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Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and piano

November 20, 2022: Steven Banks, Saxophonist-Composer Xak Bjerken, Piano, Principal Strings of The Met Orchestra

Erwin Schulhoff was a child prodigy who, in 1902 at the age of eight, so deeply impressed Antonín Dvořák with his playing and improvising on the piano that Dvořák advised him to begin composition studies immediately. Schulhoff studied first in Prague, then in Vienna, where he became a good friend of Alban Berg, and later in Leipzig, where he studied with Max Reger. He also took some lessons with Debussy in Paris shortly before World War I.

Schulhoff’s musical interests varied widely. He collaborated with visual artists Däubler, Grosz, and Klee in Germany, where he had settled in 1923. A champion of modern music, he worked on the problems of quarter-tone music with Alois Hába after his return to Prague in 1929. His improvisatory skills naturally led to his dedication as a jazz pianist and to the incorporation of jazz in several of his own compositions. He also showed great interest in music of the distant past, unearthing and arranging medieval and Renaissance music of Bohemian composers.

Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, the great German music encyclopedia, characterizes Schulhoff as a “composer of extraordinary talent and creative power.” Alfred Einstein appreciated his gift for creating comical and grotesque effects in music. Schulhoff’s desire for social revolution led to his leftist political views. In 1932 he composed a cantata setting of the original German text of the Communist Manifesto of 1848. He was granted Soviet citizenship to protect him from arrest during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, but when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941 Schulhoff was sent to the Wülzburg Concentration Camp where he died on August 18, 1942.

Schulhoff composed his Hot Sonata on a commission from the Funk-Stunde (radio station) AG in Berlin, which premiered the work on April 10, 1930, with American saxophonist Billy Barton and the composer at the piano. By this time Schulhoff was recognized as a jazz expert, having even published a jazz method for piano. Jazz movements had become increasingly more frequent in his works and he used the title Hot-Sonate, using the American word “hot” that had become synonymous with jazz. The piece is laid out in four movements, each headed not by a tempo marking but by a metronome marking, though in the sultry third movement he asks the saxophone to play “lamentoso ma molto grottesco” against the piano’s “molto ritmico.”

The jaunty first movement, which has something in common with Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is rife with jazz syncopations, swinging along merrily until its nonchalant ending. The second movement heats up the action with darting licks for the saxophone, an especially syncopated piano part, and a surprisingly abrupt ending. The bluesy third movement has the saxophonist bending pitch to slide into its destination notes while the piano keeps its steady beat. The final movement drives forward motorically until Schulhoff inserts a slow contrasting section. The momentum resumes, once again catching the listener off guard with the suddenness of the ending.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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