The forgotten composer

Pianist Michal Tal and conductor Yisrael Yinon have put all their artistic energy into a special concert dedicated to Erwin Schuloff.

Michal Tal  (photo credit: Courtesy of
Michal Tal
(photo credit: Courtesy of
‘It would be a stereotype to think that we should play Erwin Schulhoff’s music only because we are Jews and he perished in the Holocaust,” says pianist Michal Tal, who is about to perform the Israeli premier of Schulhoff’s piano concerto, accompanied by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under Yisrael Yinon.
“This explanation is totally wrong. Schulhoff was a first-rate composer, and if he had not been killed at a relatively young age, he would have become one of the 20th century’s most important composers, like Hindemith and Bartok.”
Born in Prague in 1894, Erwin Schulhoff excelled both as a pianist and a composer. In different periods of his life he shared his time between his native city and Germany, and was connected to many of the avant-garde of his time. With the rise of Nazism, as a Communist – and a Jew – he could not continue his musical career in Germany and in 1941 he was interned by Germans. He died in a concentration camp in 1942. His rediscovery began in 1988 with Gideon Kremer’s recordings of his chamber music works.
“Conductor Yisrael Yinon suggested that I perform this concerto,” says Tal, speaking of the Berlin-based Israeli maestro, who is in the midst of a successful international career.
“Yinon has performed and recorded pieces by many Jewish composers of the ‘lost generation,’ whose music careers – and often lives – were destroyed by the Nazis, such as Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krassa, Victor Ullmann and others. Yinon is also known for being an ardent champion of modern Israeli music, which he performs and records abroad, for example, he recorded all symphonies of the late Joseph Tal.”
Tal admits that at first, listening to a recording of Schulhoff’s Concerto, she was not much impressed.
“Only since receiving the score from Yinon have I realized that this is great music.”
Tal goes on to explain that “Schulhoff was ahead of his time – he was attracted to Dadaism, to jazz music and was never afraid of trying new ways and new tools. Yet this concerto is still very naïve and pure – it was written when he still was a student. In this beautifully built and amazingly well-orchestrated piece, a French touch is clearly discernible – for a short period, Schulhoff studied with Debussy – but I can also hear influences of Richard Strauss, Hindemith and others.
“Not to forget that the piece was composed in 1913, at the time when Stravinsky premiered his Rite of Spring, Eric Satie composed his most weird pieces and Debussy wrote his important works. As well as Bartok, Prokofiev, Schoenberg – I believe that Schulhoff belongs to this group.”
The research led Michal Tal to Schulhoff’s piano solo works, which she finds “most intriguing. And the story got an unexpected twist when an American record company suggested I record some of his works; I am especially interested to those composed in a jazz style and I hope I will find time for this project, too. His pieces are rich, very pianistic, he was a very true person, this is what I can hear in his music.”
“Look, piano repertoire is not lacking, and one can learn just another concerto or sonata by Beethoven, but here it is different – if we don’t perform Schulhoff's music, it will disappear. Although he died at the age of 48, he managed to compose a lot – three piano concerti, symphonies, chamber music. Just imagine what else he could have written if he lived some 20-30 years more.”
Michal Tal plays Schulhoff ‘s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra this Wednesday night at Henry Crown Hall in Jerusalem at 8 p.m. The program also features From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests by Smetana, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3.