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Critic's Notebook | Classical music

A revolutionary making a home beneath the palms

Looking anew at Schoenberg’s journey into American life

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) came to the United States in 1934 and lived in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. BOSTON GLOBE FILE PHOTO

I once ate breakfast in Arnold Schoenberg’s home. Not in Vienna, where he came of age, nor in Berlin, where he shaped the musical life of the Weimar Republic from a lofty academic post. This was his home in Los Angeles, where he settled in 1934 after fleeing the Third Reich. He lived in that city for the final 17 years of his life, and in this house for all but two of them.

It was a spacious white Spanish colonial home just off Sunset Boulevard in the leafy neighborhood of Brentwood, where Cole Porter and Shirley Temple had once been Schoenberg’s neighbors. I had come to LA to research the remarkable group of émigré artists that settled there during the war, and on my first day in the city, someone told me the story of how Schoenberg used to stand fuming on his front lawn, shaking his fists at the celebrity-seeking tourists who, on their way to Temple’s house, blithely passed him by. How could they not realize, he supposedly harrumphed, that here lived the great atonal pioneer, the emancipator of dissonance, the revolutionary composer who had liberated music from the shackles of its past!


The anecdote somehow seemed cartoonish, improbable, and deeply poignant all at the same time. But whether those fist-shaking episodes ever actually took place matters less than the myth they neatly summarized, one that has long held sway over the scholarly and popular imagination of Schoenberg in America: that he was a great European artist unappreciated by a vulgar young country, a bitter old man walking beneath the palms in righteous 12-tone alienation, an elitist wedded to a who-cares-if-you-listen notion of l’art pour l’art - a composer, in short, who refused to adapt to America just as it refused to give him or his music its due.

There are plenty of details to support this image, from the meager pension Schoenberg received upon retiring from his teaching post at UCLA to his being passed over for a Guggenheim fellowship that might have allowed him more time to complete his great unfinished opera “Moses und Aron.’’ Schoenberg himself also left behind a written record vast and diverse enough to support just about any view of his American period. But his most famous remarks testify to the pain of his displacement (“I had fallen into an ocean . . . of overheated water, and it burned not only my skin, it burned also internally.’’) and his proud sense of remaining impervious to his surroundings (“If America changed me - I am not aware of it.’’).


What’s more, in reading the recollections of other émigré artists and intellectuals, one encounters few optimistic perspectives. Bertolt Brecht called Los Angeles “a mausoleum of easy going,’’ a place so commercial that “you sell your piss, as it were, to the urinal.’’ Theodor Adorno, who also lived in LA, wrote that “every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated. . . . His language has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge, sapped.’’

But was Schoenberg mutilated by America? Recent scholarship has been chipping away at this idea, including this year Sabine Feisst’s meticulously researched, richly revealing book, “Schoenberg’s New World.’’ Feisst, a German-born musicologist at Arizona State University, has brought together a wealth of information that challenges old myths, offering a more balanced and multivalent account of Schoenberg’s late years. In her telling, this becomes a period of resistance paired with remarkable adaptation, relative financial and artistic success despite his own feelings to the contrary, and a true evolution in his connection to American society. Feisst even questions the fit of the word “exile,’’ with its uniformly negative colorings, and suggests that during Schoenberg’s nearly two decades here, he went from “refugee’’ to “exile’’ to “immigrant.’’


As she shows, the United States, of which Schoenberg became a citizen in 1941, was ultimately hospitable to his multiple identities as German and Jew, atonal composer and also - surprise? - tonal composer, creator of imperiously abstract art as well as politically engaged music that responded to the profound dissonance of his times. The best-known work in this latter category is Schoenberg’s 12-tone cantata “A Survivor From Warsaw,’’ which will be performed by Boston University forces tomorrow night in Symphony Hall, and to which we will return in a minute.

Feisst looks closely at Schoenberg’s teaching career, his influence on American musical life, and the reception of his work here, but she also devotes time to humanizing this bogeyman figure of modern music, in part by shedding light on the details of his domestic life. Schoenberg listened to Wagner operas on the radio, but he also watched “The Lone Ranger’’ and “Hopalong Cassidy.’’ He socialized with other German emigres, but also rubbed elbows with Charlie Chaplin and played tennis weekly with George Gershwin, showing up at the court, in the pianist Oscar Levant’s description, “with an entourage of string players, conductors, and disciples.’’ He had a young family and used to carve his children’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into animal shapes. He was so invested in his son Ronald’s tennis playing that, in a gesture that unified the artist-inventor with the doting father, he devised a fantastically arcane system of symbols that allowed him to notate his son’s matches in real time.


