Erwin Schulhoff, born in Prague in 1894, was a close contemporary of Martinů, a fellow Czech, and Milhaud and Poulenc in France. They were all working at the same time and wrote a considerable amount of music of similar quality. So why are these other names fairly well known, while Schulhoff isn’t?

The sad truth is that he was silenced, dying in a Nazi prison camp in 1942, and subsequently unjustly forgotten by musical history. It was a similar story for his fellow Jewish Czech composers Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, who were in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto where at least there was the opportunity to be musically creative before they were transported to Auschwitz and killed.

Who was Schulhoff?

Schulhoff was an energetic enfant terrible in the first decades of the 20th century, fascinated by jazz and writing music in an original if not consistent style. His works include six completed symphonies (plus one in piano score and another unfinished), a Don Juan opera called Flammen (Flames), a lot of piano and chamber music, and several very inventive concertos – some for unusual combinations like a Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and Orchestra and a Concerto for String Quartet and Wind Orchestra. There’s also the Hot Sonata for alto saxophone and piano, and the Sonata Erotica for female voice in which the singer performs an orgasm – 70 years before Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. ‘This is a full-blooded musician, blessed with wit, who meets the most sophisticated expectations,’ wrote Erich Steinhard, the editor of Der Auftakt, a Prague music journal in 1926.

When and where was Schulhoff born?

At the time of Schulhoff’s birth in Prague in 1894, Prague was a major cultural centre in the Habsburg Empire, described by Max Brod, Kafka’s biographer and Janáček’s translator, whom Schulhoff knew, as ‘100 per cent Czech, 100 per cent German and 100 per cent Jewish’. This could equally be a description of Schulhoff himself. He was born into a prosperous Jewish merchant family who, with encouragement from Dvořák no less, arranged a comprehensive musical education starting at the Prague Conservatoire when he was ten. He went on to Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne and became a very accomplished pianist, for which he won the Mendelssohn Prize in 1913. He wrote piano music and completed a Piano Concerto at this time.

How did the First World War affect Schulhoff and his music?

In 1914, Europe went to war and Schulhoff served on the Russian and Italian fronts. ‘It is nothing less than a flood, a destructive force threatening to destroy the entire culture of European humanity,’ he wrote in his diary in 1916. ‘I can only place the years 1914, 1915, 1916 on humanity’s lowest rank; they make a mockery of the 20th century.’

The First World War brought a decisive change in Schulhoff’s outlook and music. He moved to Dresden, living with his sister Viola, an artist, and got to know other artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz, who vividly depicted decrepit war wounded, low-life bars and jazz bands in a style they called ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity). Their pictures are the defining images of the Weimar Republic.

George Grosz in his autobiography describes his first encounter with jazz in Berlin and a band leader pretending to be out of control, hurling drinks and instruments around. ‘What I had just seen was a parody of what would one day be a reality,’ he wrote; ‘one in which another mad band-leader would conduct a dance of death, snatching instruments from his musicians’ hands and belabouring their heads until they collapsed, to ovations that would far surpass the applause lavished upon his harmless predecessor.’

How did jazz influence Schulhoff?

Schulhoff seized upon jazz as a way of cutting himself off from a conventional past devalued by the horrors of WWI. His first jazz-inspired pieces, Fünf Pittoresken, were written in 1919 and dedicated to Grosz. With titles like ‘Foxtrot’ and ‘Ragtime’, they have a kinship with Stravinsky’s rag-inspired pieces of this same period. More substantial is his six-movement Suite for Chamber Orchestra of 1921.

Originally called Suite in the New Style, its movements have titles like ‘Ragtime’, ‘Tango’, ‘Shimmy’ and ‘Jazz’, and the percussion section includes football rattle, xylophone, swanee-whistle and car horn. In a letter to composer Alban Berg about the piece he says: ‘There are times when I dance night after night with the girls in the bars, purely for the rhythmic enjoyment of it and the sensual undercurrents; this is a phenomenal spur to my creativity, since my personality is very earthy, almost bestial!’

Since 1920, Schulhoff had been teaching piano in Saarbrücken, a city he hated for its petit-bourgeois mentality. In 1921, he married and, early the following year, moved to Berlin where his son Peter was born. He returned to Prague in 1923. The Czech capital was culturally divided, with a Czech and a German opera house and most Jews leaning towards German culture. Schulhoff, at home with both, declared: ‘I would like to be a cultural intermediary here in Prague between the Czechs and the Germans.’ This included jazz-inspired music for a production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at the Czech National Theatre.

