Erwin Schulhoff

08/06/1894 Prague, 18/08/1942 Wülzburg  

"– I have abandoned all poses, you can tear me to bits. I’m a passionate cyclist, I’m interested in beautiful women, I like observing animals. I am not irritable, and I can see through people immediately, that is why I am not overly popular, especially in ‘society’, where they would like to invite me as an accessory, should they pluck up the courage and know not that I would most likely turn down such an invitation. [...] In Prague and in my native land, which I love above all, I am the most hated person, and that has so far been so everywhere I have been – because I knew more than anyone else and because, as a pianist, I have been able to help others by championing some composers. As a decent pianist, I am detested by my fellow pianists, and as a good composer, I am detested by my fellow composers! I am most definitely a brilliant figure!” (Erwin Schulhoff, diary entry, 6 June 1927)


Blending a plethora of styles is how we could characterise the music of Erwin Schulhoff, a versatile artist who in his extensive oeuvre mapped the cultural milieu in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire and reflected the post-World War I artistic trends in Europe. Echoes of Late Romanticism, an affection for Impressionism, embracing of Expressionism, phantasmagoric creations in the Dada style, intoxication by jazz, folk inspirations, as well as the deadly serious Socialist Realism, are all present in Schulhoff’s work. 

Awakening from a dream
Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague on 8 June 1894. His father Gustav was a wool and cotton merchant, who grew rich during World War I, yet lost his fortune in consequence of the hyperinflation crisis in Germany in the 1920s. Several members of his family were excellent musicians: Erwin’s great-uncle was a noted pianist and composer, while the father of Erwin’s mother, Heinrich Wolff, held the post of concertmaster of the Frankfurter Stadttheater orchestra. Erwin began playing the piano at the tender age of three. When he was seven, his mother took him to Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904), who checked the boy’s  hearing, encouraged him to study music and allegedly rewarded him with two pieces of chocolate. The maestro recommended Erwin to Jindřich Kàan (1852–1926), who would give him private lessons and later on, from 1904 to 1906, teach him at the Prague Conservatory. He went on to hone his skills in Vienna and then Leipzig, where his teacher was the reputed pianist and music educator Robert Teichmüller (1863–1939). He also studied composition with Stephan Krehl (1864–1924) and Max Reger (1873–1916), with the latter’s influence being palpable in Schulhoff’s early works. Between 1911 and 1914, he studied composition, conducting and piano in Cologne under the tutelage of Carl Friedberg (1872–1955). In 1913, he was awarded the prestigious Wüllner Prize for excellent results. He also received two Felix Mendelsohn Prizes (in 1913 in the piano category and in 1918 in the composition category for his piano sonata).

The surviving entries in Schulhoff’s diaries, the bulk of which he destroyed towards the end of his life in fear of Nazi persecution, reveal that he was a very open-minded, outspoken and impulsive person, sensitively reacting to and reflecting upon outward impulses, which is also attested to by his work. A case in point in this respect is his having been Richard Strauss (1864–1949) – when, in 1906, he attended the Prague premiere of the opera Salome, Schulhoff was so fascinated that it would take him five years to cease writing music based on his model. He was similarly enthralled by his encounter in 1912 with the music of Claude Debussy (1862–1918), whom he even asked to give him private composition lessons. Their collaboration, however, did not last long – Debussy insisted that Schulhoff comply with the rules he himself breached so inventively. Yet Schulhoff’s artistic rebirth was ultimately affected by a political event: World War I. As an Austrian soldier, he served in Hungary, Russia and on other fronts. In 1916, he was wounded and suffered a nervous breakdown. Schullhoff’s experiences during the war resulted in radicalisation of his political opinions, greater attention paid to social matters and, most significantly, a change in his approach to art. On 8 January 1916, he wrote in his diary: “Shouting ‘Protect your culture!’, while people are being  murdered, is embarrassingly disgusting … Between 1914 and 1916, humans sank to the lowest level, and these years are a disgrace to the 20th century. I say this even though I am a soldier.” A prime example bearing witness to Schulhoff’s changed worldview after 1918 is his founding in 1919 in Dresden the concert series Werkstatt der Zeit (Contemporary Workshop), inspired by Arnold Schönberg’s Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. Just like Schönberg, he strove to present works by progressive composers, yet, unlike the Viennese organisation, his concerts aimed to attain that art contributed to transformation of the world, highlighting the necessity of asserting revolutionary ideas. And unlike Schönberg, Schulhoff was not sceptical vis-à-vis audiences, whom he viewed as active participants, thus clearly rejecting Schönberg’s apolitical attitude, as well as opposing the mainly generation-older avant-garde musicians. The war turned him into a politically engaged socialist and also impelled him to deliberate as to which new direction music should take.

