Leo Smit was born into an affluent and cultured Jewish family in Amsterdam. He received piano lessons from a young age, and he also formed a bond with his younger sister’s harp teacher, Rosa Spier, a world-class harpist who would later introduce some of Smit’s most beloved compositions. He left Amsterdam in 1927 for Paris, where he soaked up the sounds of Stravinsky, Ravel, and the younger composers known collectively as “Les Six” (especially Milhaud and Honneger). Under those influences, Smit developed his own take on neoclassical style, one rooted in French practice but also informed by American jazz and the new German trends of Hindemith and company.
After nine years in Paris and one year in Brussels, Smit returned to his native Amsterdam to compose and teach in 1937. Nazi Germany occupied Holland in 1940, and the perils gradually increased for Smit and other Jews in Amsterdam (including the family of Anne Frank, whose diary captured those years of terror). First he lost the right to perform and teach in 1941; then he and his wife were forced to move into a Jewish ghetto in 1942. He still kept up his composing into the early month of 1943, until that April, when he and his wife were sent to Poland and killed days later at the Sobibor death camp.
Smit’s Sextet for Piano and Winds dates from 1933, during his happy sojourn in Paris. The tradition of chamber music for piano and winds stretched back to Mozart and Beethoven—each wrote a quintet, leaving out the flute—but there was a more recent tradition in France of works for piano and wind quintet, including the watershed Sextet drafted in 1932 by “Les Six” composer Poulenc. Smit’s Sextet develops a bright and sassy neoclassical language in the fast outer movements, surrounding a lyrical and contemplative slow movement.
Aaron Grad ©2016
The Jewish-Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff was a prodigy who gave his first concert tour of Germany at the age of sixteen. After four years of forced military service for Austria during World War I, Schulhoff emerged with strong leftist politics and musical interests ranging from Schoenberg’s atonality to American jazz. His career options in Berlin shriveled as the economic collapse and anti-Semitic tide brought the Nazi party to power, and he was no better off after he returned to Prague, where he was eventually arrested and transferred to a concentration camp in 1941. He died there eight months later, while still attempting to finish his Eighth Symphony.
Schulhoff’s Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass was inspired by a 1924 visit to a Slavic folk festival, where “farmers’ sons and daughters sang and danced incessantly a thousand years of tradition.” He composed the work in a span of four days in 1925, and he introduced it the following year at the Donaueschingen Festival, with fellow composer Paul Hindemith playing viola. Schulhoff cited “Russian-orthodox litany” as the source of the eight-beat accompaniment figures in the opening movement, while the subsequent Furiant plays on the customs of a widespread Czech folkdance. The slow movement takes its cues from a “Carpathian love song,” and the finale introduces “a Slovakian shepherd’s flute theme.”
Aaron Grad ©2016
As a young man, Dvořák’s musical career involved him in all manner of music-making in Prague: He accompanied church services from the organ, played viola in a dance band and in the local opera orchestra, taught piano lessons, and kept up his composing on the side. He might have spent the rest of his life as a cash-strapped freelance musician had it not been for the intervention of a most influential champion, Johannes Brahms, who set Dvořák up with his publisher.
Dvořák composed the Serenade for Winds in 1878, the same year his Slavonic Dances became his first international hit. As in his previous Serenade for Strings from 1875, the title referenced those light-hearted works from Mozart’s time that functioned as entertainment at evening gatherings.
Dvořák’s Serenade opens with march-like music, a fitting tribute to the outdoor origins of the wind ensemble, which traditionally entered and exited a performance playing a march. The minuet that follows is full of playful echoes and melodic counter-lines, making the most of a quick descending motive in the outer sections and an even quicker shaking gesture in the contrasting trio section.
The third movement, marked Andante con moto (At a walking pace, with motion), rolls out beautiful, patient melodies over a lively accompaniment. Operating in the middle ground for most of the movement, the three horns almost steal the show with their infectious offbeats and regal commentaries. The finale features the most overtly “Slavonic” music of the Serenade, showing off Dvořák’s calling card in the early stages of his international career. A momentary return to the opening march music rounds out the form of the Serenade and clears the way for a joyous culmination in D major.
Aaron Grad ©2016