Schulhoff's most famous pieces of music

This next decade, until Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, was the most prolific and successful period for Schulhoff. Alongside his enthusiasm for jazz, he also adopted a neo-classical style in his concertante works and Second Symphony. He wrote a lot of chamber music, including a Solo Violin Sonata (1927), a superb Duo for Violin and Cello dedicated to Janáček (1924), Five Pieces for String Quartet featuring dance rhythms (1923) and a powerful Sextet (1924).

The American music critic Olin Downes heard the Five Pieces in Salzburg and wrote: ‘A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.’ After the concert, Downes said the composer played American ragtime in a local bar ‘till the walls tottered’.

Schulhoff completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1925. It’s an original three-movement work with folk influences (which also feature in some of the chamber music above), and lots of percussion, including flexatone. It was premiered in Berlin under Erich Kleiber in a concert including Bartók’s First Piano Concerto played by the composer (whose later Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta includes echoes from Schulhoff’s symphony). It’s a measure of Schulhoff’s status at that time that his music was performed alongside Bartók. His First Symphony was also conducted in Prague, London and Cincinnati by George Szell, Ernest Ansermet and Erich Kleiber, plus across Europe by the likes of Václav Talich and Pierre Monteux.

In 1925, Schulhoff re-worked his Suite into a dance-pantomime called Moonstruck (Náměsičná in Czech, Die Mondsüchtige in German), which, after failed attempts to stage it in Prague and Paris, was premiered in Oxford in 1931 with Schulhoff conducting. Symphony No. 2, written for a radio broadcast in 1932, is probably his most accessible in that genre: its neo-classical style incorporates a ‘Scherzo alla Jazz’, including banjo and saxophone (one of the first symphonies to include that instrument). It was the last of his six completed symphonies to be performed in his lifetime.

From 1930, with the rise of the Nazis, Schulhoff became more and more attracted to communism. He set texts by Marx and Lenin in his Communist Manifesto of 1932, and his subsequent symphonies became simpler if never actually social realist in their style. The Fifth is weighty yet personal, suggesting the fear of someone trapped by circumstance, which he clearly was.

When did Schulhoff die?

Schulhoff applied for Soviet citizenship after the Munich agreement of 1938 (see Life & Times, left). His music was declared ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis – for its modernism, its jazziness and because he was Jewish. After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia he worked as an arranger at Prague Radio under a pseudonym, but his Soviet citizenship came through just weeks before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and the following day Schulhoff was arrested as a citizen of an ‘enemy power’. He was sent to the Wülzburg Fortress in Bavaria, converted into a prison camp for Jews who were citizens of other states, and died there of tuberculosis on 28 August 1942, aged 48.

Though edging back into the repertoire, Schulhoff’s music still isn’t played as much as it deserves to be. Audiences will love, in particular, the Hot Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, the Dadaist jazzy Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra and the Suite for Chamber Orchestra on the one side and the deeper Sextet, String Quartets and Symphonies on the other. Now, 80 years after his death, it’s time for performers and listeners to explore.

Schulhoff’s composing style


One of the first European composers to be influenced by jazz, Schulhoff used dance forms like ragtime, tango, shimmy and foxtrot in piano pieces including Fünf Pittoresken, Partita für Klavier and 5 Études de Jazz. Jazz also features in his Suite for Chamber Orchestra, the Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, and Second Symphony.


Schulhoff’s friend, the painter George Grosz, was part of the post-WWI movement to reject the bourgeois art of the past. ‘The divine spark may be present in a liver sausage or a contrabassoon,’ Schulhoff wrote in the preface to his Bass Nightingale (1922).


Like Stravinsky and Martinů, Schulhoff adopted a neo-baroque style for tuneful yet spiky and dissonant pieces like his Bach-inspired Concerto for String Quartet, Double Concerto for Flute and Piano and Second Symphony. 


Schulhoff wrote chamber pieces for eccentric combinations (Concertino for flute/piccolo, viola and double bass), the jazzy Hot Sonata for saxophone and piano, and the Sonata Erotica.

Illustration by Matt Herring


Simon BroughtonFreelance Writer

Simon Broughton is the Editor in Chief of Songlines Magazine. He is also a freelance writer for titles including BBC Music Magazine, The Independent and the Evening Standard. As well as writing, Broughton is an established freelance filmmaker, having made documentaries on countries including Romania, Morocco, Syria and Afghanistan for both radio and TV. In 2015, he hosted a TEDx Talk. He has also co-edited the Rough Guide to World Music (Penguin).