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About this Piece

Composed: 1938-1939

Length: c. 8 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

As one of many composers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Erwin Schulhoff suffered the fate of being a Jew in Nazi Germany. A Czech by birth and a Communist by choice, he was a serious student of music from the time he was ten when, at the encouragement of Dvorˇák he was enrolled in the Prague Conservatory, where he studied composition and piano. He later studied in Vienna, Leipzig, and Cologne; a brilliant pianist and gifted composer, he won the Mendelssohn prize for piano in 1913 and for composition in 1918.

Schulhoff’s biography testifies to a life buffeted by the cruel winds of World War I and the years of the Nazi regime; he died in the concentration camp at Wülzburg. He truly belonged to the lost generation. His early years were obviously filled with promise and with considerable creative fulfillment.

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. In a letter to his friend Alban Berg in 1921, he wrote, “I am boundlessly fond of nightclub dancing, so much so that I have periods during which I spend whole nights dancing with one hostess or another, out of pure enjoyment of the rhythm and with my subconscious filled with sensual delight. Thereby I acquire phenomenal inspiration for my work, as my conscious mind is incredibly earthy, even animal, as it were.”

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.

Having written works using the jazz idiom and Dadaism, traditional chamber music, a satiric symphony, a ballet, an opera, etc., in 1937 he allowed himself in his Fifth Symphony to be the purveyor of anger and undisguised bitterness. Each of the four movements has as its basis a volatile, passionate turbulence, cooled only slightly toward the end of the fourth movement. The third movement, which Conlon has selected to open this concert, is designated a Scherzo; but it’s no joke (the definition of scherzo in Italian). The music is driven by the oft-repeated combination of distinctive patterns of notes, creating a pervading rhythmic intensity. Schulhoff’s use of dissonance in the Scherzo is not as prominent as it is in the Symphony’s last movement, in which the aggression is unrestrained.

- Orrin Howard