Schulhoff, String Quartet No. 1

Erwin Schulhoff

String Quartet No. 1, 1924

Erwin SchulhoffSchulhoff composed his String Quartet No. 1 in 1924 when he was 30. A relatively brief work at about sixteen minutes, it is colorful, unique work that strongly reflects Schulhoff’s Czech heritage as well as a heady mix of styles and trends “in the air” in the experimental mood of the 20’s between the two world wars. The opening Presto con fuoco is an amalgam of lively Czech dance and the motoric, muscular rhythms so prevalent in music of the time. The husky drive is especially reinforced by predominantly unison textures. The second movement is as curious as its title suggests: Allegretto con moto e con maliconia grotesca. Somewhat whimsical if not ironic, a kind of mock sentimentality features the lower voices – viola and cello – along with some wonderfully colorful sonorities through special effects including pizzicato, glissando and ponticello.

The third movement might well be considered the highlight of the quartet. Specifically marked “alla Slovacca”, this giocoso allegro merges the rhythmic drive of the first movement with a full battery of sonic effects for a truly exotic musical experience with folk dance at its vivacious core. After this, the finale comes as a surprise as mood, tempo and even style seem to radically change to a different side of Schulhoff’s musical imagination. Slow, ponderous, and full of unresolved (if understated) tension, the last movement surely reflects Schulhoff’s familiarity with the second Viennese school of Schoenberg and Webern. Late romantic and expressionistic elements create an eerie atmosphere in which the first violin implores with an emphatic recitative that dissolves into suspenseful ticking and then a cryptic hush.

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