Meet Mr Schulhoff


Musicians, video, and presentations inform the audience about composer Ervín Schulhoff in this program by the Prague Philharmonia-PKF.

American Jazz, Czech Heart: Prague Philharmonia´s second performance in its ‘Beauty of Today’ series introduces a neglected, talented musician and composer, Ervín Schulhoff (1894-1942).

The experimental space NoD above the legendary Roxy Club supports the alternative art scene, but on Dec 8 it welcomed different kinds of artists.

They were the music director/director of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre Jiří Nekvasil; the Prague Philharmonia-PKF string quartet; and PKF dramaturgist/musicologist Hana Dohnálková.

The music in “A Jazz Pianist with a Pinch of Czech/Slavic Folklore” was provided by pianists Martin Fila and Jana Jechová, and alto saxophonist Eliška Holečková.

Getting Dvořák’s OK
Jiří Nekvasil and Hana Dohnálková discussed Ervín´s music, approaches, influences, and life: Prague-born Ervín Schulhoff, of Jewish German origin, at age 7 is brought by his parents to Antonín Dvořák. The maestro was known not to be very friendly to this kind of approval. But he tries him out, admits his talent, and gives him a piece of chocolate. And here starts Ervín´s career.

His ambitious mother signs him up for private lessons with the famous conservatory director. At 10, he enters the Conservatory, studying with the composer/virtuoso Mr Jiránek. Later he continues studies in Leipzig, Cologne, and Vienna.



Jazz Blows In with the War
Ervín enters the forces in WW1 and is injured. After the war he lives on playing the piano. He comes to Dresden where he meets dada artists like Georg Grosz and others. In 1919 he listens to American jazz recordings. From that moment it resonates in his music.

Schulhoff’s jazz feelings are greatly reflected in three pieces from Five Picturesques (1919) performed at tonight’s concert. For the second composition, the discomfort shows on the audience’s faces: The pianist somehow cannot start. He only plays something above the piano keyboard, seems like he rehearses the touch of the keys, or stretches his arms. All of a sudden he stands up and bows. The audience chuckles with surprise.

After the explanation by the director, including a video screen shot of the score, they understand that John Cage was not the first one who created the “mute piano” with Imaginary Landscape, in 1939. (And are those history’s first “smileys” at the end?)


The amusing score from Schulhoff’s ‘Five Picturesques’ (1919), pre-dating some of John Cage’s ideas.

‘Black Friday’ Brings Folk Music Back Home
But after the stock market crash, the energy also crashes. Martinů moves towards folklore, but Schulhoff is ahead of him. Tonight’s audience flows with the live performance of the String Quartet (1924) – the light, tender, and delicate melody later turns into a joyful and dynamic link with Slavic reflections that could be heard in compositions by Bartók or Janáček. Ervín Schulhoff never loses his devotion to jazz, however; he performs with Jaroslav Ježek´s jazz orchestra for many years.

Schulhoff wrote only one opera, Flames, staged in Brno with the sets by gifted light-kinetic artist, painter, sculptor, and architect Zdeněk Pešánek.

A Soviet ‘Defector’

Getting to Know Ervín Schulhoff Unfortunately, the two monographs about him are in German and English, and tonight’s program was presented only in Czech. A recollection of him is recorded in Jiří Nekvasil’s centenary film, My Teeth are Chattering to the Rhythm of the Shimmy, (1997); an excerpt was screened for the audience.

Before the Nazis swallow up Europe, Schulhoff turns to the communist movement. To save his and his son´s life he even signs up for Soviet citizenship, and composes only symphonies. The last one is unfinished, but the preserved march shows Schulhoff´s enthusiasm and faith in victory.

Ironically, Schulhoff dies in his son’s arms in a German concentration camp for Soviet war captives.

For the finale the hosts choose a cheerful Hot Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano that injects the audience with a jolly jazzy feeling, easily leading them back to the NoD’s bar.

The next evening in the PKF’s ‘Czech 20th Century’ series at the Roxy’s NoD is on Jan 19, 2016 when the chamber soloists will introduce “The Talented Brother of Acting Legend Hugo Haas,” composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944).

– Hana Blažková, Opus Osm writer

Photo Credits: Top, and score: Hana Blažková; middle, Wikipedia

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