A Feisstian View of Schoenberg in America
Just as I completed reading Sabine Feisst’s excellent Schoenberg’s New World – the American Years, the Times Literary Supplement asked if I would review two new books on Schoenberg. I won’t give away any trade secrets, but as the TLS didn’t review Prof. Feisst’s book, I thought I would write it up on the Forbidden Music blog – not as a review, but as an over-view of what I consider a very important piece of ‘exile’ scholarship. As so frequently when focusing on a single composer, writers can fail to see the threads of commonality that exist between groups who faced similar situations. In many ways, her book is as relevant to Schoenberg as it is for say, Ernst Toch, or Ernst Krenek. There are even some similarities with the experiences of Kurt Weill, Erich Korngold and Hanns Eisler, all of whom, like Schoenberg, managed to avoid the destitution of Alexander Zemlinsky and Béla Bartók.
(Schoenberg’s Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl based on Gurrelieder, commissioned by Leopold Stokowski and completed by Leonard Stein for its premiere in 1977)
Sabine Feisst sets out to refute beyond all reasonable doubt the European-centric view that Arnold Schoenberg was poor, forgotten, unappreciated and alone in what Krenek called the ‘echoless’ United States. The European view of Schoenberg in America is hardly lightweight: Theodor W. Adorno, who was critical of Schoenberg, especially his 12 tone technique (or ‘method’, whichever you prefer), had a number of intellectual axes to grind. He found in Thomas Mann the perfect axe-grinder and supplied much of the background information for Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the central character of which is a composer who comes up with the means of composing using 12 tones after making a syphilitic pact with the devil. But even hagiographic accounts of Schoenberg’s life in America make for inaccurate reading. H.H. Stuckenschmidt and Willi Reich most notably come into this category and Feisst goes on to mention a number of other familiar names with whom Schoenberg corresponded such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Politics have also played a role in slanting Schoenberg’s American years this way or that, depending on the left, or less frequently, right-wing leanings of the European scholar. Feisst’s book not only offers a mountain of empirical research, but also a pass-word protected website with access to photos, recordings and performances to works that feature in the book.
Second Chamber Symphony op. 38: Adagio:
Are there negative things that I could write about Schoenberg’s New World? I wish I could come up with a few, but they’re fiddly and fussy and barely worth mentioning. In addition, I haven’t a clue as to how one could circumnavigate my one quibble, which consists of confronting an immodest number of lists. As Feisst is trying to back up her points with proof, she has little option but to offer a seemingly endless roll call of prominent pupils, conductors and ensembles; performances and to top it all off, income from teaching, conducting and royalties. In the teeth of steely-eyed European cultural opposition, she needs the heavy weaponry of tedious lists, with all monetary units scrupulously translated into 2009 prices. This, however, is easily offset by a writing style of enviable clarity and elegance, such as seldom found in American musicological tomes, all the more remarkable, as English is not her first language. It is nearly impossible for even the most fluent Teutonic English speakers to shake off the convoluted syntax of their native German. Read anything by Michael Kater to get an idea of what I mean. This is, therefore, a book for scholars, fellow musicologists and most importantly, people who are interested in the music of the 20th century.
Schoenberg’s personality was a mixture of complex contradictions: paranoia, vulnerability, authoritarianism, pride, idealism – to name just the most obvious – meaning anyone can find a suitable Schoenberg quote to support their view of his experience in America. Numerous biographies and lexicon articles also inform us that Schoenberg was in continuous financial difficulty. Feisst informs us to the contrary and from 1936 until 1944, he had a medium income of some $74,000 in today’s terms. He lived in a mock-Spanish villa in expensive Brentwood with film-star neighbours.
There are equally complex mixes of politics, Zionism, a return to tonality and his stab at politically engaged works – a point over which he and Hanns Eisler, his former pupil from Viennese days, had bitterly disagreed.
‘Ode to Napoleon’ written with the idea of using as American war propaganda 1942:
Though rather than taking Milton Babbitt, Lou Harrison or Elliot Carter, all of whom showed Schoenbergian influences in their own works and teachings (even if only Harrison would study with him), I’m inclined to go with Christopher Hailey’s view that in many ways, Schoenberg and other émigrés helped formulate an authentically American voice in 20th century music. The demarcation was so extreme that talented young Americans took what they needed and went their own way. It explains the lessons offered to the likes of Oscar Levant, or the interest shown by George Gershwin, not to mention a select number of Hollywood composers such as Alfred Newman. Yes, atonality and 12 tone methods became the standard for American academia after the war, but the music that would come out of Princeton and Yale would never achieve more than a distant, inward resonance. Composers such as John Cage and Henry Cowell – both of whom studied with Schoenberg, or at least attended the occasional master-class, tend to stand out more among post-war American composers. In the case of John Cage and Marc Blitzstein (who studied with Schoenberg in Berlin), they went to great lengths to distance themselves from their teacher, in a sense, confirming Hailey’s view.
