Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was born in Prague into a German-speaking merchant family. His great-uncle Julius was a composer and pianist, and Erwin's mother hoped her son would follow in his footsteps. The child learned to play the piano, and in 1901 his reputation as a prodigy won him an audition with Antonín Dvorák, who recommended a career in music for the boy. After further private study, Schulhoff was ready for the Prague Conservatory, which he entered in 1904. He also spent an important period in Leipzig, from 1908 to 1910, where he studied at the conservatory with Max Reger, a leading German composer in the post-Brahms tradition, and with Robert Teichmüller, a pianist with a taste for Russian and other exotic eastern music.
After four years in the Austrian army during World War I, Schulhoff broke with the late Romanticism espoused by his conservatory teachers. He moved to Dresden, where he met several important artistic figures, including the painter Otto Dix, whose violent, despairing images captured the trauma inflicted by the war, and with them founded the "Werkstatt der Zeit" (Workshop of the Times). Under its banner, Schulhoff began a series of concerts showcasing the latest developments in expressionist music, whose atonal idiom appealed to him as an alternative to what he had learned. He also got to know another painter, George Grosz, and the two listened to records from Grosz' collection of American jazz, another influence embraced by the composer. Following his return to Prague in 1923, Schulhoff began to compose works synthesizing all of these influences - Czech music, Russian and eastern music, late Romanticism, expressionism, and jazz - into a compelling, personal style.
Schulhoff wrote the Concertino in a mere four days, between May 28 and June 1, 1925. The first movement begins with bass and violin playing an eastern-sounding motto and the flute offering an improvisatory theme as counterpoint. Schulhoff introduces brief contrasting episodes but always returns to the opening motto. The second movement derives from a Czech folk dance, the furiant, with a rhythm combining characteristics of 2/4 and 3/4. A folk song from the Carpathian Mountains in what is now the western Ukraine provides the basis of the Andante, its melody given to the flute. In the finale, the flutist doubles on piccolo and the bass provides the rhythm for another lively folk dance.
After the Germans annexed Czechoslovakia, Schulhoff tried to emigrate to the Soviet Union (he had participated in the International Congress of Revolutionary Musicians in Moscow in 1933 and joined the Communist Party shortly thereafter) and to the West, but without success. The Nazis arrested him in June 1941; he died of tuberculosis in the Bavarian fortress of Wülzburg just over a year later.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.