How Arnold Schoenberg Changed Hollywood

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Of the thousands of German-speaking Jews who fled from Nazi-occupied Europe to the comparative paradise of Los Angeles, Arnold Schoenberg seemed especially unlikely to make himself at home. He was, after all, the most implacable modernist composer of the day—the progenitor of atonality, the codifier of twelve-tone music, a Viennese firebrand who relished polemics as a sport. He once wrote, “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” The prevailing attitude in the Hollywood film industry, the dominant cultural concern in Schoenberg’s adopted city, was the opposite: if it’s not for all, it’s worthless.

Yet there he was, the composer of “Transfigured Night” and “Pierrot Lunaire,” living in Brentwood, across the street from Shirley Temple. He took a liking to Jackie Robinson, the Marx Brothers, and the radio quiz show “Information Please.” He played tennis with George Gershwin, who idolized him. He delighted in the American habits of his children, who, to the alarm of other émigrés, ran all over the house. (Thomas Mann, after a visit, wrote in his diary, “Impertinent kids. Excellent Viennese coffee.”) He taught at U.S.C., at U.C.L.A., and at home, counting John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Oscar Levant among his students. Although he faced a degree of indifference and hostility from audiences, he had experienced worse in Austria and Germany. He made modest concessions to popular taste, writing a harmonically lush adaptation of the Kol Nidre for Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, of the Fairfax Temple. He died in Los Angeles in 1951, an eccentric but proud American.

The Schoenberg family retains a strong presence in L.A. today. Two of the composer’s children—Ronald, a retired judge, and Lawrence, a retired high-school math teacher—still live in the area. Ronald occupies his father’s house, sharing it with his wife, Barbara Zeisl Schoenberg, the daughter of the émigré composer Eric Zeisl. Ronald and Barbara’s son Randy is a lawyer who specializes in the recovery of art looted by the Nazis; in 2004, he won a landmark case before the Supreme Court, resulting in the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt. (The episode was dramatized in the film “Woman in Gold,” with Randy portrayed, somewhat against type, by Ryan Reynolds.) Members of the clan regularly attend performances of Schoenberg’s music in Los Angeles, delivering brisk judgments in the tradition of the paterfamilias.

Last summer, I was invited to a private concert at the historic Brentwood house. Three generations of Schoenbergs were present: I sat next to Randy’s son Joey, who collaborated with his father on a genealogical documentary titled “Fioretta,” which follows the family’s history back to sixteenth-century Venice. On an armchair sat a photograph of Schoenberg holding a class in the same space. Members of the basc Quartet, a young L.A.-based group, were on hand to play the composer’s First and Third Quartets, which they had been studying in advance of a residency at the Schoenberg Center, in Vienna. (The center houses Schoenberg’s main archive, every page of which has been digitized and made accessible online.) The First Quartet precedes Schoenberg’s break from tonality; the Third is from his twelve-tone period. In this setting, though, all the old mishegoss over dissonance and dodecaphony seemed beside the point. The basc Quartet—perhaps spurred on by the gaze of so many look-alike eyes—found the through line of Schoenberg’s personality, which is by turns impassioned, whimsical, savage, and melancholy. This is difficult music, to be sure, but it is fully human, bristlingly alive.

The hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Schoenberg’s birth arrives in September. A dedicated Web site, Schoenberg150, documents a surge of performances in Europe. Activity in America is far more meagre. The only top-tier orchestras that are playing original music by Schoenberg in the 2023-24 season are the San Francisco Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, and the Minnesota Orchestra. The L.A. Philharmonic, Schoenberg’s home-town ensemble, has performed only four of his works in the past ten seasons; the Berlin Philharmonic has featured as many in the past two months. Next season, the L.A. Phil will make partial amends by mounting Schoenberg’s gargantuan oratorio “Gurrelieder.”

It fell to Jacaranda Music, a twenty-year-old, exuberantly inventive chamber-music series based in Santa Monica, to give Schoenberg proper honors in his final homeland. Under the leadership of Patrick Scott, Jacaranda has presented scores by more than two hundred composers, most of them active after 1900. And, one evening in 2013, Jacaranda persuaded the keepers of the Santa Monica Pier Carousel to entertain riders with an all-twentieth-century playlist, ranging from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony to Gubaidulina’s St. John Passion. Sadly, in the wake of the pandemic, the organization found that it was unable to keep going. Its farewell season, “Planet Schoenberg,” unfolded from September to February, at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. The title alluded to a line from the German Symbolist poet Stefan George, one that Schoenberg set to music in his Second Quartet: “I feel air from another planet.”

