Wednesday, June 8, 2016

SPECIAL CURSIVE PREVIEW: Short-Shrifted - Happy Birthday, Erwin Schulhoff!

One of my favorite pieces to talk about when people say they've seen everything is "In Futurum", which looks like this:

I chattered about it in a Forgotten Leaves article some time ago but it deserves all the reposts it can get.  Everything here is a joke, from the tempo marking of "timely-timeless", the clashing meters and clefs, the fact that there aren't any actual notes, those dang faces...pure genius.  This is at the Dada extreme of the work of Erwin Schulhoff, one of the greatest composers to get his music banned and his person killed by a tyrannical government.  Czech by birth, Schulhoff started at the Prague conservatory under the tutelage of Dvořák when he was only 10 years old, fast becoming a rising star and studying with the likes of Debussy and Reger.  After serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first World War he moved to Germany and would move back and forth from there and Prague throughout his career, securing plenty of prestigious premieres in the '20s.  Schulhoff was an astoundingly diverse composer, his works ranging from Neoclassicism to Dadaism to Jazz-influenced works, among the first of their kind and arguably the best overall of the first half of the 20th century.  Of course, we can't have anything nice for too long, and once the '30s rolled around he found himself in the crosshairs of the Nazi party for his Jewish heritage and Communist sympathies; by 1939 already in trouble with the Czech government for his political leanings, he was forced to perform under a pseudonym when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.  He applied for citizenship in the Soviet Union but was arrested trying to leave the country and was shipped to the Wülzburg concentration camp.  He died in 1942 from tuberculosis, and his works remained suppressed in Nazi-controlled countries, only to be rediscovered in the 60's at the start of the long-term effort to resurrect the music of Jewish composers suppressed, forced into exile or murdered by the Third Reich.  Of all those reborn artists Schulhoff has had the best success among modern audiences, who have responded well to his clever, skillfully wrought and entertaining works, and multiple record labels have recorded scads of his pieces, including some Hot Music -

- a stunning Duo for Violin and Cello, one of the best works in the genre -

- and his Piano Sonata no. 3, one of my favorite sonatas of the first half of the 20th century.

All of these pieces warrant whole articles of discussion but only one Schulhoff work made its way into the inaugural concerts of my chamber group Cursive.  Judging by the piles of performances on YouTube, Schulhoff's Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1927 could be his greatest posthumous success and I can't exactly blame the public and performers for the People's Candidate.  I kind of don't want to talk about it too much because, you know, the market of our performances of the thing will weaken and all that, but there's a good chance that bits and pieces won't overwhet anybody's appetite.  There's a particularly lovely bit that's brief enough to leave the rest of the piece hanging but whetful enough to warrant special attention, the slow movement, the "Aria":

I've been meaning to do a long writeup on what's going on in the piano at the beginning, that off-centered undulation that taps into the depth of dreaming.  There's also something to be said for how the right hand slides gradually down through keys, a trick pioneered by Chopin in his E-minor Prelude and emulated enough times to fill a book.  My favorite bit, through rehearsals and the previous concert, was that moment in the left hand (thankfully repeated later) is the low C major triad followed by a D-sharp minor triad in a higher register, snuffing out profundity in order to leave us wanting more.  But the whole thing is lovely, too:

The whole sonata as well as seven other pieces, and maybe a surprise or two, are available for you to hear this Thursday night at 8:00 at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  Click here for deets and keep a little space in your day for the 122nd birthday of Czechoslovakia's favorite son, or at least my favorite son on this special day.