Schulhoff: Allegro con brio, from Symphony No. 5

Allegro con brio (Scherzo), from Symphony No. 5

Ervín Schulhoff was born June 8, 1894, in Prague, Bohemia, and died August 18, 1942, in the Wülzburg Concentration Camp, near Weissenburg, Bavaria, Germany. He composed his Symphony No. 5 from February through November 1938, in Ostrava and Brno, and completed its orchestration on May 30, 1939, in Prague. It was not premiered until March 3, 1965, when it was played by the Weimar State Orchestra, with Gerhard Pflüger conducting. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The work is dedicated to Romain Rolland. It is scored for flute and piccolo, oboe and English horn, clarinet and bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, field drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, tam-tam, and strings; this instrumentation appears in its entirety in the third movement, which is performed here. Performance time: about eight minutes.

“He who creates needs not worry about the time in which he lives,” declared Ervín Schulhoff in 1927. “He needs only go his own way. Not only during his life, but also afterwards, as he who creates at least creates his own time.” One derives some consolation from knowing that Schulhoff had adopted such a metaphysical point of view. If he had focused only on his years on earth, rather than on the possible immortality of his work, he could not have been as sanguine, since he died at age forty-eight in a Nazi concentration camp.

Schulhoff was born into a comfortably middle-class Czech-German-Jewish family that had music in its ancestry. His great uncle Julius Schulhoff was an acclaimed pianist, composer, and teacher who had been personally encouraged in his musical aspirations by no less a figure than Frédéric Chopin. In 1901, six-year-old Ervín was introduced to Antonín Dvořák, and the grand old man of Czech music spotted enough talent to recommend that the youngster prepare for a musical career. Schulhoff would do that, studying at conservatories in Prague and Vienna; then in Leipzig, where one of his teachers was Max Reger and where he graduated with several prizes for piano and composition; then in Cologne, where he racked up further academic prizes and launched a career as a concert pianist.

The Austrian Army called him up to fight in World War I and he spent four terrifying years at the Russian and Italian fronts, an experience that forcefully informed his later political stances. Following the war, he settled in Dresden and founded a concert series that was particularly friendly toward the composers of the Second Viennese School—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. For a while, Schulhoff’s own compositions echoed the concerns of those figures. He fell in with a social circle that was richly populated by forward-looking literary types and visual artists, the latter including Otto Dix and Otto Griebel. Through the painter and Dada aesthete George Grosz, an ardent record collector, Schulhoff became enamored of American jazz. For a while he led a dual existence as a composer, simultaneously writing works in the styles of the atonal Expressionists of Vienna and the eclectic Dadaists of Berlin. At his most extreme, he dabbled with musical absurdism.

By the end of 1923, his music began to achieve a synthesis of these opposing trends of Dadaism and Expressionism. He moved back to Prague and started paying attention to the music of his homeland, especially to the scores of Janáček, and his compositions began to reflect some folk influence. This did not lessen his devotion to the avant-garde, and during the same period he began to champion the quarter-tone piano compositions of his compatriot Alois Hába. For a while, his success seemed assured. In 1924, the prestigious publisher Universal Edition brought him into its stable, and during the ensuing five years the company issued more new works by Schulhoff than by any other composer. They ended up finding him difficult to deal with, and in 1931 they ended the relationship. In the same year, Schulhoff confirmed his commitment to Communist ideals, joining the Left Front (an organization of red-inclined Czech intellectuals) and getting involved with a workers’ theater group. In 1932 he wrote a cantata, Das Manifest, which set the original German text of The Communist Manifesto (the librettists, of course, being the long-departed Marx and Engels). The following year he served as a Czech delegate to the International Congress of Revolutionary Musicians in Moscow and soon thereafter joined the Communist Party and began creating a series of works on propagandistic Marxist topics. In 1935, Schulhoff’s name figured on a blacklist of composers deemed unacceptable to the Third Reich. His response was eminently practical: he continued to compose and perform, but he adopted a variety of pseudonyms: Joe Füller, Hanus Petr, Eman Balzar, George Hanell, Jirí Hanell, Lu Gaspar, Franta Michálek, and John Longfield were all none other than Ervín Schulhoff.

