A Windfall of Musicians (Book Review)

A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California, by Dorothy Lamb Crawford. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. 318 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Immediately following his appointment as chancellor in January of 1933, Hitler launched an aggressive attack on Germany’s radio, press, film, music, and publishing industries. Hitler was himself an unsuccessful artist and amateur musician, who was denied entrance to art school in Vienna and failed in his effort to complete the text, design the sets, and compose the music for a mythic play Wagner had tossed aside. Control of the arts and media was given to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw the content of every German newspaper, book, novel, play, film, broadcast, and concert, big and small. Goebbels gave the rationale for Nazi censorship, especially regarding music: “Judaism and German music are opposing forces which by nature stand in glaring contradiction to each other. The war against Judaism in German music—for which Richard Wagner once assumed sole responsibility [was to be carried out by] a united people.” As a result, Jewish composers, conductors, and performers who had once thrived in the Weimer Republic were now forced into silence and expulsion.

Musicologist Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s well-researched and informative book, A Windfall of Musicians, chronicles how many of these musicians fled Europe and gathered in the Los Angeles area beginning in the 1930s. As she explains in the unusually engaging Preface, Hitler’s rise to power coincided with the emergence of sound technology in Hollywood films. These converging developments brought an array of talented European musicians to the promising, though yet untapped, Los Angeles music scene. Crawford writes, “they constituted Hitler’s (unintentional) gift to American music” (p. ix), and helped transform Southern California from a “cultural desert” to a “musical mecca” (p. xi).

The book profiles fourteen composers, sixteen performers, and one opera stage director whose impact on the Los Angeles area was felt in the film industry, concert halls, universities, and through private teaching. Some of these musicians left Europe with impressive resumes and reputations, while others rose to prominence during their time in Southern California. Still others never quite established themselves in a cultural environment that for the most part resisted musical innovation. Even well known personalities like Arnold Schoenberg had trouble convincing the unsophisticated Los Angeles public to embrace his twelve-tone system; and Ernst Toch, one of the great avant-garde composers of the pre-Nazi era, constantly fought the label “film composer,” which he felt was beneath him. The book’s greatest attribute is its treatment of the struggles and successes of these immigrant musicians, both famous and lesser known.

The breadth and detail of this study are commendable, and evade summary in a short review. However, a couple of accounts gleaned from its pages should provide a sense of its fascinating subject matter. The third chapter profiles German-born conductor Otto Klemperer, who arrived in Los Angeles on October 14, 1933, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 1939, when he was incorrectly diagnosed with a brain tumor. Klemperer, a temperamental perfectionist, brought instant and marked improvement to the hitherto unimpressive orchestra. His first performance left audience members with the impression that he had brought the musicians with him from Europe, so changed was their sound. He was taken aback when he heard whistling in the crowd’s rousing ovation, which in Europe was a sign of disapproval.

The book also offers several portraits of composers in the motion picture business (chapter 8). Among them is Franz Waxman, who scored a number of classic films, such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and A Christmas Carol (1938), and earned the Academy Award for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). The seriousness with which he approached film composing was characteristic of this intense and highly trained group of composers. In a letter to the producers of The Nun’s Story (1959), Waxman complained about the late starting dates and short deadlines typically given for film scores: “Babies are not born overnight . . . and so it is with music or anything completely creative. . . . Everyone else connected with this picture has now been thoroughly drenched in it . . . and has had time to give it adequate thought. How, then, can a composer, if he is to do a decent job of creating, see a film one day and start writing it the next morning at nine o’clock?” (pp. 171-172).

Additional musicians featured include composer Igor Stravinsky, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, singer Lotte Lehmann, and many more who “managed to find personal self-renewal through individual journeys of discovery in their Californian lives” (p. 243). The depth with which Crawford delves into each biography varies, with some taking up an entire chapter (e.g., Klemperer, Schoenberg, Toch, and Stravinsky), and others just a few paragraphs. At times, these read like encyclopedia entries, with both the wealth of information and the dryness one would expect from such a resource. Still, Crawford’s enthusiasm for the book’s musicians and the Southern California setting is palpable. She has amassed a comprehensive survey of lasting value, and a worthy homage to this remarkable assemblage of vibrant personalities and artistic talent.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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