BWW Review: ERWIN SCHULHOFF RETROSPECTIVE Swings at Center for Jewish History
Recently honored as a Lower East Side Community Hero, pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe walked onstage on the evening of May 25th 2016 at the Center for Jewish History in NYC. She is the founder and artistic director of Downtown Chamber Players and the recipient of the 2015 Clara Lemlich Award. And she did not speak a word. Her fingers recited history in Tango, Charleston, Waltz, Foxtrot, Blues, Maxixe.
In the 1920s, when Erwin Schulhoff composed jazz, he was the ardently Enlightened Jewish composer and pianist from Prague, the former student of Claude Debussy and Max Reger who could be found out late on the streets of Europe indulging in the latest popular dance music from America. He frequented the most cultured social circles and hottest nightclubs of interwar Europe, from Vienna to Berlin, Paris to Moscow, experimenting uninhibited with nascent avant-garde and Dadaist movements.
From the age of ten, Antonín Dvorák recognized his rare talents as a performer, and in the radically inventive compositions that he crafted throughout his life he exhibits a special, intuitive ear for the artist. Schulhoff is the sound of the enduring European intellectual meeting the unshackled American improviser.
His interplays of harmony and dissonance introduce his listeners to a purely sensual place, where revolution is art and freedom is the performance of creation, spontaneously rising and falling in step with the mood of the immediate.
He composed for the contemporary, and his intercultural fusions embody that common struggle among every generation to renew time, to refresh history and find life, beauty and truth in the present. The artist is uniquely prepared for such a task, the one who surfaces most powerfully in times of struggle.
Stern-Wolfe interpreted his music masterfully, and with an honest understanding of the historic moment in which it was written. Schulhoff is a composer for composers, like a musician's musician, whose works continue to represent the feeling of the times and the places in which they were created. Beyond history, and even art, there is the sound of the way people lived, thought, and expressed that is only known to music.
Interwar Europe was one of the most unfathomably tempestuous times in history, where new paradigms swept through like lightning and thunder, and where people embraced the storms of unknown technologies and unfamiliar cultures with desperate abandon. The artist had an intensely rich palette, and the people starved for liberated cultural action.
Schulhoff was one of many Europeans who were then remaking a world-on-edge, torn at the seams of tradition by world war, and revealing the fleshy underbelly of materialism through capitalist globalization. To the composer, it was all a minor progression in the key of cultural shellshock. At least it could be made danceable.
And then there was Bass Nightingale (1927), his contrabassoon solo, introduced by the distinguished music writer and colorful NYU lecturer, Dr. Michael Beckerman as a composition that could have only resulted from a late night bet among intellectuals competing to create the strangest work.
The piece is a dizzying Escher-like kaleidoscope into a leaky dungeon, the slowed pitch of a sonic boom, an infinitely illusive staircase of scales. The smiling Thomas Sefcovic sauntered across the stage like the last of his endangered species, a real-life contrabassoon soloist, playing out the piece with a jazz-inspired improvisation.
The Downtown Chamber Players showed proud gusto with String Quartet No. 1 (1924), where Marshall Coid and Bradley Bosenbeck bowed with all of the impressive strength of the revolutionary artistry that inspired Schulhoff. Veronica Salas (viola) and Mary Wooten (cello) dreamed a Roaring rhythm section musing on an era when Europe first heard that scintillating chorus of musical passion that we now know as jazz.
With jazz, the modern composer had a popular music that was, in many ways, rivaling the sophistication of classical theory. Schulhoff was one of the leaders of a renaissance in classical composition not seen since Béla Bartók had led the way to comparative musicology with his integration of folk music.
Of course, in America there was Gershwin, who wrote Rhapsody in Blue (1924) the same year that Schulhoff wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 for Thomas Mann, the German antiwar novelist. Performed elegantly by Stern-Wolfe, she stood before the audience to reflect on how the piece has the tragic sound of a military march. Through his music, Schulhoff confronted the traumas he endured as a wounded veteran of the Austrian Army on the Hungarian and Russian fronts.
While high with a sense of the eternal now, listening to the music of Schulhoff today demands historical imagination. In retrospect, the world he lived in could never have imagined the reach of jazz. And so in such performances as Hot Sonata (1930), saxophonist Marty Ehrlich searches for a living pulse, wailing on dusty notes first heard by a man lost to the concentration camps of Bavaria.
He was not interned by the Nazis because he was Jewish, as Dr. Beckerman told an impatient audience after playing them sounds of women moaning and other concept pieces from Schulhoff that constituted his phase in Socialist Realism. One year before the Nazis took control of Germany, he scored The Communist Manifesto. Although he successfully petitioned for Soviet citizenship by 1941, he did not make it out of his Czechoslovakian homeland in time.
Like every true intellectual, like all artists free to create, his work proved that he had thought beyond the borders of state control. Yet, Schulhoff went further. He wrote music in solidarity with political rebellion. Deemed a traitorous transgressor for pursuing the cause of art in the spirit of his time, the music of Schulhoff is, in retrospect, as powerful and meaningful as ever.
Beginning in the musical idioms of popular American culture, he demanded the social and cultural liberations of Europe through both extreme abstraction and pragmatic theory. In posterity he continues to teach American audiences just how the need for freedom is universal, and as timeless as the effect of music.
For what is freedom to life, Schulhoff asks in his compositions, if it is not as physical and as rapturous as dancing?