In 1913, Erwin Schulhoff completed his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 11. World War I would change his view of the world and art alike.

Expressionism and Dadaism
After returning from the Italian front, in January 1919 Schulhoff moved to Dresden to live with his sister Viola, who studied there at the academy of crafts. The siblings mingled with the local unconventional artists, including the Kapellmeister of the Semperoper Hermann Kutzschbach (1875–1938), the painters  Otto Dix (1891–1966), Otto Griebel (1895–1972), Alexander Neroslow (1891–1971) and Lasar Segall (1891–1957), the music critic and historian Willi Grohman (1887–1968), the poet Theodor Däubler (1876–1934) and the musicologist and later director of Vienna’s Universal Edition Alfred Schlee (1901–1999). Erwin Schulhoff developed a penchant for the free atonality of the Second Viennese School, while also taking a vivid interest in the activities pursued by the Berlin-based Dadaists. Otto Dix introduced him to one of their major representatives, the painter and caricaturist George Grosz (1893–1959), following which Schulhoff took an active part in Dada projects in Dresden. After marrying Alice Libochowitz in August 1921, at the beginning of 1922 he moved to Berlin, where he attempted to organise music parties in the fashion of the scandalous provocative events held by George Grosz and other Berlin Dadaists. Schulhoff went on to incorporate Dada elements in his music, first in 1919 in the Fünf Pittoresken, Op. 31, for piano, then, to the full, in 1921 in Die Wolkenpumpe (The Cloud Pump) for baritone, four winds and percussion, a setting of the Dada poems by Hans Arp (1886–1966), and the Bassnachtigall (Bass Nightingale) for contrabassoon, also dating from 1921, accompanied by Schulhoff’s gracious, slightly provocative text:

A divine sparkle may just as well be present in liverwurst as in contrabassoon.
Therefore, dedicated to lyrical friends and aesthetes – in short, to all the tenderly strung - as an “EXPERIENCE”. 
When everyone else sighs upon hearing the sweet violin tones, I – as can probably be noticed – always do the very opposite,
so as to provoke you, you little puppets, mental fobs, salon intellectuals wearing horn-rimmed glasses, 
you, pathological tea plants and rotting expressionists.
I openly confess that I am made of filth and that I love filth!
Yet you were born with immaculate folds and a tip-top tailcoat – Your Existences! 
If I want to maintain distance between us,
I will firmly put on my monocle, and you will respect me!!!

Bassnachtigall (Bass Nightingale) is one of Schulhoff’s best-known Dada compositions. Can a divine sparkle be present in liverwurst as well as in contrabassoon?

Return to Prague and jazz intoxication 
Schulhoff was acquainted with the world of ragtime, dance rhythm and jazz by George Grosz, who collected phonograph records of American music. The very first traces of his enthralment are palpable in some of his Dada pieces, while in the early 1920s jazz became for him an entirely independent inspiration. The most noteworthy of his jazz-tinged works include Cinq études de jazz (1926), the piano cycle Esquisses de jazz (1927), Hot-Music (1928), the opera Flammen (Flames, 1929), Hot-Sonate (1930) and the 15-part oratorio H.M.S. Royal Oaks (1930). Captivated by jazz, Schulhoff abandoned Schönbergian Expressionism to embrace Neo-Classicism, as well as Slavic folk music, which related to his return to Prague in 1923. At the time, he commenced a relatively successful phase of his career as an artist. Schulhoff signed a contract with Universal Edition, and his calendar filled with concert engagements. Nonetheless, he did not gain financial security, failing to find a solid position in academia. In 1923, he applied in vain for the post of teacher at the Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst, the equivalent of the Prague Conservatory. In this matter, he was supported neither by German politicians nor influential Jewish officials. Yet, owing to the music historian and critic Erich Steinhard, he established contact with Max Brod, which would prove to be of great significance. Upon recommendations from Otakar Nebuška and Vlastimil Tusar (Ambassador of the Czechoslovak Republic to Germany from 1920 to 1924), in 1924 he succeeded Brod as a music writer at the government paper Prager Presse. His standing in Prague in the 1920s is aptly summed up in his dairy entry, dated 6 June 1927: “In Prague and in my native land, which I love above all, I am the most hated person, and that has so far been so everywhere I have been – because I knew more than anyone else and because, as a pianist, I have been able to help others by championing some composers. As a decent pianist, I am detested by my fellow pianists, and as a good composer, I am detested by my fellow composers! I am most definitely a brilliant figure!” Schulhoff also contributed to the magazines Der Auftakt, Musikblätter des Anbruch and Pult und Taktstock. Besides being active in the German-speaking milieu, he closely collaborated with Czech artists, among them the conductor Václav Talich, the Zika Quartet, the novelist and screenwriter Karel Josef Beneš (1896–1969), the poet Óndra Łysohorský (1905–1989), and the poet and author Vítězslav Nezval (1900–1958).

