125 Mark Fewer, violin

Thalea String Quartet: Chris Whitley, Kumiko Sakamoto, violins; Lauren Spaulding, viola; Alex Cox, cello; with Jeanie Chung, piano

Tuning Your Mind | 12.15 | Walter Hall, U of T

Music historian Robin Elliott
Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet and the WMCT’s second 25 years

WMCT at 125: Historical Perspectives

For this special season, WMCT artistic director Simon Fryer has created an imaginative series that constitutes a reflection upon the past 125 years of the WMCT, of the city of Toronto, and of international music history. To accomplish all of this within just five concerts, he has divided that 125-year span into five 25-year blocks. As 25 years is the length of a generation, Simon had the additional creative idea of including, in each concert, musicians who are in a mentor/mentee relationship, thus reflecting the past, present and future of the invited guest artists, as well as of the WMCT itself. For each concert, an anchor work is drawn from one of the five 25-year blocks of time, which provides an opportunity to reflect upon that period in WMCT and world history. Here is some historical background on the second period.

2. 1924 to 1948          

Concert 5: Mark Fewer, violin, May 4, 2023

Anchor work: Erwin Schulhoff, Five Pieces for String Quartet, 1923 (published 1925)

This second 25-year period in the life of the WMCT would bring the club to its knees at first, and then to temporary defeat, but in the end, it would rise again to fight another day. In world history this era was dominated by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the horrors of the Second World War, with its massive military campaigns in Europe and Asia, the shattering genocide of the Holocaust, and the fateful decision to drop on Japan two nuclear bombs whose destructive power would haunt the world’s collective imagination forever thereafter. As had been the case with the First World War, so too the Second World War redrew the political landscape and shifted the world into new, competing spheres of influence and value systems. The very end of this period witnessed the beginning of the Cold War, whose strategic and economic conflicts and challenges would endure for 40 years.

The Globe and Mail announces the end of the European campaign of the Second World War on 8 May 1945

These troubles could hardly have been anticipated by anyone during the remarkable economic and cultural recovery immediately after the First World War, which inaugurated a period known as the Roaring Twenties. There was a new sense of freedom and adventure in the air in the aftermath of the collapse of the old social and political orders as represented by the fall of the Russian (1917), Austro-Hungarian (1918), German (1918), and Ottoman (1922) empires. Jazz proliferated and circulated throughout the world, becoming so popular that this era is also known as the Jazz Age. Dance crazes such as the foxtrot, shimmy, Charleston, and Lindy Hop spread like wildfire and spawned countless dance clubs, studios, and competitions. Mass-market advertising created a new demand for consumer goods, and electronic and print media catered to the nascent celebrity culture centred on the off-screen activities of Hollywood movie stars. Radio and cinema brought the spirit of the times into people’s homes and lives with an impact that was more direct and powerful than had ever been experienced before. It was a time of exuberance, excess, and hedonism … and it could not last.

Charleston contest, Sunnyside Beach, July 20 1926

The wake-up call came with the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression. The optimism and carefree attitude of the 1920s came to an abrupt halt as the economy shrank dramatically and millions faced grim new economic realities. The WMCT was by no means immune from these troubles. Declining membership numbers and the increased cost of hiring professional musicians (as opposed to relying on club members to perform the recitals) meant that the WMCT was financially exposed by the late 1920s, with just $8.95 in the bank as the world stumbled towards an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. A motion was tabled to disband the WMCT at a meeting in September 1929; it did not pass, but it indicated the severity of the troubles the club was experiencing.

Marian Anderson photographed by Yousuf Karsh

With hard work, imaginative programming, and a certain amount of good luck, the WMCT persevered and actually enjoyed an impressive increase in membership numbers, from 284 in 1929 to 626 in 1930. Signal events of the 1930s included appearances by Uday Shankar and s Company of Hindu Dancers and Musicians from India in 1933 (Uday was Ravi Shankar’s older brother), the eminent Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia in 1936, and the legendary African American contralto Marian Anderson in 1936 with a return appearance in 1937.

