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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.

Typical of Stravinsky s financial acumen was, after the copyright on his European works had lapsed, the reorchestration of them in a less lush, though perhaps less attractive, mode: In this way he not only regained the copyright but, with the spare orchestration, extended performability to numerous smaller aggregations.

Dorothy Lamb Crawford has been a teacher, lecturer, and broadcast interviewer in music, as well as singer and opera director, and is the author or coauthor (with her husband) of two previous books on music. Ironically, she has reversed the journey of the Windfall migr s: After 24 years in Southern California she now resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Along with some notable quarrels, she also tells us about a good deal of socializing and solidarity in this migr ghetto. Besides Klemperer, there were seven other conductors, including the great Bruno Walter; pianists, including Arthur Rubinstein; and violinists, including Joseph Szigeti. Also two master cellists, Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, and in Santa Barbara the legendary soprano and teacher Lotte Lehmann.

Figuring here, too, are the Parisianized Pole and wartime American exile Alexandre Tansman, and a bit further north, Darius Milhaud and the Europeanized (but repatriated American) George Antheil. All of these musicians fraternized with the migr writers, such as the Mann brothers, Thomas and Heinrich, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Werfel (married to Alma Mahler), Alfred D blin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Erich Maria Remarque, Ludwig Marcuse, and the director/critic Berthold Viertel, who was married to the fabled hostess, memoirist, and Garbo scriptwriter Salka Viertel.

The musicians also socialized with movie people, and not just the Germans or Austrians like Max Reinhardt and his son Gottfried, William Dieterle, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder, but also earlier immigrant and American movie stars. There are amusing accounts, such as that of a dinner party where the rigid Dr. [Thomas] Mann was delighted with [Charles] Chaplin, laughed like a schoolboy and lost a little of his German dignity. Chaplin admitted to not having read a single line of Mann s, but was very pleased with him as an audience and put on a Big Show --as the equally delighted Ernst Toch reported to Clifford Odets.

But it was far from all parties and fun for the migr s: A great many of their hopes were dashed by the film industry. Toch, who dreamed of a genuine film-opera ( of its essential success there is no question ), found that Paramount wouldn t let him orchestrate his own music, and inflicted intolerable deadlines. He accepted every kind of movie work, most of it uncredited, to help his 69 cousins stuck in Nazi Austria, and toiled on low-budget films at Columbia, Paramount, and Fox, enduring someone else s getting credit for an Oscar nomination owed him.

In those days, said Alexandre Tansman, who beat it back to postwar Paris as soon as possible, Hollywood was a kind of contemporary Weimar. All the European elite were in Hollywood or somewhere on the Californian coast. Or as the composer Ingolf Dahl put it in later years, It is still a bewildering fact that the city with perhaps the greatest number of important composers per square mile has a public musical life in inverse proportion to its resident talent. This was in reference to concert and opera; in the picture business, things were worse yet.

As someone at Universal Pictures recalled, Music was at the bottom of the heap. . . . Keep that goddamned music down was a popular battle cry. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco said that music was considered a necessary evil, less important than automobile and airplane noises, and that to complete a score in the shortest time, up to 13 composers would labor on it simultaneously. One MGM executive asked him to compose for an intimate scene a 3-and-a-half minute violin sonata in the style of Oh, you know, Brahms, Franck, and maybe a little Debussy.

As Crawford notes of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, During the three years he worked at MGM, contributing to some 200 scenes a year, his name never appeared on screen [and] only his worst was requested . . . with credit given to old-timers who had contributed the least.
There was a wholesale dashing of hopes. Kurt Weill had prophesied that a new artwork may develop from the movies and Castelnuovo-Tedesco declared that musical cinema would become the true national art form, exactly as opera [has] for Italy. But as their colleague Hanns Eisler lamented, What hell for [studio] composers, who year after year have to write the same type of music and thus are faced with the prospect of becoming hopelessly dimwitted.

So, for instance, Franz Waxman scored 144 scenes in 32 years. Although Korngold was able to get away with only two films a year (he almost turned down Robin Hood!), Max Steiner, one of the studio regulars, ground out 8 to 10. On the whole, as Crawford concludes, the idealized picture business proved more like the dictatorship the migr s had fled.

Of course, donkey work was still better than unemployment--but hardly comic, as Hindemith thought when rebuffed by the Disney studio. Even the prolific Frederick Hollander was at one point so poor that his wife was reduced to shoplifting food. Eric Zeisl was assigned by MGM to compose two-minute uncredited moods --which could be reused in countless pictures--at $25 a piece.