All the difficulties with finding permanent employment notwithstanding, in the 1920s Schulhoff enjoyed international renown as a concert pianist and composer. In 1927 he performed in Paris and London, in 1930 he toured Germany and the Netherlands, where he appeared next to the famous Concertgebouw Orchestra as one of the soloists playing his Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and Orchestra. In 1924 the Zika Quartet premiered his Fünf Stücke für Streichquartett  (Five Pieces for String Quartet) at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in Salzburg, and a year later, the ensemble gave the first performance of his String Quartet No. 1 in Venice. Schulhoff’s works would be regularly included in the programmes of contemporary music festivals over the next few years too. His String Sextet, performed by the Zika Quartet along with Paul and Rudolf Hindemith, met with great acclaim at the 1924 Donaueschingen Festival for new music. What is more, Erwin Schulhoff was among the first to present abroad compositions for quarter-tone piano by the Czech composer Alois Hába (1893–1973).

Just like many of his contemporaries, Schulhoff was keenly interested in the development of the media. In 1928, he recorded his jazz-inspired works for Polydor Records. He regularly collaborated with Czechoslovak Radio, especially between 1930 and 1935, during which time he and the pianist Oldřich Letfus presented semi-improvised programmes focused on pop and jazz music. In 1930, Schulhoff conceived his Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Instruments.

One of Schulhoff’s most distinctive jazz-inspired pieces is the 1930 oratorio H. M. S. Royal Oak for narrator, jazz singer (tenor), mixed choir and symphony jazz orchestra.

Socialist Realism
The 1930s marked a new phase within Schulhoff’s oeuvre, as indicated by the following diary entry, dated 10 March 1941: “In 1931, my third creative period began, and I believe it may be the most mature. […] I feel unbridled energy, which grows all the more when facing obstacles in my path, yet I overcome them easily. I have perceived the world without as a theatre play, whereas the world I harbour within is full of light, with only its form changing. I am absolutely stable regarding this transformation, and will remain so. The proof is my work and the path I have firmly pursued since 1931. I know this path is correct. […] Today I no longer write notes as I used to previously, no ‘contemporary music’, no observing of international patterns, no formalistic games or trifling with sound. My music is not dreamy, it contains no decadent lyricisms and hysterical outbursts. It has become tough, relentless and uncompromising! At the moment, it stands between two antagonistic worlds, one of them yet to mature, the other entirely outmoded. The unripe world can only absorb my music once it has reached the stage of its youth and will be able to rejuvenate the outmoded world. Getting there may take some time, yet there is no doubt that such rejuvenation will be attained.” How did Schulhoff become a radical leftist? We know that he turned into a staunch socialist after WWI. During his time in Dresden, he personally witnessed the life in post-war, inflation-stricken Germany, with the November Revolution resulting in the replacement of the constitutional monarchy with the democratic Weimar Republic. He saw the nationalists’ cruel suppression of the German left. A significant role in his embracing the Marxist doctrine was also played by regular meetings in 1927 at Villa Tereza in Prague, at the time housing the Soviet embassy in Czechoslovakia, where he had the opportunity to meet numerous prominent political and cultural figures, and make friends with several influential persons, who would later on support him. One of the most indicative artistic accomplishments during this period in this respect is his 1932 setting of The Communist Manifesto. From 1931, Schulhoff closely co-operated with left-leaning artists, owing to which he visited Moscow as a delegate of the first International Congress of Revolutionary Musicians in 1933. After returning to Prague, he definitively endorsed the Soviet doctrine and Socialist Realism. 

