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Erwin Schulhoff

born: 8 June 1894
died: 18 August 1942
country: Czech Republic

Erwin Schulhoff: jazz enthusiast, sometime Dadaist, surrealist and committed communist. These are some of the handy labels that spring to mind for this extraordinary figure, but Schulhoff—born in Prague on 8 June 1894 to a German-speaking, Jewish family—was a more complex and wide-ranging musician than any neat tags suggest. He came from a very musical family: his most famous ancestor was his great-uncle Julius Schulhoff, a pianist who had been encouraged in his youth by Chopin, before settling in Dresden and Berlin, where he became a widely respected piano teacher and composer. Julius had the dubious distinction of having his salon music compared unfavourably to Mozart by one of the characters in Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness, but his piano playing was another matter: the great pianist Theodor Leschetizky was astonished by Julius Schulhoff’s sound: ‘A beautiful round tone … such as I had never heard before. I went home determined to obtain the same perfection of tone.’ Julius wasn’t the only musician in the family. Erwin’s maternal grandfather was the violinist Heinrich Wolff, a prominent figure in the musical life of Frankfurt-am-Main.

With this kind of background, it is hardly surprising that the young Erwin started to demonstrate musical gifts at an early age. Despite a strong aversion to child prodigies, Antonín Dvorák encouraged the boy to develop his talent for music: in 1901 Schulhoff was introduced to the composer, and after successfully passing some aural tests he was rewarded by two bars of chocolate from the great man. As Schulhoff later recalled, ‘it was in this way that Dvorák said I had graduated as a musician’ (quoted in Josef Bek: Erwin Schulhoff: Leben und Werk, Hamburg, 1994, p 12). Before his tenth birthday, Schulhoff embarked on a long period of intensive musical study rooted in the Austro-German tradition. In Prague and Vienna, he quickly developed as a pianist, before being admitted to the Leipzig Conservatoire at the age of fourteen in 1908. Though auditioned as a performer, he was increasingly interested in writing music and developed a warm rapport with his first composition teacher, Max Reger, whose influence can be detected in some of Schulhoff’s earliest pieces. From Leipzig, Schulhoff moved to Cologne, where his teacher for composing and conducting was Fritz Steinbach, the Director of the Conservatoire and conductor of the Gürzenich Orchestra. (Steinbach had been a close friend of Brahms and was a noted interpreter of his music, most famously during his years with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, 1886–1903.)

Stylistically, Schulhoff is impossible to pin down, even at a particular moment in his career. By the end of World War I he was attracted to surrealism and Dadaism. Among his more intriguing experimental works are the Sonata erotica for solo mother-trumpet of 1919, a graphic score in which the ‘mother-trumpet’ is a solo female voice who fakes a notated orgasm, and the Fünf Pittoresken for piano, dedicated ‘To the Artist and Dadaist George Grosz’, the third movement of which is ‘In Futurum’, a page of elaborately notated silence. Bass Nightingale (1922), for unaccompanied contra-bassoon, is a piece in which this unlikeliest of instruments is required to imitate birdsong and, in the finale, to play a fugue with itself. During the 1920s Schulhoff also wrote extensively for orchestra and for chamber ensembles. His ballet Ogelala (1922) was first performed at Dessau in 1925. Conceived in the same spirit as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, the subject is violence, sexual frenzy and sacrifice, while the musical language is influenced by the music of American Indians, and the score includes one innovative movement entirely for percussion. But Schulhoff also wrote a good deal of purely abstract music. In 1925 he wrote a Duo for violin and cello (dedicated ‘to Maestro Leoš Janácek in deepest admiration!’), his String Quartet No 2 and his Symphony No 1 (the latter dedicated to one great conductor, Václav Talich, and given its première by another, Erich Kleiber, with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in 1928).

In the 1930s, Schulhoff’s music moved in new directions, influenced in part by the composer’s growing political convictions. His jazz oratorio HMS Royal Oak of 1930 is full of tangos and foxtrots, scored for speaker, jazz singer, chorus and band. It was inspired by the so-called ‘Royal Oak Mutiny’, a dispute that broke out on board ship during a ball in 1928 (resulting in a celebrated court martial) and satirized by Schulhoff in this rather Weill-like work. The cantata Das Manifest of 1932 was composed for the fiftieth anniversary of Karl Marx’s death and set passages from the Communist Manifesto, for soloists, two mixed choirs, boys’ choir and wind orchestra, and was intended for outdoor performance. Again it is quite reminiscent of Weill and Hanns Eisler. But the 1930s also saw Schulhoff producing a number of arrangements of folksongs and dances, and most of his symphonies: from the Second in 1932 to the Sixth (‘Freedom Symphony’) in 1940 which he dedicated to the Red Army. Schulhoff’s Seventh Symphony (‘Eroica’) survives as a piano sketch, while his Eighth bears witness to the composer’s tragic end: it was unfinished at the time of his death from tuberculosis in Wülzburg Concentration Camp on 18 August 1942.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2011


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