“Cultural Transfer”: Samuel Barber, Vienna and Austrians in California
The Kirchklang Festival in and around the State of Salzburg is featuring the music of Samuel Barber with a recital given by Thomas Hampson. Until I read a biography of Samuel Barber, I was unware of any Austrian connection at all, but it appears that his ubiquitous and exquisitely simple “Adagio”, originally the slow movement of his string quartet op. 11, was composed in a house on the lake of Wolfgangsee. He certainly composed it during his European travels in 1935 with the version for string ensemble composed in 1936. It was played to Toscanini who went on to premiere it in NY in 1938.
The cultural directors of the Kirchklang festival then presented me with an additional challenge: I needed give a lecture that joined Samuel Barber and Austria with the subject of Austrians in California. As a result, it clearly turned into an invitation to speak on the subject of “Cultural Transfer”. I initially thought the references would be tenuous, and to a large extent, the obvious elements of Samuel Barber in Vienna and Austrians in California were rather difficult to join together. The less obvious ones however made a strong case for a mutual transfer of traditions and values that was more interesting than I anticipated. I admit that the Californian part of the talk was familiar territory for me, but Samuel Barber was not.
Years ago, after our recordings of Weill’s Street Scene and Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, John Mauceri and I tried to put together a recording of Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra. I had seen a performance in Chicago and was overwhelmed at the strength and beauty of the music. John pointed out that it was an altered version from the one that was performed at the opening of Lincoln Center and suggested doing a hybrid version incorporating bits of the original with the later version. I spoke to Menotti about this idea and it was refused flat out. Barber was so depressed by the critical reception of his opera that he wanted it destroyed and only with Menotti’s input could the score be saved. A recording was made of a very fine performance in Italy’s Spoleto Festival, but John and I had the idea of putting together a strong international cast of native English/American singers and recording in a studio. Sadly, it was not to be, and in retrospect, the recording from Spoleto is very fine and must be a placeholder until, and should something stronger come along. In my view, it’s a better work than his much more popular Vanessa, but that’s splitting hairs since both operas are glorious and deserve wider recognition. However, this was the sole extent of my Samuel Barber acquaintance. I never had the opportunity of producing a recording of anything by Barber beyond some songs with Barbara Bonney accompanied by André Previn. This is a pity since I admired Barber as the most important of his generation of American composers.
I gave the talk in German, but I’ll translate the central elements and post them here. I have to admit to re-using some of the audio clips, though there is much that is new as well.
The transfer of culture from Austria to America was long established before the flood of musical immigration arriving after 1933 and then again in 1938. Americans had been coming to Vienna, Leipzig and Berlin to study music for generations. To my surprise, Barber’s musical heritage was more Viennese than I anticipated. His composition teacher Rosario Scalero studied with Brahms’s friend, editor and estate executor, Eusebius Mandyczewski. Barber’s first piano teacher William Green as well as his piano teacher at Curtis, Isabella Vengerova, were both pupils of Theodor Leschetzky. Barber’s first “grand tour” of Europe in 1928 took him to all of the continent’s great cities, but he concluded afterwards that it was in Vienna that he was happiest.
In the autumn of 1933 and through the winter of 1934, he and Gian Carlo Menotti rented a room from Henriette von Motesiczky. The Motesiczky family was one of Vienna’s most widely extended, related to prominent Jewish families such as Todesco and Lieben. Henriette would later make her way into Menotti’s opera Amelia goes to the Ball, while Marie-Louise Motesiczky would become a prominent painter, escaping first to Amsterdam then to London in 1938. Her brother was denounced and murdered in Auschwitz. Nevertheless, few were more connected within Vienna’s cultural circles than Henriette and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky. It afforded both Barber and Menotti access to the city’s most influential artists, musicians and writers. Barber had arrived with a Pulitzer scholarship to study with the Curtis teacher John Braun, but admitted that it was the city’s extraordinary ethos of music as something culturally crucial rather than vapid diversion that enchanted him.
Like other young Americans of his generation, he studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, but appears to have disliked the trivialisation of music as expressed in neo-classicism or indeed, in Berlin’s New Objectivity movement, itself something of an answer to Parisian neo-classicism. Barber was a child of the 19th rather than the 18th century. His was a polished yet edgy Romanticism. Any other approach to music at the time seemed an attempt to diminish music’s expressive power. He had no interest in Schoenberg and his 12 tone theories, but he admired the existential importance his school attached to music. One of the most distinctive features of Barber’s music is its ability to sound distinctively “American” while eschewing incessant syncopations, blue notes and 7th chords. This is perhaps the legacy of Vienna and Austria and why he stands at a distance to his near contemporaries Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein.
