Peter A. Coclanis

Literature of the Heart

The Communist Manifesto Oratorio.

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Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.—Alphonse de Lamartine

The various anniversaries of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848, have occasioned a slew of commemorations, commentaries, and execrations. The many new editions and translations during the Second International (1889-1914), the famous centennial celebrations in Lyons in 1948, and Eric Hobsbawm's estimable 1998 edition celebrating birthday 150 come immediately to mind in this regard. But no commemoration in my view has ever been so unusual as that of Czech composer-pianist Erwin Schulhoff, who actually set the Manifesto to music in 1932.

To be sure, composers of art music—of opera, most notably—have often looked to great literature for inspiration, mainly to the usual suspects: the Bible (Handel, Saint-Säens, Massenet, Strauss, Schoenberg), Greek and Roman lit (Gluck, Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Tippett), and Shakespeare (Gounod, Strauss, Delius, Britten, Barber, Shostakovich, Walton, and Thomas). Renowned novels and novellas such as Don Quixote, Candide, Billy Budd, The Taming of the Shrew, War and Peace, and Of Mice and Men have also been rendered into operas. And the same basic pattern holds true for related musical forms such as oratorios and cantatas as well. But a political tract such as The Communist Manifesto as inspiration? The only effort that even comes close is that by contemporary composer Anthony Davis, whose 1986 opera X was based more or less on Malcolm X's autobiography. Unless, of course, we go vernacular and, even then, stretch things a bit, to include a work such as 1776, the 1969 Broadway musical. Clearly, Schulhoff's oratorio, The Communist Manifesto, pretty much stands alone.

The son of a well-to-do wholesale textile merchant, Erwin Schulhoff was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague in 1894. Schulhoff came honestly to music—there were musicians on both sides of his family—and, shortly after beginning to study piano, he emerged as a prodigy. After coming to the attention of Dvorak, he began to focus on a musical career, first studying with private teachers, then in turn at the Prague Conservatory, the Horaksche Klavierschule in Vienna, the Leipzig Conservatory, and the conservatory in Cologne, where he won several prizes.

While studying the piano as a youth, Schulhoff also began to compose, studying briefly with Debussy in 1913 and later with Max Reger. As was the case with the piano, Schulhoff was successful early on as a composer, winning a major prize in 1918 for an early piano sonata (op. 22). As a young composer, he worked in a variety of post-Romantic traditions, but after (and, in part as a result of) World War I, he increasingly moved toward the avant-garde in artistic terms, embracing and/or incorporating themes from Dadaism and jazz into his music. Like many other young Mittel Europeans (and Americans), Schulhoff was changed and in various ways politicized by the enormities associated with the war. A conscript, he served four years in the Austrian army, an experience that left him at once embittered, disillusioned, and radicalized. That he dedicated one of the first works he completed after the war to German socialist Karl Liebknecht—co-founder (with Rosa Luxemburg among others) of the Spartacist League, who had been brutally murdered by a remnant of the German Imperial Army in January 1919—testifies, to this fact.

Schulhoff lived in Germany between 1919 and 1923, and during this period performed frequently and composed prolifically. Although he still composed post-Romantic works, mostly in the idiom associated with the so-called Second Viennese School and Schoenberg, by the end of his stay in Germany he had become clearly identified with modernism and the avant-garde in both music and politics. After returning to Prague in 1923 he continued to develop along these same lines, but began as well to incorporate Czech and Slavonic folk traditions into his ever evolving musical palette. By the early 1930s, Schulhoff had become more and more democratic, even demotic in his compositions, or at least in the ways in which he thought about composing, and, not surprisingly, his evolution musically and aesthetically was not unrelated to his evolution politically.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Schulhoff was moving further to the left in political terms, movement at once illustrated and embodied by his completion in late September 1932 of Das Manifest, his full oratorio based on the text of The Communist Manifesto. Schulhoff's political priorities and commitments were made manifest again the next year, when he visited the Soviet Union, and in the years thereafter. when he became a believer in, and defender of, Stalin's brand of socialism. Regrettably, he increasingly displayed these same priorities and commitments in his music, which succumbed more and more to the principles—and aesthetic limitations—of socialist realism.

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