The Guardian

The Guardian February 26, 2003


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Questions answered

Two Guardian readers responded almost instantly to my request for 
information on the composer Erwin (or Ervmn) Schulhoff. You will recall 
that I had found part of a review of a cantata by Schulhoff (spelt with 
only one "f") on the back of a photo of a production of Vishnevsky's Soviet 
play An Optimistic Tragedy.

Both readers identified Schulhoff as a Czech composer and pointed me to 
some useful references.

That review referred to "the certainty that Ervin Schulhof [sic] will reach 
a towering stature as a composer for the masses". And here we (myself and 
those I consulted) made our first mistake.

We identified the photo as probably from the 1960s. That would make the 
forward-looking review also a product of the 1960s and Ervmn Schulhoff our 
contemporary (well, mine, anyway).

But in fact, as a check of the appropriate reference books quickly 
revealed, Schulhoff, a Czech Communist composer of Jewish background, was 
murdered in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48.

As a youngster he had been advised by no less than Dvorak himself to study 
with Kaan at the Prague Conservatory, which he did. Later he was a pupil of 
Debussy. He won the Mendelssohn Prize (for piano) in 1913 and five years 
later won it again, this time for composition.

He became a prolific composer "in the modern vein". In the 1920s, he was 
part of the lively art scene in Germany and later in Prague, involved in 
various art movements, from dadaism to cubism.

He was also an ardent exponent of jazz and a member of the Prague Theatre 
Jazz Orchestra. The Great Depression and the rise of fascism brought him, 
like so many others in the arts in the early '30s, to the working class 
movement and the Communist Party.

Schulhoff was proficient in many genres, "from Germanic late Romanticism to 
impressionism, expressionism, neo-classicism and Bartskian folklorism" as 
one of the reference books has it.

He seems to have regarded socialist realism as yet another genre, rather 
than as a general approach to art. This is a common enough error, examples 
of it pop up all the time.

So what of the clipping's predictions about his future? Clearly, as I said 
before, our identifying of the photograph as being from the '60s was wrong.

In fact, the clipping is almost certainly from a Soviet English-language 
arts magazine of the 1930s (International Theatre perhaps, or even the 
popular International Literature).

In which case, the photo is probably from the much-acclaimed 1934 Moscow 
Kamerny (Chamber) Theatre production of Vishnevsky's play. Even the anti-
Soviet Encyclopaedia Britannica admits that that production, by the 
Kamerny's founder and producer-director, Aleksandr Tairov, "was regarded as 
a high point of Socialist Realist theatre".

Under Tairov, who died in 1950, the Kamerny rivalled the Moscow Art 
Theatre, but was very different. "Tairov's style was avant garde, 
particularly with respect to staging.

"He helped develop the functional 'constructivist' setting, a bare, 
multilevel scaffolding devoid of traditional decorative scenery. His 
approach to theatre was stylised and anti-realistic and was diametrically 
opposed to that of the followers of actor-director Konstantin Stanislavsky" 
 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In Soviet times, the theatre flourished. Even during the days of the 
Revolution and the Civil War, the Soviet Government strove to bring 
progressive culture  including the best of bourgeois culture  to the 
mass of the people.

Theatres were built, large factories developed their own amateur companies, 
an intensive education system encouraged an interest in the arts and state 
subsidies made admission prices nominal. Everyone could go and most of them 
did.

Instead of being a pastime for the well-to-do and the well-educated, 
theatre under socialism became a cultural pursuit of the masses. As it 
should be, and will be, everywhere.

* * *
Confidence in the PM needed, urgently!
I have just received a letter from "Hon. Michael Gallacher, Liberal Member of the Legislative Council". The latter is the NSW Upper House. The Hon. Mikey's letter does not beat around the bush but gets directly to the point: "Dear Mr and Mrs Gowland. Unfortunately we cannot always control the events that create uncertainty in our lives. "It is reassuring that we can have confidence in our Prime Minister John Howard to steer us through these difficult times." [I fall about laughing.] The letter continues: "After all, it's the Federal Government's job to protect our national security." Ah, I see: it's another warning about terrorism. [I quickly check the envelope for a second fridge magnet but draw a blank.] Back to the letter's contents: "But we cannot be so confident at state level. Recent events have exposed a false sense of security in NSW." Clearly revelations are about to follow concerning terrorists running rampant in our fair state. [I quickly check under all the beds for al Qaida agents, but draw another blank.] "The recent rail tragedy at Waterfall, the devastating bushfires across our state and revelations of asbestos in school playgrounds raise serious concerns about the actions of the State Government of New South Wales." Pardon? What have these to do with national security? And although John Howard was in charge of the country when they all took place I suspect that the Hon. Michael Gallacher MLC does not intend that we should hold Howard responsible for them. Mind you, the Federal Government's starving of the States of funds for public transport, its strongarm pressure on state governments to privatise and contract out, are ultimately major contributors to the run-down and dangerous state of what's left of the NSW railway system. Gallacher does not promise that a Liberal government in NSW would do anything to upgrade public transport (or increase funding to the Rural Fire Service). Instead, he promises that "NSW Liberal Leader John Brogden" will "put police back on the beat" and "introduce tough compulsory sentencing laws". Ah, yes. It's a law and order campaign. Stiffer sentences; always a vote winner especially if you have absolutely nothing else to offer.

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