Works from various stages of Schoenberg’s career anchored the series: the string sextet “Transfigured Night,” a feast of overripe Romanticism; the First Chamber Symphony, a hard-driving exploration of tonality’s outer edges; the song cycle “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” which hovers vertiginously at the border of atonality; the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, an inaugural exercise in twelve-tone writing; and the semi-tonal “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” which uses Byron’s verbal assault on Napoleon to commemorate the war against Hitler. Together, these scores showed the spectacular variety of Schoenberg’s language. At no time did he call for the end of tonality; nor did he stop writing tonal music. Tonality, he said, “is not a necessity for a piece of music, but rather a possibility.”

That radical expansion of the harmonic field had a sweeping influence on all subsequent composers, whether or not they followed Schoenberg explicitly. Hollywood composers paid particularly close attention to Schoenberg’s music, and some studied with him directly. The great man was not displeased to receive these genuflections, although he appeared to resent the idea that his non-tonal vocabulary was useful primarily as an expressive crutch for scenes of tension and terror. Years ago, David Raksin, who wrote music for “Laura” and other classic films, told me that he once asked Schoenberg how he should score an airplane sequence. Schoenberg archly replied, “Like big bees, only louder.”

At the final Jacaranda concert, the pianist and conductor Scott Dunn illustrated the Schoenberg-Hollywood relationship by playing three pieces by Leonard Rosenman, who took private lessons with Schoenberg in 1947. Rosenman wasn’t writing for the movies at the time; that transition came about when one of his piano students, James Dean, was cast in “East of Eden” and got his teacher hired along with him. (Dean, a modern-music fan, liked to tell an anecdote about Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto: after Jascha Heifetz complained that he would need to grow a sixth finger to master the piece, Schoenberg supposedly said, “I can wait.”) Rosenman began employing twelve-tone methods in his film scores. During the planetarium scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the orchestra dissolves into a magnificent Schoenbergian melee. It’s hard to imagine how Hollywood could have functioned without the language of dissonance. The horror genre wouldn’t even exist.

Perhaps the finest recording ever made of “Transfigured Night” came from a group of studio-orchestra players: the golden-toned Hollywood Quartet, augmented by two colleagues, in 1950. As it happens, Jacaranda’s longtime resident string group, the Lyris Quartet, is also made up of veteran studio musicians, and their “Transfigured Night,” in January, extended the local tradition of back-lot Schoenberg love. (The full complement of performers was Alyssa Park, Luanne Homzy, Luke Maurer, Erik Rynearson, Timothy Loo, and Charlie Tyler.) They brought out not only the work’s sumptuous Klimtian hues but also the almost cubistic sharpness of its contrapuntal lines. Similar virtues were evident in a rambunctious version of the First Chamber Symphony, under Mark Alan Hilt’s direction, with the Lyris forming the core of the ensemble.

Jacaranda illuminated another aspect of Schoenberg’s wide reach: the sympathy he elicits among jazz musicians. Pioneers of jazz hardly needed to take direction from European modernism, yet Schoenberg’s pungent chords caught their ears. The jazz guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole was a close reader of Schoenberg’s textbook “Harmonielehre”; Sandole, in turn, mentored John Coltrane. That connection justified the most surprising choice of repertory in Jacaranda’s series: a nine-piece arrangement of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” featuring the composer-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, the saxophonist David Murray, and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This was a joy to hear, despite sound-balance problems. There may be a Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco, but his music doesn’t benefit from church acoustics.

On the same program, Steven Vanhauwaert, one of several brilliant local pianists who added lustre to “Planet Schoenberg” (others were Gloria Cheng and Inna Faliks), played Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 23. I don’t know if Vanhauwaert was deliberately searching out phantom jazz moments in the music, but his free-floating, semi-improvisational approach fit the cross-genre agenda. In the final measures of the third piece, four-note chords jangle against the elemental fifth of C and G, each giving off a smoky, sassy vibe. If it’s not jazz, it’s not from an entirely different planet. And, if it’s not for all, it’s for anyone who wants it. ♦

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