Erwin Schulhoff was one of the most popular Czech composers of his time, but his premature death in the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942 signalled the almost total erasure of his work from music history. At the time of the German invasion, he had been at the high point of his career, well-established and respected by the artists and composers of his day. He was a radical artist, influenced by Dadaism, and one of the first European composers to begin experimenting with jazz by integrating it into traditional musical forms such as symphonies and concertos. By the early 1930s, Schulhoff had become committed to Soviet Communism: in light of the increasing threat of right wing radicalism, he became convinced of the need for a radical people’s revolution. Even after being imprisoned in jail and then being sent to a Bavarian concentration camp, Schulhoff continued to work on his compositions. To the very end he remained true to his political and aesthetic ideals: a commitment that cost him his life.
Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894 to a wealthy Jewish family. His mother supported his interests, committing herself to his musical education and accompanying him on his studies in Vienna and then Leipzig, where he completed his training in 1910. As a teenager, Schulhoff attended the conservatory in Cologne. At the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Prague and was drafted into the Austrian army. He was wounded twice on the Russian front, and was permanently affected by the horrors he witnessed. Even while fighting, he continued to compose, and immediately after the end of the war published his first compositions. The sufferings of war, however, deeply depressed him, and he sought a source of inspiration and comfort. The 1917 revolution solidified his growing commitment to the left; he also was increasingly drawn to the avant-garde artistic trends of Dadaism and ‘new music’. After the war, he travelled to Dresden where his sister was studying to become a painter. There, the siblings established a sort of artists’ salon, where they socialised with some of the great artists of the Weimar years. In addition to being a composer, Schulhoff was a successful performer. A few years after settling in Germany, the inflation of 1923 devastated the family finances, and Schulhoff had to rely entirely on his own earnings. In 1932 he founded a jazz quartet, and developed the idea of starting a jazz school to train and employ jazz musicians.
As life grew increasingly difficult for Jews and leftists, the composer was increasingly drawn to Communism. In 1932, he wrote music for a libretto he commissioned, based on the Communist Manifesto. (The piece was never performed, and was presumed lost, only to be discovered in the USSR in the 1960s). A year later he travelled to Moscow for a workers’ music competition. Increasingly politically active, he began to write explicitly socialist songs.