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Tennis with Gershwin

Review of A Windfall of Musicians, Dorothy Lamb Crawford

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, July 2010

During the 1930s, Los Angeles's cultural life was transformed by an influx of European emigres, many of them Jews escaping from Hitler's Europe. Among these exiles were some of the most prominent composers of the time, headed by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, and some of the most eminent performing musicians, including Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Lotte Lehmann. As Klemperer's biographer Peter Heyworth remarked, during the years from 1933 until the end of the 1960s Los Angeles became host to "a greater concentration of musical talent than existed in any other city at that time".

A Windfall of Musicians deals comprehensively with performers and teachers, though its main concern is with the composers. Many of them headed for Hollywood, with idealistic visions of a genuinely popular art form to which they could contribute. Their ideals were soon shattered: Crawford's excellent chapter on the 'Picture Business' makes dispiriting reading. Most Hollywood composers were treated like workers on a production line rather than as artists. Among them were Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill. Weill made at least ten trips to Hollywood from his base in New York; he wrote some film scores but felt he was prostituting his art. Eisler had similar feelings, even though he was nominated twice for Academy Awards and worked with Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir. Only Erich Korngold was given special treatment: he could refuse projects, had a certain degree of artistic control, and was paid more than any other film composer.

The parallel careers of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Los Angeles are an interesting study in adaptation to a new environment. Schoenberg, with his uncompromising temperament, was in some respects the less successful. Shortly after Schoenberg arrived in California in 1934, Klemperer performed his string orchestral arrangement of Verklärte Nacht to great acclaim: composer and conductor were recalled to the stage five times. But there were to be few performances of his new pieces and these were generally received with bewilderment, even though Schoenberg had made a partial return to tonality as a gesture towards accessibility. His one venture into Hollywood was a failure, though it need not have been. Irving Thalberg at MGM wanted Schoenberg to write the music for a film of Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth and offered him $30,000 (even Korngold only got $12,500), but Schoenberg demanded $50,000 and total artistic control: not surprisingly, that was the end of the discussion. Much of Schoenberg's energy went into teaching. His most famous American pupil was John Cage, though Cage can hardly be said to have learnt or gained much from him, except perhaps independence of mind and a fund of anecdotes. Schoenberg's most talented American pupil was Leon Kirchner, whose own music has a Schoenbergian integrity and toughness.

Stravinsky, by contrast, seems immediately to have made himself at home. Schoenberg may have played tennis with George Gershwin, but Stravinsky had so many invitations to film star parties that his wife Vera and his amanuensis Robert Craft had to intervene. He wrote a jazz concerto for Woody Herman and a Circus Polka for a ballet of elephants (one cannot imagine Schoenberg doing that). He also wrote some of his finest works in California: Symphony in Three Movements, Orpheus, Agon. Unlike Schoenberg, Stravinsky had no problems earning money. When Schoenberg's pupil Nathaniel Shilkret commissioned six composers to join him in the writing a seven-movement Genesis Suite, he offered a commission fee for each composer of $300, but Stravinsky characteristically held out for $1,000. Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky failed to get his own way in Hollywood when he approached various studios, though he didn't object to Disney using a drastically cut version of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.

Crawford devotes a chapter to Ernst Toch. Born in Vienna in 1887 and like Schoenberg a largely self-taught composer, Toch is neglected today, though he was one of the frequently performed young composers in Weimar Germany (he had moved to Germany in 1909). Since he was a Jew, all this ended in 1933 and he emigrated the following year. In Los Angeles, Toch worked in films but with increasing frustration; he also taught. It was only in the last years of his life that he regained the freedom to compose prolifically: he wrote his First Symphony at the age of sixty-three and composed six more before his death at seventy-six. All seven symphonies have been recorded: they are quirkily individual, highly musical and inventive. Toch could be seen as one of the casualties of forced emigration; but he reinvented himself, and should not be forgotten.

If Hitler had never come to power, Austro-German musical culture would have pursued a radically different course. Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Toch, Weill and younger composers such as Berthold Goldschmidt would most likely have stayed in Europe; the flourishing new opera to which they all contributed would have continued, with probable rich results. It is extremely unlikely that Anton Webern (ironically, a naïve admirer of Hitler) would have become the patron saint of a new, fiercely anti-popularist music, as happened at Darmstadt after the war. Weill might well have become the dominant composer in Germany. His opera Die Bürgschaft had four productions before the Nazis came to power, and his masterly Second Symphony, even though its Amsterdam premiere in 1934 was a critical failure, confirmed him as a serious composer and the true heir of his teacher Ferruccio Busoni, not simply Brecht's collaborator in hit musicals. Crawford's fascinating study shows how productive was America's - and particularly Los Angeles - gain, but also how irreparable was Europe's loss.