Cultural transfer is by nature either impelled by circumstances, such as fleeing persecution and arriving in a different country, or naturally achieved by a degree of unenforced assimilation. From 1933 until 1938, Barber and Menotti spent every summer in Austria, and it’s clear that Barber assimilated an Austrian regard for music that transcended the trends currently dominant in Paris and Berlin. As such, “cultural transfer” in the case of Austria and Barber was unenforced and organic. He could admire Berg and Schoenberg’s earnestness in the importance they attached to composing while not imitating their harmonic language. He remained an enigma to other Austrian composers of his generation, such as Ernst Krenek who appears not to have known what to make of him when they met: Clearly talented but puzzling that he wasn’t falling in line with the rest of the city’s Modernists.
Austria’s cultural transfer in America had been present for decades. The operetta composer of Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland, Victor Herbert, though born in Dublin studied in Stuttgart before moving to Vienna where he played in Eduard Strauss’s orchestra. He then married the Viennese soprano Therese Herbert-Förster. America’s other operetta composer Sigmund Romberg was born in Habsburg Austria arriving stateside in 1909. He was followed five years later by Max Steiner. Though every reference states that Steiner studied with Gustav Mahler, in an interview held by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna, he admits that Mahler told him he had no talent, whereupon he left for England, before continuing on to America. On this count, Mahler was wrong. Steiner was massively talented as hundreds of film scores attest. He was able to compose in any style required, but most intriguing (for me at least) is his plundering of an intermezzo as heard in every operetta in the early twentieth century between acts two and three for his arguably most famous work: Tara’s Theme. The producers of Gone with the Wind wanted nostalgia in music that contained both the smile and tear signifying loss and departure. Tara’s Theme is as Viennese as it gets in this regard, just as the country western hit Along the Sante Fe Trail by the Viennese composer Wilhelm Grosz was only an American text he slammed on top of his German hit tune Liebling, nach dem Tango Vergiß mich! – Dearest, Forget me after the Tango, as sung by heartthrob Joseph Schmidt.
Max Steiner was already in California and writing film scores when Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Toch arrived. Schoenberg along with Ernst Krenek never deigned to work in the movies. Schoenberg for ethical as well as aesthetic reasons, and Krenek because he had already had a brush with musical populism with his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf, an experience that left him fearing for his reputation as a serious composer. Toch was a certified, accredited “Modernist” when he arrived, despite having composed a typically pseudo-Romantic score for the film Peter Ibbetson while in London. In Hollywood, he would be required to write chromatic, dissonant music for a series of science fiction and horror films, a fate he shared with fellow Austrian composer Hans Salter. Eric Zeisl, Karol Rathaus and others were little more than foot soldiers supplying orchestrations and linking passages for film scores written by more established names. Rathaus ditched it after a single film starring the young Henry Fonda and opted for a teaching position at recently founded Queens College in NY.
Hanns Eisler, on the other hand found that working in the so-called “B” rated studios, he had greater creative opportunities to exploit the theories he had started to develop while working in the Soviet Union. His theories of the dialectic of visual images to music would find its way into an entire book on writing film scores. Like Toch and Rathaus, he had written music for movies in London and Paris, but unlike the others, he enjoyed working in Hollywood, and would have been able to bring about a more varied approach to scoring had he not been thrown out of the country by the House of Un-American Activities in 1948.
Austrian composers who arrived in California fell largely into three categories: the opportunist, the transitional and the missionaries. Eisler was an opportunist, as indeed was Erich Wolfgang Korngold when he arrived in1934. He saw composing for films as a logical and organic continuation of opera: broad episodic canvases that carried parallel narratives via Wagnerian styled motifs.
Zeisl and Toch were transitional; they arrived in Hollywood because they needed to make money in order to secure affidavits for family and friends. For them working in the movies was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek and Ernst Kanitz were missionaries. They arrived without any intention of working in film studios and wished only to convey their presumed higher musical cultivation to a generation of eager but ignorant Americans. They were the missionaries.
Rarely did anyone remain in a single category, as categories could easily turn into processes that mysteriously morphed from one to the other. When Zeisl discovered that his family had been murdered, he left the movies and started to teach, thus moving from the transitional to the missionary. When Korngold was overtaken by events with the annexation of Austria while composing for Warner Bros, he moved from opportunist to transitional. When Hitler was defeated, he left the movies and wrote a symphony, a string quartet, a violin concerto and symphonic serenade, all in a frantic attempt to return to an Austria that no longer existed. His last stage work, appropriately enough called the Silent Serenade is a work of such embarrassing sentimentality as to be understood as an attempt to re-create a world that was gone forever. Its sweetness and saccharine plot is an act of musical passive aggression. Korngold was good at throwing down reactionary gauntlets. He had done so with his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, only by the time he composed The Silent Serenade, he had lost the will to fight. It and his Straussiana are desperate flights from a reality he could no longer face.
