Erwin Schulhoff’s Flammen returns to the stage 90 years after its debut

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s only opera, Flammen is returning to the stage in the original Czech for the first time since its premiere in 1932. The opera is a part of the National Theatre of Prague’s Musica non Grata series—translation: unwelcomed music—“revives the artistic legacy of male and female composers important to the musical life of interwar Czechoslovakia who were persecuted by National Socialism for religious, racial, political or gender reasons.”  The Nazis’ persecution of these composers silenced their music and ended their careers in Germany. The ones lucky enough to emigrate often had difficulty finding new audiences for their music. After the United States denied Schulhoff’s visa request, Schulhoff received a visa to emigrate to the Soviet Union in 1941, right before Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union. Unable to leave in time, Schulhoff was arrested and sent to Wülzburg concentration camp where he died in 1942.

Schulhoff’s music was influenced by the political turmoil of his time. His time as a soldier in the Austrian Army during WWI pushed him towards Avant Garde artistic movements after the war. His interest in communism was buttressed by the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascistic movements in Europe. In 1932, he set the Communist Manifesto to music, but was never performed at the time. His music became the outlet for his artistic and political beliefs.

Flammen was conceived in 1923 with librettist Karel Josef Beneš as a retelling of the story of Don Juan. Rather than the descent into hell, most famously depicted in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Schulhoff’s Don Juan was relegated to immortality, a punishment worse than death. Completed in 1929, the opera premiered in National Theatre in Brno in 1932. The opera was an immediate flop, perhaps it was the Avant Garde story told in chapters, or perhaps the eclectic mix of music—Stravinsky neo-classicism, Ravel impressionism, plain chant, jazz bands—confused the audience. During revisions, the opera was slated to premiere in Germany with a German libretto by Max Brod, but the premiere was cancelled after the Nazis obtained power.

In 1994, Flammen finally acieved its German debut in Berlin. After that it was recorded as a part Decca’s Entartete Musik series. The following clips come for a live recording by the Vienna Radio Symphony orchestra in 2006.

saxophone ends at 9:23

The following theme is heard here in Scene 8 comes back near the end of the opera. I’m only posting it once since it’s the same music.

Saxophones end at 1:05

In the Entartate Musik series, it’s slightly easier to hear the saxophone in the jazz band, here is an example of the jazz band playing a tango.

saxophones end at around :50

Unlike other German Zeitopern composers, Schulhoff reserves the saxophone for the jazz band ensemble, using soprano, alto and tenor. The distance of the saxophones indicates the jazz band is either located on the stage or off the stage, harkening back to the saxophone in French opera.

If Erwin Schulhoff’s name is familiar to you, you might be familiar with his alto saxophone solo, Hot Sonate. Hot Sonate was written at the same time Schulhoff was working on Flammen. Unfortunately, Hot Sonate is not a solo I have studied, so I would need time to analyze it to see if it has similarities to the opera. In 1932, Schulhoff planned to open a jazz school in Germany, that dream was never realized. Schulhoff, along with other marginalized composers found their works banned, and almost erased from the public memory. Thanks to Entartete Musik series and Musica non Grata for bringing these works back to life.

Flammen is currently playing at the National Theatre of Prague.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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