Saturday, April 26, 2014

Schulhoff - String Quartet No. 1

Erwin Schulhoff was a Czech composer that embraced many styles of  music in his lifetime. He was born in 1894 and as a child was encouraged by Dvořák. He began his studies at the Prague Conservatory when he was ten years old and later went on to study with Claude Debussy and Max Reger. He was a proficient pianist as well as composer.

He found inspiration in early jazz music and was part of the avant garde music scene in Europe after World War One and helped organize concerts of avant garde music. Schulhoff had this to say about revolution and music:
Absolute art is revolution, it requires additional facets for development, leads to overthrow (coups) in order to open new paths...and is the most powerful in music.... The idea of revolution in art has evolved for decades, under whatever sun the creators live, in that for them art is the commonality of man. This is particularly true in music, because this art form is the liveliest, and as a result reflects the revolution most strongly and deeply–the complete escape from imperialistic tonality and rhythm, the climb to an ecstatic change for the better.
Schulhoff was friends with the Austrian composer Alban Berg and wrote the following in a letter to him:
I am boundlessly fond of nightclub dancing, so much so that I have periods during which I spend whole nights dancing with one hostess or another...out of pure enjoyment of the rhythm and with my subconscious filled with sensual delight.... [T]hereby I acquire phenomenal inspiration for my work, as my conscious mind is incredibly earthly, even animal as it were.
Schulhoff's early compositions could be strange and quirky. For example, he wrote a Sonata For Female Voice Solo that had a soprano spend several minutes faking a notated orgasm, a piece for solo contra bassoon where the soloist is supposed to make soulful liquid bird calls. His went through stylistic changes during his career and his third major stylistic change came when he was most active as a composer,between the years 1923 and 1932. Schulhoff integrated many elements into his own style of modernist music.

His last years were dominated by the politics of social realism and Communist ideology. He was living in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis attained power in Germany and his Communist sympathies and Jewish heritage resulted in his music being banned in Germany. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia he worked as a pianist in clubs and on the radio under a false name to make a living. He applied to the Soviet Union for citizenship in 1941 and was accepted, but before he could leave he was arrested and deported to a concentration camp where he died in 1942 of tuberculosis.

His String Quartet No. 1 was composed in his third stylistic period in 1923. It is a work that lasts just a little over a quarter of an hour and reflects many of the trends of the time. It is in 4 movements:

I. Presto con fuoco -  Schulhoff celebrates his Czech heritage with a lively, almost perpetual motion folk dance. The rhythmic drive is constant and in a matter of about two minutes it ends abruptly.

II. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca - The music is as different as the title of the movement would suggest. Schulhoff utilizes pizzicato, ponticello (bowing close to the bridge which gives a glassy, ethereal quality to the tone) and sliding on the strings to add tonal color. The movement ends with pizzicato notes.

III. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca - Another odd title, this music is also like a folk dance, but Schulhoff continues to make much of the possible sonorities of the strings as the players pluck strings with enough force to slap the fingerboard. Pizzicato is also used, as well as strumming on the strings like a guitar.

IV. Andante molto sostenuto - This may well be the biggest surprise in the work as this movement brings a different atmosphere far removed from the wit and vivacity of the first three movements. The mood is somber, the pace slow. There is a feeling of mystery and other worldliness to the music as string effects add to the eeriness of the sound.  A ticking underpins the subdued music until it evaporates.

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