Schulhoff believed that socialism and communism, leaning on the Soviet Union, was the antidote to the Nazism that threatened Europe in the 1930s. He confirmed his political orientation in 1932 by the setting of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet The Communist Manifesto

Although having identified his political conviction, the final decade of Schulhoff’s life was afflicted by professional difficulties and loss of his personal happiness. In 1931, despite being a highly sought-after composer, Universal Edition repudiated the contract with him. Schulhoff was compelled to find new sources of income: he arranged and wrote under pseudonyms dance music, worked for the radio and, from 1933 to 1935, he also made money as a member of Prague’s Liberated Theatre orchestra. In 1935, he moved to Ostrava to work at the radio as a pianist, mainly playing light entertainment music, since due to the Nazi ban on Jewish artists he could no longer perform in Germany, and was rarely afforded the opportunity to give concerts in Czechoslovakia. While in Ostrava, in 1936 Schulhoff created the cycle Folk Dances and Songs from the Těšín Region, still bearing his name; from 1939 on, in consequence of the measures taken against Jewish artists, he only could publish his works anonymously or under pseudonyms. The quality of a number of Schulhoff’s pieces dating from that period was affected by his having to modify them so that his musical hallmark could not be recognised. In the wake of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Ostrava Radio orchestra, Schulhoff included, relocated to Brno. As he had expected given the tumultuous political development, Schulhoff was soon sacked and, in the wake of the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, returned to Prague. A diary entry dated 10 March 1941 reads as follows: “Since 18 March 1939 I have again lived as a ‘free artist’, and as such I have again been able to focus on my own work, which makes me happy, all the difficulties of the times notwithstanding!” 

Communist or Jew?
As a communist of Jewish descent, Schulhoff was imperilled twice over. He attempted to flee to the West, yet failed. Hence, following the Nazi invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, the only solution appeared to be emigration to the Soviet Union. Schulhoff applied for Soviet citizenship for himself, his wife and son back in 1939, before Word War II broke out. Being the holder of the passport of another country would also have practical advantages in the Protectorate – he would be shielded against the Nazi authorities, as well as exempt from the race laws. Yet Schulhoff and his family were only granted Soviet citizenship on 26 April 1941, by which time it was clear that emigration was the only option. On 6 May of that year, he filed a petition asking for permission to leave the Protectorate, and on 13 June he collected visas at the Soviet consulate. But it was too little, too late – the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 thwarted all his plans and hopes of escape. The very next day, Schulhoff was arrested as a national of a hostile power and deported to the Wülzburg prison camp in Bavaria, where in August 1942 he died of tuberculosis. 

Schulhoff’s music reflects multiple influences and styles, ranging from Late Romanticism (Max Reger and Richard Strauss), through Igor Stravinsky’s Neo-Classicism, Arnold Schönberg’s Expressionism to Claude Debussy’s Impressionism. Moreover, it reveals great inspiration by Czech composers, particularly Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák and Vítězslav Novák. Schulhoff, a brilliant improviser, also loved jazz, and was mesmerised by Dadaism and Surrealism. From the early 1930s, when he was increasingly attracted to left-wing ideology, he composed in the style of Socialist Realism, replacing irony and poignancy with an almost classicist earnestness. Yet perhaps the most intriguing is his music drawing from folklore, by which he embraced the Slavic cultural milieu. Schulhoff’s oeuvre is extensive indeed, including also as it does a number of curiosities, such as the Sonata Erotica (1919), the dance-pantomime Die Mondsüchtige (Moonstruck) to Vítězslav Nezval’s text, the Hot-Sonate for alto saxophone and piano, as well as the aforementioned oratorio The Communist Manifesto. Yet that which all his works, primarily those written after World War I, have in common is that they pertains to the events of the world around him. Another quintessential trait of Schulhoff’s music is that it always centres on the listener.  

One of the most fascinating chapters of Schulhoff’s oeuvre is pieces inspired by folk music, by which he embraced his Slavic background. String Quartet No. 1, third movement: Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca.

Personal data

Louise Schulhoff, rozená Wolff (1861–1938)
Gustav Schulhoff (narozen 23. 9. 1860, úmrtí 1942, Treblinka)
Viola Günther, rozená Schulhoff (narozena 11. 3. 1896, úmrtí 1941, Ghetto Łódź/Litzmannstadt)
Heinz Schulhoff (narozen 1901?, úmrtí ?)

Profese / činnosti

pianist, composer, reviewer, improvisator

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