Serenades at Noon

Serenades at Noon

August 20 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

Composer Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894. Due perhaps to the influence of his great uncle Julius, an accomplished pianist and composer, Schulhoff discovered a predilection for music early in life. Antonín Dvořák himself advocated for the boy to pursue a career in music in 1901, when Erwin was just 7 years old. A period of private instruction was followed by a couple years at Prague Conservatory (1904-6), the Horaksche Klavierschule in Vienna (1906-8), the Leipzig Conservatory (1908-10), then the conservatory in Cologne from 1911-1914. His musical studies would likely have continued uninterrupted had it not been for conscription into the Austrian army during WWI.

Schulhoff’s four years as a soldier would completely shatter his sense of the world and value systems, leading him to distance himself from the more conservative political values and musical ethos he had previously possessed. Starting in 1919, Schulhoff’s compositions began to reflect his newfound affinity with the Berlin dadaists, a group of artists who expressed anti-bourgeois and antiwar sentiments through nonsensical satire. Schulhoff became particularly influenced by the painter George Grosz, who would play American jazz recordings during gatherings at his home.

Die Wolkenpumpe (Cloud Pump), written in 1922, bears obvious traces of Schulhoff’s investment in Dadaism. The text is poetry by Hans (Jean) Arp, a prominent Dadaist sculptor, and follows fragmented, unpunctuated images that fixate on natural and bodily imagery. The texts are so erratic and non-linear as to defy translation. For instance, the opening song begins

“Out of carafes wafts the black-colored world-spirit, and the same winch works like a fin and wing in water and air …”

Similarly, Schulhoff’s music seems to lack a consistent pulse or through-line, except for the persistent sense of dark, yet playful, chaos that permeates the work. The sharp, awkward edges of the first movement give way to a sort of misfit lullaby in the second (not the kind of lullaby you would play for your own children, mind you). The jazzy language of the third movement feels the most out of place in its coherence, yet signals the genre’s importance for Schulhoff personally, as well as for the larger Dada movement. The deep, rumbling intonations of the contrabassoon open and close the last movement, providing final punctuation for a work that leaves us with the impression that all the preceding music, while sounding playful and nonsensical to our ears, has aspired to a level of rhetoric that is somehow still grave, and to be taken seriously.

Born in Paris to an affluent family on January 20, 1855, Ernest Chausson enjoyed the privilege of exploring the vast playgrounds of music, literature, and drawing from an early age. Choosing a career from among the three fields caused him some difficulty as an adult, and at first glance, his pursuit of a law degree beginning in 1875 seems a wholesale abandonment of the man’s more artistic dreams. However, even after being sworn in as a barrister in a Parisian court in 1877, he never practiced law. Instead, in 1879, Chausson enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire just one month after seeing Richard Wagner conduct some of his operas in Munich. He would continue to attend Wagner’s operas in the coming years, citing the composer as a strong influence on his own musical language, but perhaps no other figure left more of a mark on Chausson’s compositional oeuvre than César Franck. Among other stylistic attributes, Chausson inherited from Franck a bold, late-romantic approach to harmonic language, as well as a keen interest in the expressive capabilities of form-driven chamber and symphonic music.

In addition to his rich harmonies and his affinity for “absolute” musical forms, Chausson’s Concert demonstrates yet another impact of Franckian influence through his cyclical approach to thematic material and its repetition. The opening three notes (D A E), stated in parallel octaves in the piano, cycle through multiple transformations in both the piano and quartet before finally reaching the strings of the solo violin in its statement of the movement’s first theme. This three-note figure then fades from the musical landscape, but will return like clockwork whenever Chausson is about to usher us into new territory and wants our attention.

The high energy of the first movement gives way to the dreamy waves of the Sicilienne, Chausson’s second movement, which opens with a spotlight on the lush sonorities of the quartet. The doleful, chromatic opening to the Grave halts any momentum gained from the previous two movements and sustains a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout its duration. With the arrival of the fourth movement, however, the piano launches us into an energetic finale, complete with themes from previous movements cycling back into the fray. Listen closely and you will even hear a few brief iterations of the three-note opening of the Concert, bringing Chausson’s thematic material “full circle,” as it were.

© Emily Masincup, 2022