When the Nazis appropriated Czechoslovakia, in 1939, Schulhoff knew he had to get out. He tried without success to flee to the West—to Britain, France, or the United States—and then turned his sights east toward the Soviet Union. While wading through the bureaucracy of arranging emigration to Russia, he was granted Soviet citizenship in April 1941 and finally received his emigration documents two months later, on June 13. He had not yet left when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. He was arrested in Prague the very next day, not for being a Jewish avant-gardist, but rather on the grounds of being a Soviet citizen and therefore an enemy of the state. His particular train stopped at the Wülzburg Concentration Camp in Bavaria, and that’s where Schulhoff died the following summer, exhausted by laryngeal and pulmonary tuberculosis. For half a century it seemed as if the Nazis had silenced Schulhoff for good. Only in the past two decades has his music begun to be revived, along with that of other composers who perished in the Nazi camps.

Schulhoff completed six numbered symphonies, finished a seventh (titled Eroica) in piano score, and left an eighth largely sketched when he was arrested. All but his First date from his Communist decade, and from his Third on they consist of large-scale programmatic symphonies that deal with social and political concerns: the Third (1935) related to hunger riots in Czechoslovakia, the Fourth (1936-37) to the Spanish Civil War, the Sixth (1940-41) to what he considered the essentially laudable Soviet Army.

He composed his Fifth Symphony in 1938, and it, too, reflects the politics of its moment. Schulhoff had scarcely begun sketching the piece when, on March 12, 1938, Austria was annexed into the Third Reich (the “Anschluss”). That spring, Konrad Henlein, who headed the pro-Nazi political party in Czechoslovakia, delivered to Czech president Edvard Beneš a series of politically impossible demands on behalf of the nation’s German-speaking citizens. Nazi forces soon began gathering on the Czech borders—750,000 German troops by August—and on September 30, Adolf Hitler of Germany, Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Édouard Daladier of France—but no representative from Czechoslovakia—signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed Hitler’s forces to annex portions of Czechoslovakia that were largely populated by German speakers (the areas designated as “Sudetenland”). Schulhoff worked on his symphony while this was going on, earning his living by playing the piano (under one of his assumed names) in radio orchestras in Ostrava and then Brno. He completed the work in piano score just after the Nazis unleashed the violent pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Germany seized the rest of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, and a few days later Jews and Communists were fired from their jobs. Thus “at liberty,” Schulhoff left Brno for Prague, where he completed orchestrating his symphony.

The Fifth Symphony is a full-scale work, its four movements running nearly forty minutes, and it bears the dedication “À Romain Rolland.” Rolland (1866-1944) was a French author and cultural historian whose notable achievements included his ten-novel cycle Jean-Christoph and influential biographies of Beethoven and Gandhi. He was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in Literature not for a specific work, but rather (as the Nobel panel put it) “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.” He was an unswerving pacifist, and it is doubtless that aspect of his character that specifically earned him the dedication of this work.

Schulhoff’s Fifth is an intense work overall, practically unremitting in its climate of menace and violence. Its flavor prefigures the sense of political terror transformed into personal panic that would later take shape in some works by Shostakovich, such as his Symphony No. 10 of 1953 (which the SFS will play in June). In this concert we hear only the third movement, Allegro con brio, which in the scheme of Schulhoff’s symphony serves the function of a scherzo (although that term, meaning “joke,” seems very far off target to describe this piece). Like the rest of the symphony, it is notable for its volume. Although Schulhoff calls for an orchestra that is actually on the modest side (improbably light in the woodwind sections), the instruments play forcefully for much of this movement, reaching the marking of fff at several places; and the active percussion section—especially the timpani—adds greatly to the sense of alarm. The movement unrolls quite as we expect of a symphony scherzo. An “A section” in rapidly hammered-out triple time is spelled out at the beginning and returning at the end. Its two appearances are separated by a trio section—listen for the timpani’s military tattoo—which in this case is somewhat quieter and marked by a good deal of metric alteration that suggests a duple meter. The whole is capped off by a coda of immense forcefulness.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings:  James Conlon conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Capriccio)  |  Vladimir Válek conducting the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (Supraphon)

Reading:  No monograph on Schulhoff currently exists in English.

Online:  James Conlon’s OREL Foundation website ( is a rich resource for information on Schulhoff and other composers suppressed during the Nazi era.

(April 2014)