By 1933 the unemployment rate in Toronto had hit 30%, and those who were employed saw their wages drop precipitously. Depression-era Toronto is vividly portrayed in the novels of Morley Callaghan and Hugh Garner. Garner’s Cabbagetown (1950) is a retrospective view of the Irish slum of that name in Toronto and remains the classic Canadian novel about the Depression era. (Cabbagetown itself was razed in the late 1940s to create Regent Park, which in turn was torn down beginning in 2005 as part of a decades-long redevelopment project that is still in progress). Despite the hard times, ambitious building projects continued to transform the local cityscape, notably the Art Deco-style 34-storey Canadian Bank of Commerce Building (now called Commerce Court North), which after its completion in 1930 remained for three decades the tallest building in the British Empire; it still stands at 35 King St. West. Another Art Deco building that opened in 1930 was Eaton’s College Street (now College Park), whose seventh floor housed Eaton Auditorium, which would serve as a venue for WMCT concerts for 45 years. The hall was mothballed in 1977 and remained closed for decades, but after extensive restoration it reopened as “The Carlu” in 2003.

The 1950 paperback first edition of Cabbagetown

Throughout this entire period, writers, artists, and musicians gathered at the cosmopolitan Hambourg Conservatory, located at the corner of Sherbourne and Wellesley streets. Founded by the Russian-born pianist Michael Hambourg in 1911, it operated after Michael’s death in 1916 under the direction of his son Boris until 1951. Boris’s brother Clement opened the House of Hambourg at 1184 Bay Street in 1946; it was one of the first after-hours jazz clubs in Toronto. Boris Hambourg was also the cellist of the famed Hart House String Quartet, formed in 1924 as Canada’s first fully professional chamber ensemble. The quartet appeared with the WMCT just once, in 1925, but also ran its own local recital series. It appeared on tour throughout Canada, the USA, and Europe, was heard on broadcasts for the CBC and BBC, and recorded for the RCA Victor label. A planned European tour to celebrate the ensemble’s fifteenth anniversary during the 1938–39 season had to be cancelled because of the worsening political situation there. The quartet gave its final concerts in April 1946.

The Hart House Quartet: Geza de Kresz, first violin; Milton Blackstone, viola; Boris Hambourg, cello; and Harry Adaskin, second violin. Linocut caricature by J. W. McLaren

The guiding light of music in Toronto during this era was Ernest MacMillan, who was knighted in 1935 for his services to music in Canada. MacMillan had his finger in a great many musical pies, serving as the Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (1926–42), Dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music (1926–52), and conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (1931–56) and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (1942–57). He also enjoyed close relations with the WMCT. He made his debut with the club in 1904 as a precocious ten-year-old organist, playing two solos and offering Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as an encore. He went on to appear as a performer on half a dozen other occasions up to 1948, including a recital in 1930 at which his String Quartet and Two Sketches for Strings were performed.

Igor Stravinsky with Ernest MacMillan in 1937

The arts in Toronto were making a gradual transition during this period from a situation in which talented amateurs dominated the local scene to one in which professionals occupied the leading positions, both individually and as guiding spirits for the larger arts organizations. The city enjoyed visits by leading international musicians, including Maurice Ravel in 1928, George Gershwin in 1934, and Igor Stravinsky, in the first of his many visits to the city, to conduct the suites from his ballets Firebird and Petrushka with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1937. In his review for the Globe and Mail, Lawrence Mason noted that Stravinsky’s performance was greeted by “clamping and stamping and cheering and shouts of ‘Bravo!’,” as well as several curtain calls.

