Tag Archives: Arnold Schoenberg

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.

Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

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

Musical Motivation

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Motivation to compose music is often portrayed in spiritual terms. A flash of inspiration consumes an abnormally gifted individual. A supernaturally selected musician channels a mysterious surge of energy. A person becomes possessed by cosmic sounds, which find their way onto the manuscript page. Melodramatic depictions like these were promulgated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and continue to influence how we think of the music writing process. Composition is viewed as an inaccessible and unlearnable art. It is the endeavor of a chosen few, who have been blessed by fate and deemed worthy by the heavens above.

In case these characterizations seem exaggerated, let us look at a couple of actual examples. Music critic and theoretician Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) wrote this of a compositional moment: “The lightning flash of a thought suddenly crashed down, at once illuminating and creating the entire work in the most dazzling light. Such works were conceived and received in one stroke.” Arnold Schoenberg perpetuated this sensational image, stating that musical inspiration can well up as “a subconsciously received gift from the Supreme Commander.”

Such statements are faulty for at least four reasons. First, they imagine music as materializing out of thin air. Without preparation or hesitation, the composer sits at the piano and lets the opus pour forth. But anyone who has improvised music or jotted down a melody knows that it involves practice, forethought and trial and error. Moreover, most composers write within generative musical systems, which provide structures and formulas to draw upon. Their motivation is exposure and experience, not divine direction.

A second and related issue is the false notion that composition cannot be taught, learned or acquired. Romantics and their ideological inheritors willfully ignore that composition has many prerequisites: listening, studying, performing, reading, etc. Rather than a skill bestowed at birth or received through revelation, music writing is available to anyone who has the desire, discipline and determination to do it.

Third is the elitism implicit in the mystical view. Almost without exception, writings about the inspirational muse involve composers of Western art music. It is their music that cannot be replicated. Classically trained musicians like Schenker and Schoenberg acknowledged that folk music and other popular forms exist in wide variety. But, for them, the homegrown-ness and abundance of such music indicated its worldly origins, and made it less than the rarified creations of “high culture.” The bias of this view is too obvious to warrant comment.

Fourth, most of the world’s music has practical aims. The impulse to compose is more likely to come from necessity than artistic urge. The many functions of music range from instruction and storytelling to work and exercise. These “mundane” motivations have proven strong enough to generate the majority of music ever heard.

And then there’s the revealing statement from Cole Porter. When asked what stimulates him to write, he responded: “My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a producer.”

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