Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st = piccolo), 2 oboes (1st = English horn), 2 clarinets (1st = E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion, harp, and strings
About this Piece
Identifying musical compositions of quality that have been lying dormant on shelves collecting dust has always fascinated some musicians. Perhaps the best-known example of the search-and-rescue process was negotiated by Felix Mendelssohn, who famously exhumed Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Along this line, though not with such momentous results, is the current rediscovery of the music of Prague-born Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). One of the most ardent advocates of bringing Schulhoff's music to the public is conductor James Conlon. "I intend, in the coming years," he has said, "to perform this music regularly, in the hope that it will find its place in the standard repertoire." The works of many denounced-by-the-Nazis composers are recipients of Conlon's advocacy, Schulhoff's prominent among them.
Schulhoff's biography testifies to a life buffeted by the cruel winds of World War I and the years of the Nazi regime. His early years, however, were filled with promise. A piano prodigy as a child, he later studied in the conservatories of Leipzig and Cologne and emerged as a highly talented pianist and composer.
Jazz came to loom large in Schulhoff's creative and professional life: He worked as a jazz pianist, and his use of that idiom in his compositions was the real (European, not American) thing, not superimposed from outside of himself. He was extremely prolific, leaving a catalog that includes works for the theater, orchestra (he left an unfinished Eighth Symphony), chamber ensemble, piano, and voice. Intensely politically minded, he joined the Communist party and took Soviet citizenship, but did not emigrate to the USSR. In June 1941, after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was arrested and died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in 1942.
Schulhoff wrote the present work in 1921, calling it "Suite in the new style," the new style, of course, being jazz. Later he changed the title to Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37. At the time he was well into Dada, the movement based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, cynicism, and the rejection of laws of beauty and social organization. He didn't continue in the Dadaist ideals, but he did preface the Opus 37 Suite with a nonsense poem in its style: Grant me unheard-of powers/I will eat you all/Into the sausage machine with you/Band of Pigs!!!/Then, then comes the moment in the Cosmos/When I will be transformed in "BAYER Aspirin."
The poem looks to be more a statement of allegiance to the trendy movement than a reflection of the essence of the music. The listener can decide.
Ragtime. This is not quite the ragtime of America's heritage, but rather ragtime with a decided German accent, anticipating Kurt Weill. It seems almost a parody of the dance's rhythmic identity, with cunning orchestral color lending a strong, sophisticated (expressionistic) touch.
Valse Boston, known as a hesitation waltz. Schulhoff sentimentalizes the Valse and sheds a few Viennese tears.
Tango. More stylized than sensual, this tango has a bit of tongue-in-cheek and at least one foot off the dance floor.
Shimmy. Sarcasm marks this excursion to a dance that is said to have roots in Haitian Voodoo, but was popularized by early 20th-century American singer-actress Gilda Grey, whose chemise (hence the word 'shimmy') became visible when she danced.
Step. This all-percussion diversion is mock military with a strong element of the grotesque.
Jazz. A perfectly reasonable conclusion to a Jazz Suite, this is a syncopated toe-tapper.
Orrin Howard served for 20 years as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute to the program book.