Erwin Schulhoff (Czech: Ervín Šulhov; 8 June 1894 – 18 August 1942) was a Czech composer and pianist. He was one of the figures in the generation of European musicians whose successful careers were prematurely terminated by the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and whose works have been rarely noted or performed.
Schulhoff went through a number of distinct stylistic periods, ranging, in Anne Midgette's words, "from the endearing self-consciousness of talented youth in the Suite for Chamber Orchestra to the fierce somber aggression of the Fifth Symphony." She found that even as his style changed there was a certain commonality, so that even the "angular, forceful, even raw style" of the late Fifth Symphony reflected "the late Romantic tradition of orchestral color".
His early works exhibit the influence of composers from the preceding generation, including Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss. Later, during his Dadaist phase, Schulhoff composed a number of pieces with absurdist elements. In futurum, part of his Fünf Pittoresken for piano, is a silent piece composed entirely of rests that anticipates John Cage's 4′33″ by over thirty years. Schulhoff's composition is notated in great rhythmic detail, employing bizarre time signatures and intricate rhythmic patterns. A 1923 report of a Bochum performance puts Schulhoff in the context of his contemporaries:
The patience of the town of Bochum was sorely tried by four composers of the most modern tendency in one concert. Six Orchestral Pieces by A. von Webern...were received with strong distrust; the warmer blooded Bela Bartok could not restore confidence with his orchestral pieces. But when the most extreme modern Erwin Schulhoff presented his "thirty-two absurd variations upon a no less eccentric theme," opposition began to make itself felt and heard. The theme, according to the program, was played twice, and the weather began to look threatening. At the end of the helpless variations strong men who were provided with instruments for the purpose made a noise described in German as "höllenlärm", which was answered by equally noisy applause. The composer made a speedy escape.
Schulhoff's third period dates from approximately 1923 to 1932. The pieces composed during these years, his most prolific years as a composer, are the most frequently performed of his works, including the String Quartet No. 1 and Five Pieces for String Quartet, which integrate modernist vocabulary, neoclassical elements, jazz, and dance rhythms from a variety of sources and cultures. He thought of jazz as a dance idiom and in a 1924 essay expressed the view that no one, including Stravinsky and Auric, had yet successfully blended jazz and art music. Performers of his Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 (1927) have described how it "draws liberally on the composers interests and abilities as a bona fide jazzman, acerbic wit and dance aficionado" and said its andante has "the kind of expressivity you find in the music of Berg". One critic has written that "Schulhoff's notion of what constitutes jazz are as surreal as some of the Dadaist texts he set...; some of the music is rather more indebted to de Falla and Russian Orientalism than ragtime or anything trans-Atlantic." He thought that innovations like an entire movement of the Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921) for percussion alone and the use of the siren in another "would have seemed outlandish enough in 1921, even if it all sounds a bit tame now ." A New York Times critic in 1932 called the Duo for violin and cello (1925) "long-winded and even insincere", while a performance in 2012 noted it was dedicated to Janáček, evokes Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello and "blends folk and contemporary elements" while employing "a range of sonorities and effects like dramatic pizzicatos" while "vivacious Hungarian fiddle playing enlivens the Zingaresca movement".
His jazz oratorio H.M.S. Royal Oak tells the story of a naval mutiny against a superior who prohibits jazz on board ship.
The final period of his career was dedicated to socialist realism, with Communist ideology frequently in the foreground.
In general, Schulhoff's music remains connected to Western tonality, though—like Prokofiev, among others—the fundamentally triadic conception of his music is often embellished by passages of intense dissonance. Other features characteristic of Schulhoff's compositional style are use of modal and quartal harmonies, dance rhythms, and a comparatively free approach to form. Also important to Schulhoff was the work of the Second Viennese School, though Schulhoff never adopted serialism as a compositional tool.
The papers of conferences in Cologne (1992) and in Düsseldorf (1994) focused on Schulhoff's work have been published.
- 5 Etudes de jazz for piano (c.1910-1920)
- Violin Sonata No. 1, Op.7 (1913)
- Piano Concerto No. 1, Op.11 (1913)
- Divertimento for String Quartet (1914)
- Cello Sonata (1914)
- String Quartet No. 0, Op.25 (1918)
- Sonata Erotica for female voice solo (1919), "in which a soprano spends several minutes faking a carefully notated orgasm"
- Fünf Pittoresken for piano (1919)
- Symphonia Germanica (1919), a satire against German militarism
- Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921), originally called In the New Style, six dances, "this bouncy, even silly work features instruments never used in the classical repertoire before, like slide whistles and car horns"
- Ogelala, ballet (fr) (1922)
- Cloud-Pump (Die Wolkenpumpe) (1922), songs for baritone, four winds and percussion, to texts by "the holy ghost Hans Arp"
- Bassnachtigall for contrabassoon (1922), "in which a solo contrabassoon does its best to make soulful liquid birdcalls"
- Piano Concerto "alla Jazz" (1923)
- Five Pieces for String Quartet (Fünf Stücke für Streichquartett) (1923)
- String Sextet (1920–24)
- String Quartet No. 1 (1924)
- Piano Sonata No. 1 (1924)
- String Quartet No. 2 (1925)
- Concertino for flute, viola and double bass (1925)
- Symphony No. 1 (1925)
- Piano Sonata No. 2 (1926)
- Piano Sonata No. 3 (1927)
- Violin Sonata No. 2 (1927)
- Sonata for Flute and Piano (1927)
- Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and Orchestra (1927), neo-classical in flavor
- 6 Esquisses de jazz for piano (1927)
- Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Orchestra (1930)
- Flammen, opera (1927–29)
- Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and piano (1930)
- Suite dansante en jazz for piano (1931), in six dance movements: "a short fast Stomp, a languorous Strait, a parodistic Waltz, a sensuous Tango, a languid Slow, and...a fast and lascivious Fox Trot"
- Symphony No. 2 (1932), "a mondane [sic] and brilliant work with a jazz scherzo, highly typical of the composer"
- Das kommunistische Manifest, oratorio (1932)
- Orinoco (1934), a fox trot
- Symphony No. 3 (1935)
- HMS Royal Oak (1935), jazz oratorio for narrator, soprano, tenor, mixed choir and symphonic jazz orchestra, based on text by Otto Rombach
- Symphony No. 4 (1937)
- Symphony No. 5 (1938–39)
- Symphony No. 6 "Svobody" for chorus and orchestra (1940)
- Symphony No. 7, in piano score only (1941–42)
- Symphony No. 8, incomplete, in piano score only (1941–42)
- Divertimento for oboe, clarinet and bassoon
- Suite for Violin and Piano
- Variations on an original Dorian theme and Fugato, op. 10, theme, 15 variations, and fugue (date?)