In an attempt to repeat the strategy that had enabled it to survive the First World War, the WMCT mounted a series of fund-raising concerts in aid of the Red Cross from 1939 to 1941 that raised over $5,000; not as much as had been raised during the previous war, but a respectable amount, nonetheless. For the first few wartime seasons, the WMCT was able to continue its other concert giving activities more or less as usual. By the end of the club’s 44th season, however, the strain of mounting concerts in straitened wartime circumstances proved to be too much, and in September 1942 the WMCT voted to discontinue activities for the duration of the war.

Cover of a Naxos CD of music by Erwin Schulhoff, released in October 2022, with a portrait of the composer made in 1924 by the German artist Conrad Felixmüller.

The life story of Erwin Schulhoff, the composer of Five Pieces for String Quartet,the anchor work for this 25-year period, encapsulates the tragic nature of this era in world history. Born in Prague in 1894, he was a musical prodigy whose studies were encouraged by the likes of Antonín Dvořák and Claude Debussy. He was thoroughly trained in composition, having studied in Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, and Cologne. Conscripted into the Austrian army in 1914, he served in the military for the entire duration of the war, initially in Russia and later in Italy; he ended his wartime service with a stint in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, he resumed his musical career in Germany, then returned to Prague in 1923, joining the faculty of the Prague Conservatory in 1929. His enthusiasms ranged widely, from twelve-tone music and dada to jazz, neoclassicism, and Czech folksong; he added each new idiom to his palette to increase the range of expressive possibilities. For example his only opera, Plameny (“Flames,” 1929), is based on the Don Juan story and incorporates influences ranging from Gregorian chant through Mozart and Wagner to jazz.

With the rise of fascism in Germany and the increasing persecution of Jews, Schulhoff, who was of German-Jewish descent, became such a committed follower of communism that he set the Communist Manifesto to music as an oratorio in 1932. After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1933, he became a convert to Stalinist socialist realism in music and even dedicated his Sixth Symphony (1940–41) to the Red Army. But Schulhoff was living on borrowed time after the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1939. He became a Soviet citizen in May 1941 and was planning to emigrate to the Soviet Union; however, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Schulhoff was arrested in Prague and then imprisoned in the Wülzburg fortress, 60 km south of Nuremberg. He died there of tuberculosis a year later. Though forgotten for decades after the Second World War, the recent revival of interest in the music of composers suppressed by the Nazi regime has led to a renewal of interest in his music. A bust of Schulhoff was installed on the grounds of Wülzburg fortress in 2004. The May 2023 concert will mark the first time that Schulhoff’s music has been heard in a WMCT recital.

After the end of the Second World War, the WMCT executive elected to resume concert giving activities and hold its concerts in Eaton Auditorium, which seated 1,264 people. It was an ambitious, perhaps even foolhardy choice, as the club membership numbered about one-third of the available seats in that venue, but the decision eventually paid off thanks to a gradual but steady increase in membership numbers. The WMCT celebrated its 50th anniversary modestly, with tea and cake provided by Eaton’s for the opening recital of the season in October 1947, given by the Hungarian tenor Miklos Gafni. Gafni’s dramatic life story also illustrates the tragic nature of these times, but with a happier conclusion than Schulhoff’s.

The arrest of Miklos Gafni (third from left) by the Nazis, as recreated for the biopic A Voice is Born (1947).

Gafni’s experiences during the war are related in a Columbia short film titled A Voice is Born that was released in the same year as his WMCT appearance. Gafni was freed from a concentration camp in Hungary when it was liberated by the Soviet army, but he was soon recaptured by the Germans and sent to the Mauthausen slave labour camp. According to a contemporary newspaper account, Gafni weighed just 90 pounds when he was liberated from Mauthausen and spent six weeks in a US military hospital recovering. He then returned to Budapest and began his singing career; in 1947 he made his New York debut, which led to international tours and widespread fame.

Looking back at the conclusion of the 50th anniversary season in 1948, the WMCT could be thankful that it had been brought back to life after the war-imposed hiatus. Although it would have been hard to predict it at the time, given the still-precarious financial situation and modest membership numbers, great things lay in store for the WMCT during the next 25-year period.

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