As his wife related, In the summer, when private lessons stopped, it was really a matter of life and death . . . we didn t have money for the next meal. Moreover, the paradisiac heat of California was so injurious to his health that Zeisl prayed for fog and rain. Stravinsky suffered from the smog, and the asthmatic Schoenberg rarely went out in the evening. Eisler, at the lower end of the pay scale, was driven to drink. Schoenberg couldn t afford to attend musical events, and claimed that financial reasons prevented him from finishing his opera, Moses und Aron. Even when Toch was hired by the University of Southern California to compete with UCLA s Schoenberg, the USC president held him to a miserly salary. Carl Ebert couldn t afford a car and had to endure daily 90-minute bus rides to and from his USC classes.

Even good things came at a price. Where nature abounded in beauty, as in the view of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountain ranges from his desk, the sensitive Toch, easily distracted, had to block it out with dark curtains. Others found the weather, beaches, and excursions so inviting that the systematic turned sybaritic: Isolation and a natural anti-intellectualism encouraged by the climate [was] hard for the refugees to accept, Crawford writes. My God, my God, Klemperer exclaimed, I didn t know that such lack of intellectuality existed. While Ernst Krenek brilliantly lectured on Renaissance composers at the Southern California School of Music and Arts, the larger number of his students, jazz musicians on the GI Bill--there largely to collect the money--were playing pinochle in the back rows.

For someone uninvolved, the situation had ludicrous aspects. The popular pianist Oscar Levant put up $100 for a piano piece by his teacher Schoenberg, who then turned the piece into a concerto, whereupon Levant withdrew with cold feet. This was the same Levant who proclaimed his beloved Schoenberg the greatest teacher in the world.

For their teacher Castelnuovo-Tedesco, students Lionel Barrymore and Mickey Rooney both composed a symphony. Jeanette MacDonald, the queen of MGM, became one of Lotte Lehmann s pupils. Dahl turned touring pianist for Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, as well as becoming accompanist/arranger for Gracie Fields, Victor Borge, and, on the radio, the swing trombonist Tommy Dorsey. For classical music lessons, Benny Goodman paid him $20.

Arnold Schoenberg enjoyed gifted students like John Cage (whom he called an inventor of genius but not a composer), as well as Lou Harrison, Leon Kirchner, and film composers such as Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedlander, David Raksin, and Leonard Rosenman, not to mention the hit songwriters Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin. This despite English so poor that he needed someone next to him to help with the necessary words. Schoenberg always considered it one of his greatest achievements to have discouraged the majority of his students from composing!

In all the time I studied with Schoenberg, remembered John Cage, he never once led me to believe that my work was distinguished in any way. He never praised my compositions, and when I commented on other students work in class, he held my comments up to ridicule. And yet I worshiped him like a god.

Leon Kirchner recalled: It took me years to really understand deeply what Schoenberg taught. At the time I would think I understood, but there was such depth to it, it took a long time to realize its implications. Schoenberg himself wrote to Oskar Kokoschka, I m living in a world in which I nearly die of disgust. Stravinsky, his great rival, had a better time of it: While a disgruntled Schoenberg felt compelled to return to tonality, the formerly hostile Stravinsky followed him to 12-tone composition. Whatever was begrudged Schoenberg was instantly condoned in Stravinsky.

For composing slowly and charging a lot, Stravinsky never got to do much movie work, but rejected film scores were promptly transmuted into concert work and gainfully performed.

Film music? said Stravinsky, That s monkey business, and for monkey business, my price is too high. George Antheil was shocked by Stravinsky s way of invariably turning idealistic musical conversations into mercenary channels. The Russian flattered California, declaring that it left a good impression on him, and even abandoned his natty European clothes for local denim, sandals, and socks. Having to deal now with many Jews, he tempered his anti-Semitism. Vodka made him friendly with the popular Sergei Rachmaninoff, and they chummily discussed what Russian royalties they would have earned--but for the Revolution. Stravinsky befriended Arthur Rubinstein, who was useful to him, as well as migr writers such as Aldous Huxley, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood, all good publicity.

Even after Schoenberg s death in 1951, the war between the Schoenberg and Stravinsky partisans continued undiminished. Leon Kirchner recollected that

there were rival gangs that roamed the beaches and canyons of Santa Monica. . . . These gangs centered about deities like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. . . . At [one] rehearsal [of a group work] . . . these two towering figures in the twentieth--or any century s--music appeared. They veered off like two opposing forces. They were cathode and anode, and with them were their surrounding bodies and antibodies following them into their separate zones or territories. Neither group looked at the other.

A Windfall of Musicians makes for steadily rewarding and entertaining reading.

- - - John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).