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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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).