Brahms piano quartet arrangement by Schoenberg, a work that gained considerable popularity and was one of his first works completed in America:
Where Schoenberg’s experience is common with that of Ernst Toch and Ernst Krenek, is in the support shown by fellow-émigrés in charge of American orchestras and institutions. This was certainly not the case with musical émigrés in Great Britain, where orchestras, broadcasting and schools remained stolidly British. Of the 70 composers who came to the UK with some reputation already established in their homelands, nearly all stopped composing for a period during their years of British exile. America’s naïve audiences were simply less prejudiced, and while they may have shuffled uncomfortably in their seats, bemused at the strange sounds they heard from the orchestra, they were eager to explore why such noises were new and what they meant. Pre-concert talks were well-attended and America was full of new-music enthusiasts who could explain unfamiliar works, often taking them through tone-rows and having the audience sing along until they had the configuration in their ears.
One of the unexpected facts to come from Feisst’s research is the degree to which Schoenberg was known, if not quite established, before his arrival in America. It is here that we encounter the first of many Feisst-lists. These are important, because they give proof of high-profile press reports from as early as 1907. From 1913 until 1917, when America entered the First World War and German music was removed from programming, Schoenberg works were being performed in all of America’s major cities by its most important orchestras. In October 1913, only a year after the world-premiere, Chicago presented his Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16 – not a great success, it must be reported – but even if dismissed as ‘a congress of polecats’, it was followed up with an additional performance the same year in Boston.
(Schoenberg: Vorgefühle from his op 16 Five Pieces for Orchestra)
Leopold Stokowski was an indefatigable promoter of Schoenberg in America, even paying for performances out of his own pocket. After the First World War, there was hardly a conductor of note, including Arturo Toscanini, who did not perform works by Schoenberg with an American ensemble. Feisst points out that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring would not receive its American premiere until the year after Schoenberg’s 1923 premiere of Pierrot Lunaire.
Suite in the Old Style – or Suite in G, proving that Schoenberg did not reject tonality; he was simply selective when to use it. Coming to America presented an opportunity of returning to past models:
I could speculate about Schoenberg’s self-identification as German, Jew and later, American. Many of Schoenberg’s political views, his ideas regarding democracy and Fascism need to be seen in the context of his German Austrian development. In an empire where citizenship to one of the many nations that made up the Habsburg Empire was less important than cultural identification, (Schoenberg, for example, was a Slovak and never held Austrian citizenship despite being born and raised in Vienna), what is understood under ‘German’ needs some explanation. More importantly, the question of Jews and democracy in the early 20th century needs clarification. Jewish composers in Italy were also great supporters of the Fascist regime, just as such Austrian modernists as Krenek and Egon Wellesz could support the regime of the dictator Egelbert Dollfuß. As with the Habsburgs, minorities were protected under the strong arm of government. Left to the will of the people, or even to democratization, Jews and other minorities would have faced greater hurdles to political and social emancipation. As many of the Jews in Habsburg Europe saw things, the ‘will of the people’ is rarely more than the voice of the mob, and this was almost always racist and anti-Semitic.
Survivor from Warsaw, one of the first important works to address the Holocaust:
His allegiance to German music, with his oft quoted idea that 12 tone composition would guarantee German supremacy in music for the next century, is also questioned by Feisst, who speculates that his new American identity meant that he would not finish German language works left incomplete upon his arrival, such as Jakobsleiter or Moses und Aron. He did show his German roots in his 1937 arrangement of Brahms’s G minor piano quartet, his 3 a-cappella German folk-song arrangements, his Second Chamber Symphony, his violin concerto and his piano concerto; variations on a Recitative for Organ; his string trio op. 45 and his Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, op. 47. Historic recordings of all of these works can be found at the Website of the Schoenberg Center in Vienna.
Schoenberg’s self-identification as a Jew was also an important aspect of his American years. His reconversion to Judaism in 1933 in Paris was less of a religious acknowledgment than an act of tribal solidarity. His wife, Gertrude née Kolisch had long been a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, substantiating Felix Greissle, Schoenberg’s son-in-law’s recollection that Schoenberg had originally converted to Protestantism in Vienna out of conviction, returned to Judaism as a protest against Hitler and ‘tended towards Catholicism’ while in Los Angeles.
