Erwin Schulhoff, Symphony No. 5
by Michael Beckerman
Born June 8, 1894, in Prague
Died August 18, 1942, in Würzburg, Germany
Composed in 1938–9
Premiered on March 5th, 1965 in Weimar by the Weimar State Orchestra conducted by Gerhardt Pfluger
Performance Time: Approximately 36 minutes
There is no style shift more dramatic than that undergone by Erwin Schulhoff after his “conversion” to Communism in the early 1930s. Beginning his career as an apostle of the avant-garde, mixing jazz, surrealism, nihilism, and a dazzling panoply of national styles, he had established himself as a brilliant pianist and somewhat of an enfant terrible. He wrote a Sinfonia Germanica which is nothing more than a series of mutterings, shouts, and then a distorted version of the German national anthem; a Sonata Erotica which consists only of a woman coming to a climax; and a piece called The Bass Nightingale for solo contrabassoon. Nothing is more surprising, then, after listening to such pieces and some of his extraordinary and edgy chamber music from the 1920s, to confront works like his Second Symphony (written in 1932 at the same time as his setting of the Communist Manifesto), marking an almost complete turn away from the individuality of his earlier works, perhaps comparable only to the kind of break between Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and his Pulcinella.
The Fifth Symphony, though, is something different. Although it has a far more cinematic sound than the works of the 1910s and 20s, it was written in 1938–9 and captures some of the flavor of those years, with dramatic clashes, a full palette of musical passages suggesting tension and forebodings, and, in keeping with the aesthetic of socialist realism, an overriding sense of hope for the future. This is found most notably in the triumphant conclusion to the final movement, but also in the sublime second movement Adagio. Thus Schulhoff’s Symphony No. 5 keeps company with such works as Martinů’s Double Concerto, which for that composer marked a turn to the dramatic and even tragic, and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony as epic and profound wartime musical canvases.
Although Schulhoff is often grouped with the “Terezin” composer who perished in Auschwitz, his fate was rather different. He was arrested not on account of his Jewish identity but for his Soviet sympathies and died of tuberculosis in a camp in Würzburg near Bavaria.
Michael Beckerman is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University.