Paul Schoenfield, Composer


Echoes of Mozart, Brahms, Bartok and Shostakovich and a host of other ingredients impart an infectious zest, and distinctive flavor, to Paul Schoenfield’s music. He moves with what has been called “wizardly ease” from jazz to popular styles, from vaudeville and klezmer (an Eastern European Jewish music that features a quirky clarinet) to folk music and dances from different cultures. Sometimes in a single composition.

The result is a rhythmic, melodic, often exuberant music that disarmsthen captivatesaudiences and is fun for classical musicians to play. Indeed, Schoenfield has received commissions, grants and awards from Chamber Music America, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Fund, the America Composers Forum and many other organizations; his compositions can be heard on Angel, Decca/London’s Argo label, Vanguard, innova, EMI, Koch, BMG and New World.

Like the music of Gershwin, to which it has been compared, Schoenfield’s sparkles with wit and energy and draws deeply on the composer’s Jewish roots. His Klezmer Rondos for flute, baritone and orchestra, for example, evokes not only Jewish folk songs, but also Hasidic-style dances. His opera, The Merchant and the Pauper (1999), is based on a story by Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava. “The composer’s grasp of music history joins hands with popular and folk traditions of America and beyond,” Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg has noted. “This is crossover art achieved with seamless craftsmanship.”

Born in Detroit in 1947, Paul Schoenfield was composing music by the age of seven. He studied piano, which he had been playing since the age of six, with Julius Chajes, Ozan Marsh and Rudolf Serkin and toured the U.S., Europe and South America both as a soloist and with groups from Music from Marlboro and elsewhere. Among other things, Schoenfield recorded Bartok’s complete works for violin and piano with violinist Sergiu Luca. He holds a doctorate in music arts from the University of Arizona.

From 1988 to 1993, while his wife was doing her medical residency at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Cleveland, Schoenfield taught piano at the nearby University of Akron. Taken with the versatile fiddling of Cleveland Orchestra violinist Lev Polyakin, who regularly sat in with jazz musicians at a local establishment known as Nighttown after orchestra concerts, Schoenfield became an enthusiastic, and much beloved, participant in the city’s musical life. In 1994, the same year he was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize, an evening of Schoenfield pieces was presented at Reinberger Chamber Hall by Polyakin and other members of the Cleveland Orchestra with the composer at the piano.

A compact disc titled Cafe Music (after the infectious three-movement romp for violin, cello and piano that had become the talk of Cleveland music circles) sold briskly. Donald Rosenberg dubbed it “irresistible.” It included a brand new composition, no doubt inspired by Cleveland's rich ethnic stew, called Slovakian Childrens Songs.

Saxophonist John Sampen joined Schoenfield (piano) and Cleveland Orchestra stars Michael Sachs (trumpet), Thomas Sperl (bass) and Donald Miller (percussion) for Burlesque, an early piece based on a National Enquirer story about a stripper. And principal violist Robert Vernon, who joined Polyakin, cellist Nathaniel Rosen and the composer on Carolina Reveille, Schoenfield’s sly variations on the pop tune “Carolina in the Morning.” Vernon convinced orchestra management to let him give the world premiere performance of Schoenfield’s viola concerto in1998.

“I realized from a very young age that Western classical [music] was finished,” Schoenfield has said, with his tongue perhaps partly in his cheek, “although I continue to do it.” He is not above occasionally giving some of his great predecessors a playful elbow in the ribs, as when he employs a dour snippet of music from Mahle’s Second Symphony to segue into a set of variations on the popular Brazilian song “Tico-Tico no fubo” in Vaudeville, a droll concertino for piccolo trumpet and chamber orchestra cheekily modeled on Schumann’s Carnaval. Critic Raymond Tuttle called it “some of the most life-affirming new music I’ve heard in a long time,” while he characterized Schoenfield’s Four Parables, a concerto for piano and orchestra written for pianist Jeffrey Kahane, as “wild silliness in the face of existential dread.”

In April 2002, Camp Songs, a work commissioned by Music of Remembrance for MOR’s annual Holocaust Remembrance concert, was given its world premiere in Seattle’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s R. M. Campbell found the new work, a setting of five poems written by the Polish poet Aleksander Kulisiewicz during his internment at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, “one of Schoenfield’s most brilliant and telling pieces of music,” bristling with “corrosive commentary on the Holocaust and those whom it caught in its web of horror and humiliation.” Scored for two singers and an ensemble identical to that of Schubert’s famous “Trout" Quintet, but substituting an indignant, fiercely articulate clarinet for the viola, Camp Songs perfectly captured the “sour sarcasm, grotesque imagery and acrid wit among the ruin of millions of lives.” The work was “a powerful testimony,” said Campbell, “to the will to remain articulate under the most adverse circumstances, to keep on’s human dignity, and ultimately to survive.”

The composer currently divides his time between Cleveland and Migdal HaEmeq, Israel.

—Dennis Dooley

For more on the composer, visit

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •