Giving Schulhoff an airing

A classical pianist plays the works of a Czech Jewish composer who perished in the Holocaust.

A classical pianist plays the works of a Czech Jewish composer who perished in the Holocaust. (photo credit: DANA ROM)
A classical pianist plays the works of a Czech Jewish composer who perished in the Holocaust.
(photo credit: DANA ROM)
Michal Tal may surprise a few people at her upcoming concerts.
The classical pianist recently released a new CD by the name of Erwin Schulhoff, Music for Piano Solo, and she will perform some of the works from the album in her two-part “From Schulhoff to Schumann” series in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later this month.
While most classical music lovers are familiar with at least some of Schumann’s works, they may not be quite as au fait with Schulhoff, a 20th-century Czech Jewish composer and pianist who perished in the Holocaust.
Tal is keen to get Schulhoff’s works out there to as many people as possible, and she says there are gems throughout the Czech’s oeuvre.
“I think what draws me to Schulhoff’s music is the variety you get.
There are very few composers that have variety in their work. Many composers work in one style, as great as they may be. That’s why, at the time, I was also drawn to [French avant-garde composer and pianist] Erik Satie, who wrote in so many different styles.
And in the 20th century, you also had Stravinsky, who had different periods in his work.”
Schulhoff showed promise at an early age and started his musical education in earnest at the age of 10, when he was enrolled at the Prague Conservatory. He studied composition and piano there and later in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne, where his teachers included some of the leading composers of the day – Claude Debussy, Max Reger, Fritz Steinbach and Willi Thern. He won the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize twice, for piano in 1913 and for composition in 1918. He served on the Russian front in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I; he was wounded and was in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp when the war ended. After the war, he lived in Germany and eventually returned to Prague, later joining the faculty of the conservatory where he’d studied.
The Czech composer continued to explore and incorporate a wide range of genres in his ever-expanding body of work. That is evident in the playlist of Tal’s new CD. Schulhoff was also very much a product of his time, and he was influenced by new avenues of musical expression that developed as he forged his own multi-pronged compositional path outside the strict confines of classical endeavor. He was always looking to immerse himself in something new and to bring his discoveries to his writing and performing.
“I have studied a lot of music from the 20th century, but I have never encountered anything that is so varied and as sincere as Schulhoff’s music,” notes Tal. “On my CD, you can find a work that is jazz-based, and another that is atonal, and then there’s something impressionist and an avant-garde piece. And there is bluesy stuff in there, too. You could call it eclecticism.”
Still, she says Schulhoff’s variegated approach is not everyone’s cup of tea. “There are all sorts of people who don’t like that approach. They don’t take composers like Schulhoff seriously.
They say things like, ‘What? Hasn’t he got his own style?’ But I like it, and I don’t call it eclectic. He was just influenced by many things and lots of composers. He grew up on the [chronological-stylistic] seam, at the beginning of the 20th century, and he tried everything going.”
Indeed, he was eager to get into anything and everything going on at the time. He was one of the first generation of classical composers to find inspiration in the rhythms of jazz music, and also imbibed the avant garde influence of Dadaism. He was one of the most expressive composers around, and his work channels strong emotions to the listener.
That all-embracing ethos, says Tal, resulted in Schulhoff’s work going largely unnoticed by musicians, composers and institutions of academic study.
“You don’t really encounter the works of people like Satie and Schulhoff at school, and it is only later in life that you really discover them and you suddenly think, ‘Wow! This is incredible music. How come I never heard this before?’ It’s incredible that it took so long for me to get to know his music.”
She recalls that “the first time I played Schulhoff was with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, when [conductor] Israel Yinon, by chance, suggested I perform Schulhoff’s first concerto, and the audience’s response was wildly enthusiastic. I was amazed.”
In fact, there were some challenging logistics for her to navigate before she could perform the work.
“It was difficult to get hold of the sheet music,” she says. “I asked Israel why that was so, and he said he thought it may be because the Czechs were not so keen to facilitate the playing of compositions by a Jewish composer, and that they were more eager to promote the works of, say, [Leos] Janacek, the great [Czech] national composer of the 20th century.”
Tal says she was also drawn to Schulhoff’s offerings because of their shared love of improvisational sounds.
“I love jazz. I am a frustrated jazz pianist,” she laughs. “A few years ago I even started taking lessons in jazz, but sadly my teacher, Amit Golan, died suddenly [at the age of 46].
I think I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t carry on studying jazz with someone else. But anyway, it is very difficult to live in both words – classical and jazz.”
Schulhoff clearly managed to do that, and some of the results of his gowith- the-flow approach to music will be on show in Tal’s performances this month. The concerts will take place at Tel Aviv’s Felicja Blumental Center on October 25 at 8:30 p.m., and at Jerusalem’s Harmony Hall on October 28 at 8 p.m. – the latter as part of the Jewish Music Festival. They may well open up more opportunities to hear live renditions of this extraordinary musician’s work.
For tickets: (03) 620-1185 or (02) 621- 1777.