Erwin Schulhoff

Czech composer and pianist of German descent, Erwin Schulhoff, was a prolific and multi-faceted creative figure whose work embraced a full panoply of styles and influences. The son of a wool and cotton merchant, he was accepted as a piano pupil at the Prague Conservatory at the early age of ten thanks to a letter of recommendation by Antoní­n DvoÅ™ák . He later continued his studies in Vienna with Willy Thern and in  Leipzig, where his teachers included Max Reger.

After military service in the Austrian Army during World War I, Schulhoff resided in Germany until 1924. This was where his interest was particularly aroused by the radical direction taken by the avant-garde: Dadaism and jazz, as well as influences from Impressionism, Expressionism and Neo-Classicism. He also struck up a lively correspondence with Alban Berg. The brilliant pianist Schulhoff was considered as a specialist of Alois Hába’s quarter-tone music. On his return to Prague, Schulhoff became the successor of Max Brod as the music critic of the newspaper Prager Abendblatt. After 1933, he was unable to continue his career in Germany due to his Communist convictions (he had for example set the Communist Manifesto to music) and also his Jewish roots. The planned first performance of the opera Flammen in Berlin was cancelled. During the 1930s, Schulhoff underwent an artistic transformation; his symphonic jazz compositions were superseded by symphonies in the style of Social Realism. This stood in sharp contrast to his activities as a jazz pianist for Prague radio in Ostrava. In 1941 Schulhoff acquired Soviet citizenship. The German declaration of war with the Soviet Union meant that he was now categorised as being a citizen of an enemy nation. He was initially interned in Prague on 23 June 1941 and subsequently deported to the concentration camp Wí¼lzburg near WeiíŸenburg in Bavaria where he died of tuberculosis on August 18, 1942.

Like Kafka and Mahler, Schulhoff was a German Jew in a Czech cultural milieu–and he took full advantage of his “outsider looking in” status to forge a compelling musical personality.  One of the earliest and most successful exponents of art music drawing on jazz, Schulhoff refracts multiple approaches of his time, from Dada to Expressionism, and from a distanced self-mockery to the stolid seriousness of Socialist Realism.