Certainly, his children were sent to Catholic schools. These, however are questions of personal faith rather than national and cultrual solidarity; and it is this act of solidarity that most closely defines Schoenberg’s American years. It is a phenomenon that is equally apparent, albeit less overtly activist, with Ernst Toch, Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Mario CastelnuovoTedesco and Schoenberg’s future in-law Erich Zeisl. Away from European hatred and discrimination, the American experience clarified what it was to be the citizen of country, while simultaneously showing adherence to another cultural nation. Being a Jewish American was no different from being an Irish American or a Norwegian American. It was in some ways, a return to the Habsburg ideal without the petty bigotry of the aristocracy and middle-classes.
(Schoenberg: Genesis Suite – 1. Prelude)
Like most of the above composers, Schoenberg collaborated with his former pupil, Hollywood composer Arthur Shilkret on The Genesis Suite, a telling of Genesis with each composer taking a section of the Book and setting it in his own style. Schoenberg chose to set the chaos before creation in Prelude contrasting sharply with, for example Ernst Toch who chose to set the ‘Covenant’. Schoenberg, like Korngold, Toch and Zeisl also composed a commission for the local Rabbi Jakob Sonderling. As with his fellow émigré composers, Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre offers secular language for a religious purpose, though paradoxically, it’s the most traditionally liturgical of all of the Sonderling commissions:
Where Feisst describes Schoenberg’s attitudes towards Judaism, she could in fact be discussing any number of composers I write about in Forbidden Music. Unlike for example, Viktor Ullmann, Schoenberg’s attitude to Judaism was a return to the consciousness of national diaspora. Ullmann, who was baptised and raised as a Catholic by converted parents, would only identify with the religion of his forefathers after arriving at the concentration camp, Theresienstadt. Indeed, there is probably a book waiting to be written on the perception of Judaism by composers banned for being Jewish. Schoenberg’s very last Jewish works do, however, recognise a Jewish God that goes beyond the tribal, or national identification with Judaism. His Modern Psalm settings were meant to be numbered as a continuation of Psalms from the Old Testament, an idea he changed to Psalms, Prayers and Conversations with and about God. After his death, Rudolf Kolish, editor of the texts and Schoenberg’s brother-in-law, reverted to the original title:
In discussing Schoenberg’s American identity, Feisst hits upon a subject that is again common to most exile composers, though she takes a different view from my own. Émigré composers always started to see themselves as citizens of their new country – nowhere more so than in America where it was possible to be American with a foreign accent. Egon Wellesz, Hans Gál, Karl Rankl and Berthold Goldschmidt would never be accepted as British and would all, at various stages of their professional lives, be confronted with this sobering ‘reality check’. Feisst takes us through the various ‘American’ works of Schoenberg, by which is meant, works that Schoenberg could only have composed in America.
This is where I wish to offer my own definition of what German musicologists and historians refer to as ‘Exile Music’: I’ve never seen a specific definition, so offer one that can be employed or discounted as appropriate. For me, ‘exile music’ is music that could only be composed by a composer dislocated onto foreign soil. It is not a work he, or she could have composed in their homeland, nor is it a work that a native of their new homeland could have composed. It is a work that could only have been composed by a non-native composer in a strange and new country, that has become both a refuge and a home.
This revelation came to me while recording the music of Walter Arlen, a composer who was born and raised in Vienna, until at the age of 18, he was forced to leave. With the help of wealthy relatives, he landed in America for what appeared to be an extremely successful career as teacher, writer and general ‘Macher’ in the Los Angeles music scene. Yet his compositions tell a very different story. If his spoken English was without accent, his musical language came across as outwardly ‘American’ until the strong accent of discontinuity is perceived.
(Arlen: Poet in Exile (Czeslaw Milosz): II: Island)
Nearly all ‘exile composers’ offer such dislocated works, and Schoenberg is no exception. In the case of Arlen, he composed as personal therapy without any thought of performance. As such, he managed to concentrate the qualities of displacement more than a composer such as Schoenberg or Toch who kept performance as a very real option. It nevertheless does not make their music the product of a native-born composer. It could be argued that Schoenberg’s two concertos, his fourth String Quartet could equally have been written had he remained in Europe, but the selection of other works being composed in Europe seems unlikely. This is particularly true of his overtly political works such as Ode to Napoleon and Survivor from Warsaw.
One of the most welcome contributions this book makes is its survey of new music in the United States after 1945, a survey that would be impossible without the figure of Arnold Schoenberg. His ideas either drove forward developments or resulted in reactions that would lead American music into an individuality that was partisan and militantly non-European. Whichever way one views it, Schoenberg’s contribution to new music in the new world was catalytic.