintillating Duo for Violin and Cello at the peak of his powers in 1925. It is a tour de force combining Schulhoff’s brilliance and the astonishing capabilities of this ensemble in the hands of a great composer (and expert players). Across a rich and diverse four-movement program, Schulhoff employs an incredible array of techniques and devices investing this duo with far more color and dynamism than might, at first, seem possible. For color and percussive effect, Schulhoff uses a variety of bowing instructions (over the fingerboard, at the frog, tremolo, double-stops), extensive pizzicato and strumming, harmonics, mutes as well as the vast pitch range of the instruments themselves. He employs a similarly extreme range of dynamics from triple pianissimo (very, very soft) to triple forte (extremely loud), often with abrupt changes. A brief sample of tempo and mood markings illustrates this truly fantastic dynamism: Moderato, Allegretto, Molto tranquillo, Agitato, Allegro giocoso and, wonderfully, the final Presto fanatico.
The duo begins with a suave, poignant theme that serves as a unifying motto recurring (with variation) again in the third and fourth movements. Following this thematic introduction, the first movement pursues the most range and contrast of the four ending in ghostly, pentatonic harmonics mystically evoking the Far East. The second movement is an energetic scherzo in the “Gypsy style” (Zingaresca) including a wild, accelerando at the central climax. The third movement is a delicate, lyrical and atmospheric slow movement based on the opening motto theme. The finale resumes the powerful expressive dynamism of the first movement including the initial motto theme, the ascending harmonics, the verve of the Zingaresca and a little bite of angst-ridden expressionism. The conclusion launches a sudden, frantic gallop accelerating exponentially with a fleet angular unison alla Bartók.