There are hardly any examples of composers who were established and famous prior to immigration who retained the same degree of fame in America. The only exception to this rule was the German composer Kurt Weill whose stage successes in Berlin transferred almost seamlessly onto Broadway. The assimilation process was gradual but notable and by the time he achieved his biggest hits, Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus, he had lost all trace of his Berlin accent. Weill’s success needs to be seen in the context of his fellow composers of stage music who also immigrated to America: Emmerich Kálmán, Robert Stolz, Ralph Benatzky, Friedrich Hollaender, Werner Richard Heymann, Jaromír Weinberger or Paul Abraham, composers who all wrote works that easily competed with Weill’s for sheer commercial success before Hitler’s arrival. Not one of them succeeded in achieving anything close to what they had achieved in inter-war Germany. Paul Abraham had a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered and Jaromír Weinberger committed suicide.
One might have thought the same applied to Erich Wolfgang Korngold in Hollywood, but in fact, Korngold spent most of his Hollywood years writing music for films that had European storylines, allowing him to keep his musical idiom unchanged, or only altered according to the demands of the visuals on screen. Even the one overtly American movie, Kings Row with the young Ronald Reagan has its heroic theme (later plundered by John Williams for Star Wars) because Korngold assumed from the title that it was just another cloak and dagger adventure movie about English Buccaneers. Only in the film Between Two Worlds, does he sound truly “American”, though he slips in a waltz that sounds a hybrid of Hollywood and Lehár. In short, the assimilation process is less noticeable in Korngold than in Weill. Like Zeisl and Toch, he left working for the studios as soon as Hitler was defeated. Or, as he put it in an interview with Henry Blanky in 1945: “In 1934 when I came to Hollywood, I couldn’t understand the dialogue. Now I can.”
Two other composers complete the picture in an unexpected manner. Walter Arlen, about whom I’ve already written, (he just turn 103 on July 31) and another Viennese composer born in 1920 named Robert Fürstenthal (1920-2016). Both intended becoming composers while teenagers in Vienna. Like Barber, the city was their teacher. Neither was allowed to audition for the Music Academy, (now the University for Music and Performing Arts, where our Exilarte Center is located) or Vienna’s Conservatory until they had completed Austria’s equivalent of the baccalaureate (called “Matura”). Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 meant that both boys were thrown out of school before they completed their final exams. Arlen, whose name was Aptowitzer at the time, came from a wealthy family. Fürstenthal came from a family of middle management. Incredibly, they did not know each other either in Vienna or later in California.
Arlen composed as therapy, needing to come to terms with the loss of his homeland, his plans, his dreams and his opportunities. He also had to come to terms with his sexuality. His mother and other members of his family committed suicide. His grandmother was shot by the Nazis, murdered with other relatives and his best friend, Filüp, named affectionately “Lumpi” was murdered in a slave labour camp. Walter is featured in the Netflix film Eldorado. There is also a wonderful documentary about him called The First Century of Walter Arlen. It’s hard to say much more about Walter than I’ve already written, but his songs, all intended for the desk drawer are immensely beautiful and only with the intervention of his husband Howard Myers, were the works saved from oblivion. We recently recorded his oratorio The Song of Songs for Signum Classics with the English Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus Wales and soloists Thomas Mole (baritone), Anna Huntely (mezzo) and Gwilym Bowen, (ten), conducted by Kenneth Woods.
And yet, despite the undoubted importance of Walter Arlen’s work, it was Robert Fürstenthal who was the most disarming and honest in explaining the experience of exile. Fürstenthal is becoming better known, primarily through the recordings being released on Toccata Classics. The life story is convoluted and would actually be wonderful as a feature film. Having managed to get out of Austria and escape the Nazis (a fate that eluded his father, Ludwig, who was murdered), he went first to England where he worked as a gardener in Worcestershire until he could leave for America. Jewish charities placed him in San Francisco where he worked as a translator for the US Army. Afterwards, he studied accountancy, became an auditor, married and lived the life of a successful professional until after thrity years, his marriage fell apart and he set out to find his teenage girlfriend from Vienna. Her family too had been murdered but she had made it to Geneva, married and divorced and when Fürstenthal found her, she was working as a biochemist and lecturer at Harvard University. When she heard Fürstenthal’s voice on the phone – the first time in thirty-five years – her first question was “Are you still composing?” Only after getting together, marrying in 1974, did Fürstenthal start to compose again. Stylistically un-attached and without the influences of trends to distract or bother him, he used his favourite composer, Hugo Wolf, as his template and started to compose Lieder, moving forward through Mahler, Richard Strauss and Josef Marx until he had landed on a synthesis that he might call his own. Shortly before he died, I was able to ask him why he composed in a style he could never have known. After all, by the time he was born, all of the composers he admired had been overtaken by developments. How could he justify composing in the latter part of the twentieth century and early twenty-first-century in a musical language that belonged to the nineteenth century? He smiled, secure in the knowledge that he only composed for his own pleasure and that of his wife and friends. He replied, “Wenn ich komponiere, bin ich wieder in Wien” – “When I compose, I’m back in Vienna”. At the time, he lived in San Diego.