Friday, August 30, 2013

Sunday Classics' Great Moments in Music History: Arnold Schoenberg, the movie mogul, and the mogul's "boys"


Schoenberg, seen in a 1910 self-portrait
(Yes, he was also a painter)

by Ken

Or we could call this installment of Great Moments in Music History: "The Day Arnold Schoenberg's career as a Hollywood film composer began and ended."

As I mentioned last week, I've been reading the second part of Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography, My Many Years. And as I also mentioned, Rubinstein seems to have known just about everybody in the world of the arts (not just music) through most of his career.

In October 1939, with Poland already fallen to the German Blitzkrieg that set off World War II, placing Rubinstein, his wife Nela and their children (just two at the time) in a dangerous status as Polish nationals, and with France already taking on an alarmingly anti-Semitic tone, the family advanced by several weeks their planned departure from their home in Paris for a U.S. tour. At Nela's urging, Arthur pulled strings to secure very limited space aboard a U.S. ship sent as "a rescue boat for their citizens in France."

In the course of their New World stay, which came to include a South American tour and then one in Mexico, the Rubinsteins watched with mounting horror as events in Europe unfolded and they knew that returning home would be impossible for at least the duration of the war. The family wound up settling in Los Angeles, where of course large numbers of European émigrés had found their way, many of whom were already acquaintances if not friends of the pianist.

Rubinstein takes note of the plight of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had been living in L.A. since 1934, for both political and health reasons. Schoenberg, Rubinstein notes, "gave us musicians quite a lot of trouble."
He was left without money after his dismissal from the University of California, simply because of his age. I joined a group of musicians who decided to help him. The best way was to obtain a commission for him to compose music for films. We were lucky to persuade one of the moguls of the cinema to receive the great composer and offer him a contract. Schönberg was not only willing to do it but became interested in the project. It became common knowledge how the interview ran:

The mogul says: "Professor, I have a film right up your alley. You will write the best music of your life for it."

Schoenberg says quietly: "I would like to settle the financial question first. I need fifty thousand dollars for my music."

The mogul raises both hands in the air. "But, Professor, we've never paid more than ten thousand to our composers.,"

Schoenberg protests: "It takes me a year to composer my music and this is the least I can ask for it."

"But, Professor," laughs the mogul, "why a year? You can write a few tunes and my boys will arrange it for the orchestras and they will do whatever you want."

"Your sons?" asks Schönberg.

"No. We have, at the studio, fellows who finish up the music overnight, arrange it for orchestra or other things. They know what they're doing."

The two men separated without understanding each other. His worried friends were of the opinion that he should have accepted the ten thousand, but the master made this sublime reply: "I cannot commit suicide by making a living on ten thousand dollars."
The moment I dearly wish there'd been cameras there to record is the one when, at least in Schoenberg's mind, the mogul's sons enter the discussion. I'm having more fun than I can tell imagining the "professor" asking, "Your sons?"


The first of the Two Piano Pieces, Op. 33 (1938-41)


Uh, dunno, not sure. Most of the ideas percolating would require quantities of either work or thinking (or, heaven help me, both), commodities that have been in short supply for me for, oh, I dunno, the last couple of decades?

But I'm thinking maybe we could ease into a closer look at the poor comédienne Nedda in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (which we've looked at parts of pretty closely, notably the baritone's remarkable Prologue, in the February 2010 post "The Prolgoue to Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci entreats, 'Consider our souls' "), the victim half of one of the theatrical literature's more explosive relationships. It's her successive scenes with the opera's two baritone characters which I want to get to, and that's one of those deals that's going to require abundant work and thought. Still, we might be able to ease into it, maybe by setting up the relationship with her theater-troupe director husband, Canio.

Or . . . my friend Conrad L. Osborne has latterly published a piece in Opera News about Enrico Caruso, unlike anything you've read about Caruso, even if you've read everything there is, or was, to read about Caruso. I had this idea that we could poach some of that and interlace it with the actual recordings he cites as a sort of value-added enrichment. This takes care of a lot of the "thinking" problem, since C.L.O. has done most of that (all I'd have to figure out is how to poach it), but doing the audio clips and assembling texts and whatnot . . . I get tired just thinking about it. Meanwhile, as of now you can still read the piece -- which combines meaningful description of how that amazing voice worked and how its workings varied over time with a powerfully personal appreciation of the artistry that technique was put at the service of -- for free on the magazine's website.

UPDATE: It's Pagliacci!


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