What we know about a composer’s life can affect how we hear their music.
My appreciation of Beethoven, and my sense of connection to his works, deepened after I read Jan Swofford’s excellent biography detailing the family and health woes that plagued the composer right up to his early death at 57. (Surpassing that age myself has put things into even further perspective.)
Similarly, when I walk by the statue of Antonin Dvořák in Stuyvesant Square Park, near where I live in New York City, I think of how he worked his way up from poverty to become one of the preeminent composers of his time, celebrated by critics and audiences alike, and of how international were the influences on his vast and rich oeuvre.
A Career Tragically Cut Short
To the music of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) I’d had only occasional exposure before last Tuesday’s concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS). Born to German-Jewish parents in Prague, Schulhoff worked, until his murder in the Holocaust, in several styles. Nicky Swett’s program notes delineate these as “ironic and conceptual,” “atonal [and] expressionistic,” and, at the time he completed his Sextet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Two Cellos in 1924, influenced by folk music and neoclassicism.
Schulhoff’s milieu indeed included some of the most important composers of his era: Schoenberg, Webern, and, as the program tells us, his “good friend Alban Berg.” And Paul Hindemith led the ensemble at the 1924 world premiere of the Sextet.
But regardless of styles and influences, this composer had a distinct voice. It bursts forth in the growl of foreboding, the almost mechanistic force, of the opening movement. The CMS musicians, thoroughly warmed up after a rugged performance of Beethoven’s Quintet in C Minor, attacked Schulhoff’s dark piece with heat, but with light too, revealing the emotion at its core.
Their reading of the second movement, marked “Tranquillo: Andante,” will linger in my mind as one of the pandemic’s most extraordinary moments of live music. Quietly tense opposing chromatic runs from the violins threaded through ghostly harmonies and sighing pedal tones from the violas and cellos. Violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, violists Matthew Lipman and Paul Neubauer, and cellists Keith Robinson and Inbal Segev brilliantly articulated and gave subtle colorations to it all.
The “Tranquillo”‘s hypnotic aftereffects dissipated with the jolly “Burlesca,” whose tricky rhythms – a 5/8 time signature is just the start of it – gave the musicians a challenge they clearly relished. The movement exemplified Schulhoff’s wide scope and his ability to synthesize the various modernistic trends of his time. And the slow finale revealed his awareness of space and the musicians’ mastery of tone.
I prefer to come to unfamiliar music with zero expectations. After the fact, though, knowing where a composer figures in the constellation of his time often increases one’s appreciation. And, in some terrible cases, so does knowing their fate.
It would be hard to bring a completely cleared mind to the piece that opened the concert, though. Beethoven’s Quintet in C minor for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello (Op. 104) is his transcription of his much earlier Piano Trio (Op. 1, No. 3). The original – groundbreaking enough that “Papa” Haydn advised (fruitlessly) against publishing it – is the version I was familiar with. I’m not sure what my expectations were for the Quintet iteration. At first, as the opening movement bounded along, the music didn’t grab me – I couldn’t quite grasp the piano part amid its reimagining for strings. Some of the dense, unexpected harmonies sounded a little off, too, as I detected some minor tuning problems.
With that resolved, things began gelling much better in the second movement, and my ear started appreciating what Beethoven had done. The musicians thoroughly plumbed the passions behind the music as the Haydn-esque major-key theme flipped darkly into a minor-key variation. The quick triplets that came afterward seemed to glow in Alice Tully Hall’s resonant acoustics as the five musicians (the above-listed, minus Segev) really coalesced.
Lee’s glittering runs highlighted an exquisite reading of the “Menuetto,” while the inner voices propelled a thrilling journey through the eventful Finale, where the quintet asserted a bravado they would need for parsing the modernism in the Schulhoff.
Passing the Torch
After intermission, Dvořák’s Sextet in A major for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Two Cellos began with an elegant first movement infused with equal parts momentum and sensitivity, richness and grace. The “Dumka” that followed had a yearning, singing quality, melancholy and beautiful from start to finish. After the excitement of the crisp “Furiant,” the Finale’s theme and variations exemplified the composer’s brilliance in that form and the group’s dynamic ensemble playing. The violas and cellos leaned into the curiously archaic-sounding opening theme; one lovely variation featured Segev and her 1673 Ruggieri cello.
Dvořák had only just come into his own as a recognized master when he wrote this in 1878. His extended trips to England and his years in America lay in the future. It was while Dvořák was at the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City that Schulhoff was born, back in Prague, where Dvořák spent most of his professional life.
The Orel Foundation is devoted to advocating for music by composers suppressed by the Nazis. According to its website, in 1901 Schulhoff’s mother prevailed upon Dvořák, “who had little fondness for (or interest in) child prodigies,” to test Erwin’s musical aptitude when the boy was six or seven. The composer “rewarded Schulhoff with two pieces of chocolate, and recommended him for private piano study with a professor at the Prague Conservatory.” So perhaps we have the Czech master to thank for Schulhoff’s creative career, successful until cut short, and his extensive but relatively little-known output. CMS has done a service by making his Sextet part of their first concert of 2022. Here’s hoping the pandemic subsides enough to allow their season to proceed. And let’s hear more Schulhoff please.
Visit the Chamber Music Society’s website for information on their concert and digital seasons.