Article

Peter A. Coclanis


Literature of the Heart

The Communist Manifesto Oratorio.

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As Schulhoff's musical creativity declined, his living conditions and social status spiraled downward as well. Given the rise of Nazism in Germany, it is, of course, not surprising that a Jewish composer/pianist associated with avant-garde artistic movements and left-wing politics would find life increasingly difficult. Labeled a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis, he was blacklisted from performing in Germany, and his music was banned. After the Germans took Czechoslovakia in 1939, Schulhoff's artistic career, already pinched, was effectively over. He tried repeatedly to emigrate, but before he could—in June 1941—he was arrested and imprisoned in Prague. Not long afterward, he was transferred to a concentration camp in Wülzburg in Bavaria, where he contracted tuberculosis, and died in August 1942. Indeed, among the many largely unremembered victims of the Holocaust were a number of Czech composers: In addition to Schulhoff, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, and Viktor Ullmann died in concentration camps.

What of Schulhoff's oratorio itself? Sadly, the elaborate work—almost 37 minutes long, in four parts, for four solo voices, children's chorus, two mixed choruses, and a military band—is more interesting in historical and intellectual terms than for the music. Loud, even clamorous at times, and—to these ears, at least—primal, didactic, and strangely uninspiring, The Communist Manifesto marked a decisive move by Schulhoff away from avant-garde complexity and toward the simple and elemental. Schulhoff, according to friends, was now interested principally in "class struggle in music," and the oratorio certainly has the "girl meets tractor" quality of much of socialist realism—of works, that is to say, such as Fyodor Gladkov's 1925 novel Cement (not to mention Gladkov's later novel Energy, on the construction of the Dneproges hydroelectric plant).

The libretto to The Communist Manifesto, by the gifted Jewish German-Czech poet Rudolph Fuchs, was—by Schulhoff's decree—basically Marx and Engels channeled. As much as possible, the composer wanted the text of the Manifesto preserved in the oratorio, and that's what he got. The four parts—which translate as "It is High Time!," "Ours Is the World," "That Is What We Intend!," and "Unite!"—all contain language taken directly from Marx and Engels' tract. Not just the famous passages either. If Part 1 starts with the words "A spectre is haunting Europe," and Part 4 ends with the lines "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution! The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains; they have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!"—the nitty gritty of Marx and Engels' text also finds its way into the oratorio.

Here's a sample from Part 2: "The bourgeoisie has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. Man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his relations with his kind." (See Part 1: "Bourgeois and Proletarians," of Marx and Engels' text.) And another, from the beginning of Part 3 of the oratorio: "People are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in the existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths! We are reproached with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for which existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. Precisely so; that just we intend!" (See Part 2: "Proletarians and Communists," of Marx and Engels' text.)

For obvious reasons, Schulhoff's oratorio could not be performed in Czechoslovakia during the 1930s, but parts of it were performed in the Soviet Union during that decade, and, in the early 1960s, the full orchestral work was scored by the Czech composer Svatopluk Havelka (working from the composer's piano version) and performed for the first time in April 1962 by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Schuloff's original orchestral score was later found, and the work performed according to the same. Despite the oratorio's shortcomings, if you chance upon a recording—I've been using the 1977 Supraphon recording, recorded by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in September 1976—it's definitely worth a listen, not only to ponder the legacy of the Manifesto but also to memorialize its composer, yet another victim of the Nazi regime.

Peter A. Coclanis is associate provost for International Affairs and Albert R. Newsome Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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