Ronald and his wife now live in that Brentwood home, and when I visited in 2003, a few of these scorecards still adorned the walls, every drop shot and foot fault accounted for, as if the match had just ended. Schoenberg was also a painter, and reproductions of his numerous self-portraits loomed over our modest spread of muffins and breakfast rolls with a weighty, watchful glare. Schoenberg’s eyes could be piercing, or as Stravinsky once said, “the whole force of the man was in them.’’

As a composer, Schoenberg had seen himself as proudly carrying forward the great German musical tradition, but he was also uncannily attuned to the shifting political winds, writing Wassily Kandinsky as early as 1922: “For I have at last learned . . . that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being, but I am a Jew.’’

When Schoenberg arrived in the States, he declared himself ready to put aside his art and devote himself full time to the cause of saving European Jewry, and Feisst recounts his extensive if checkered career as an agitator for a forceful unified Jewish response to imminent crisis. Schoenberg’s eerie prescience about Europe’s fate was sadly not matched by a gift for diplomacy, and he found few receptive audiences for his militant brand of revisionist Zionism. Nevertheless, he was so driven by his convictions that when he could not spread his views through existing channels, he considered founding his own newspaper that would publish in many languages, and his own radio station to broadcast speeches.


None of it came to pass. Schoenberg lost a brother and other relatives in the Holocaust. Feisst quotes a strange unpublished document from 1946 in which the composer seems lost inside a kind of Moses-like daydream, imagining himself as “the president of the government in exile of the Jewish Nation,’’ floating on a ship.

One year later, he was composing “A Survivor From Warsaw.’’

Scored for narrator, male chorus, and orchestra, “Survivor’’ is a condensed seven-minute Holocaust scene, an imagined recollection set, through an English text, in a concentration camp where a group of prisoners is ordered to count off en route to the gas chambers. There is violence and shouting in German, and the music’s frenzied climax is capped by the men’s choir singing the Hebrew prayer “Sh’ma Yisrael.’’ Schoenberg’s text calls it “the old prayer they had neglected for so many years - the forgotten creed!’’

The work over the years has been heralded - the composer Luigi Nono called it “the aesthetic and musical manifesto of our epoch’’ - and dismissed for its bombast and its debts to Hollywood melodrama. To be sure, “Survivor’’ represents what might be called first-generation Holocaust memorial art, lacking the distance and cool perspective of certain later forms, but it should also be noted just how early this piece was written, only two years after the end of the war, before Anne Frank’s diary had been translated, and almost a decade before Alain Resnais’s pioneering documentary “Night and Fog’’ was released.

It can more sympathetically be viewed as a flawed but sincere culmination of many of the themes of Schoenberg’s American period, an attempt to address the defining historical event that shaped the final one-third of his life. That it does so with profound tensions - this is seemingly music simultaneously about both annihilation and survival - may reflect what the philosopher Lydia Goehr has called the “double life’’ of exile. Schoenberg lived in California but could not put the agonies of Europe out of his mind. He had been both expelled by, and saved from, his home culture; or as he wrote from California, he had been “driven into paradise,’’ with all the joy, heartbreak, and guilt wrapped into that deceptively tiny phrase.

A generation later, Steve Reich composed “Different Trains,’’ a much more subtle piece of Holocaust art that contrasts the trains of Reich’s American childhood with the distant trains of Nazi Europe. “Survivor’’ makes it clear that Schoenberg, at some level, traveled on both.

Interestingly, “Survivor’’ has become an almost populist work within the Schoenberg canon, speaking directly to wide audiences in a manner unlike the vast majority of his other 12-tone pieces. The work’s trajectory seemed determined almost from birth, as Schoenberg, rather astonishingly, allowed the premiere to be given by amateur forces in a gymnasium in Albuquerque. The chorus included cowboys and ranchers, and the first performance before an audience of 1,600 people was triumphantly received.

The piece today is best understood in the context of the larger themes of Schoenberg’s American years. And it’s in that sense that Feisst’s book and other like-minded works of revisionist Schoenberg scholarship have performed a great service. They allow us to view the composer without the blinders and prejudices imposed by all those myths of musical progress. They encourage us, without facile equations, to see the composer’s art through the prism of his life. Both were engaged - by turns deeply, playfully, desperately - by his own times and by the country that, at least as much as anywhere else he lived, became his home.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.