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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Genius in Paradise

By Norman Lebrecht / July 26, 2009

One morning in September 1940, a newly arrived European musician paid a visit to the conductor Otto Klemperer in Los Angeles and found him discussing Gustav Mahler with his fellow-exile Bruno Walter. The visitor went on to lunch at the new home of Thomas Mann in Pacific Palisades, where he worked on some chamber music with Mann’s son Michael, a viola player. In the evening, he dropped in on Igor Stravinsky in Hollywood, assisting in a run-through of his violin concerto.

For a brief and unrepeatable moment, an eyeblink in cultural history, the City of Angels contained the future of classical music. Klemperer, a pioneer of modernist opera in Berlin, was working as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, pushing out the horizons with daring commissions to living composers. Stravinsky, a quarter-century after his noisy notoriety with “Rite of Spring,” was in the thick of his neoclassical period. Off Sunset Boulevard, on North Rockingham Avenue, lived Arnold Schoenberg, the man who had broken music out of its tonal straitjacket. Thus two of the century’s three musical revolutionaries wound up in the same city of refuge. The third, Bela Bartok, lived in New York.

For the duration of World War II, Los Angeles was at the cutting edge of musical creation. How the frontiers of a rarified art relocated to a place ruled by sun, surf and superficial movies is the subject of “A Windfall of Musicians,” an engaging study by Dorothy Lamb Crawford, based in the main on survivor interviews and documentary archives.

The influx was provoked by Adolf Hitler, whose seizure of power on Jan. 30, 1933, led to the banishment of modern art and Jewish musicians from German public life. Hollywood offered exiled writers a chance of employment, luring in the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, the best-selling Grand Hotel novelist Vicki Baum and Erich Maria Remarque, author of the World War I classic “All’s Quiet on the Western Front.”

Musicians sought sanctuary first on the East Coast, with its venerable symphony orchestras and prestigious universities, drifting west in disillusion with the deep conservatism they encountered. Los Angeles, for all its open-air lifestyle, was no paradise. Schoenberg partnered Charles Chaplin and George Gershwin on the tennis court but found himself teaching music to “superficial and external” students, man y of them concerned more with their credits than the challenge of art. Appalled by the ubiquity of commercialism, he told the artists Oskar Kokoschka that he was living in a “world in which I nearly die of disgust.” Lotte Lehmann, a serene Lieder singer, wrote a novel called “Of Heaven, Hell and Hollywood,” leaving no doubt about the infernal realm she now inhabited.

Stravinsky, drinking heavily, mingled with the authors’ colony, making friends with the Englishmen Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden. Other composers spun hack music for B movies. Hanns Eisler, a radical songwriter, developed a theory for matching musical color to screen emotion. Friedrich Hollander, one of Berlin’s wittiest cabaret composers, stuck to satirical songs until his wife was caught shoplifting food, after which he churned out 175 movie scores. Billy Wilder, himself a Hitler exile was the only director who let Hollander write an original film song.

Few called it heaven. Even Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the millionaire model of a movie composer, was constantly belittled by his Viennese father for failing to get his scores performed in the concert hall. Schoenberg, with magnificent perversity, joked his way out of a lucrative meeting with the movie mogul Irving Thalberg and was delighted when Jascha Heifetz declared his violin concerto unplayable. “Maybe I had four times harder to work for a living,” Schoenberg said, “but I made no concessions to the market.”

Yet, for all the incongruities, the Los Angeles modernists left a mark. The student John Cage, ridiculed by Schoenberg in class, worshipped his teacher “like a God” and went on to develop musical iconoclasms of a distinct American character. The Los Angeles Philharmonic became a year-round orchestra, one of the best in the U.S. Music at the movies acquired several layers of subtlety, and untold numbers of young musicians were elevated to high achievement by contact with genius. Stravinsky, grumbling, stayed on for 20 years after the war ended, the last relic of an ephemeral golden age.

Ms. Crawford, who has spent much of her working life teaching and making music in Southern California, brings a physical familiarity to her narrative and a keen eye for poignant detail, the shock of the new. She quotes Vicki Baum’s first impression: “I stayed drunk for weeks with this sun and air and the beauty of the hills.” Ms. Crawford makes too much of minor figures like Ernst Toch and perhaps too little of Kurt Weill, whose Hollywood visits require deeper research. Nevertheless, “A Windfall of Musicians” is valuable for its account of how the West became a cultural force in America, a rising counterweight to the tradition-stifled East.

Up to a point, that is. In 1997, the trustees of the University of Southern California decided to rename the Arnold Schoenberg Institute building after a recent donor and vacate its contents. Vienna rescued the composer's archives, his scores, his letters and his paintings, housing them in a purpose-built Arnold Schoenberg Centre. With this crowning slur to history, Los Angeles was cleansed of its modernist accident, or aberration.

A Windfall of Musicians by Dorothy Lamb Crawford is published by Yale University Press.

Norman Lebrecht’s new novel, The Game of Opposites, is published this month by Pantheon.

A version of this article appeared first on

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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