The Magazine

Sour Notes

Exile from Europe to Southern California wasn't all sun and fun.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By JOHN SIMON
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A Windfall of Musicians

Hitler's Emigres and Exiles in Southern California


by Dorothy Lamb Crawford
Yale, 336 pp., $35

This is, as the subtitle informs us, the story of Hitler's Emigres and Exiles in Southern California. It concerns primarily composers and conductors, more marginally instrumentalists and singers, and considers how they and their families fared there in preference to the more cultured Northeast. Also how, despite some serious hardships, many of them preferred staying on after World War II had ended.

Southern California seemed to musicians like a climatic paradise, a financial bargain compared with the East, a professional El Dorado, with the film industry presumably hungry for composers and the region starved for cultural colonists to compose, perform, and teach. Music being a universal language, there wouldn t even be the problem facing writers. Except for Southern California s being a comparative cultural desert, these musical carpetbaggers were wrong about pretty much everything.

The book begins with a chapter recapitulating the horrors of 1930s and 40s Europe. Even those, mostly Jewish, musicians able to escape to free countries found Hitler s invading armies pulling the rug out from under them in country after country. Great Britain, too, seemed conquerable; only America appeared safe.

The chapter entitled Paradise? tells how living in the perpetual summertime was less than easy. Two following chapters center on the great conductor Otto Klemperer, a pivot for other musicians. The first, on his career at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the second, on his brain tumor, leaving so many struggling in his absence, and on his eventual salutary return. Innovative Teachers in the Performing Arts deals primarily with the activities of the fine opera coach and conductor Hugo Strelitzer, and those of the famed opera director Carl Ebert.

We learn also about the conductor Richard Lert, married to the popular author Vicki Baum; about the private music teacher Fritz Zweig; and, because the book goes on as far as 1970, about the conductor Herbert Zipper, who in two concentration camps hauled excrement from latrines and narrowly escaped typhoid.

The chapter on Arnold Schoenberg, an extremely touchy and difficult man, records his extraordinary clashes with everyone while being kicked from pillar to post. This especially since his twelve-tone compositions left him stranded to the point where some orchestra members played deliberately false notes, and where he became inordinately sensitive to real or imagined slights.

The chapter on the gifted composer Ernst Toch reveals his disadvantage, especially with movie people, from lack of aggression and self-promotion. We are introduced to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who managed to be successful both as a film and concert composer, often revamping his movie music as classical compositions. Frederick Hollander wiggled his way into American citizenship and continued supplying Marlene Dietrich with hit songs, as he had already done when still called Friedrich in Germany. Hanns Eisler s leftist politics led to his being deported. Franz Waxman managed back-to-back Oscars with Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun, but most often he was rushed into hack work. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco could stand it for only three years; Eugene Zador arranged and orchestrated for his fellow Hungarian Mikl s R zsa for 23 years without ever getting credit.

Kurt Weill managed to get some of his stage musicals onto film where, however, they were decimated--or adapted by hack studio composers who usually got all the credit. Like the other migr composers, Weill was resented and obstructed by most of the studio regulars. Sadly, he observed, a whore never loves the man who pays her. She wants to get rid of him as soon as she has rendered her services. That is my relation to Hollywood. (I m the whore.) Ernst Toch complained that one is blocked by such an amount of ignorance, stupidity, and bad taste that it is really hopeless.

Igor Stravinsky was as good a self-promoter and businessman as he was a composer. In contrast to the impractical Schoenberg, Stravinsky always surrounded himself with devoted disciples and skilled amanuenses--climaxing in the dogged Robert Craft--who not only helped with and performed his music, but also translated his verbal forays, and propagandized for him in books, essays, and lectures. A veritable translation, publishing, and publicity workshop, the Stravinsky circle promoted his undeniable genius into a thriving, eventual million-dollar, business enterprise.