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Whither Los Angeles: The Émigrés

Los Angeles is a place where cultural dichotomies are magnified, and the rift between American and European musical priorities illustrated by the experiences of émigré composers of the ’30s and ’40s offers a powerful case in point. This was a collision of worlds which never fully resolved or came to an agreeable integration, reflecting some of the fundamental fragmentation of Los Angeles.

Written By

Alicia Byer

For this post on new music in Los Angeles, I’d like to briefly touch on the experiences of European émigré composers in the ’30s and ’40s. As in other parts of the Los Angeles story, the filmic myth looms large, while a more fascinating reality often slips out of grasp. It’s beyond my scope to give a comprehensive history of the period. (For that I recommend Dorothy Lamb Craword’s book, A Windfall of Musicians, which I’ve referenced liberally below.) While this period is discussed quite often, I think it’s crucial to at least look at this history when thinking about our city’s current trajectory in new music.

After all, this was the period when Schoenberg and Stravinsky had rival camps dueling for musical supremacy, and it was in Schoenberg’s Hollywood home that John Cage began harmony lessons, eventually leading to his famous quote about butting his head against the wall of harmony for the rest of his life. Composers who resettled in Los Angeles included Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, Ernst Krenek, Erich Zeisl, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others. This was art music’s golden age of Hollywood, complete with glamorous celebrity rivalries.

Although these artistic conflicts can seem distant to us now (though for me, the image of Schoenberg yelling “I do not have syphilis!” at Thomas Mann’s wife[1] in a Brentwood market will remain ever-fresh), they were powerful cultural forces at the time. Here, Californian naiveté and blatant commercialism butted heads with European rigor and elitism. This was a collision of worlds which never fully resolved or came to an agreeable integration, reflecting some of the fundamental fragmentation of Los Angeles. In this way, the peculiar contours of LA culture have made an indelible mark upon new music as a whole.

The narrative, as it is typically conceived, is that “Hitler shook the tree, and America gathered the apples,” to paraphrase Walter Cook. That is to say, artists and intellectuals fled the imminent horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in America, enriching our culture and collaborating with other émigré artists in a kind of creative expat idyll. Not surprisingly, many composers first headed for the East Coast, hoping to avail themselves of well-supported musical institutions[2]. The Depression’s effects were still resounding, however, and eventually, many of these composers moved on to Southern California in the hopes of gaining lucrative film contracts instead.

The darkness and desperation of the political backdrop seems particularly lost in this usual telling; when walking through UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, it’s easy to forget that this was a period of exile and fear. Many of these composers lost friends and family in Europe, and could have easily ended up in concentration camps themselves had they not managed to escape. These artists were alive and mostly well in America by the grace of immigration policies alone, which privileged intellectuals; a summer holiday this was not.


Arnold Schoenberg, Hollywood, 1947 (George Platt Lynes/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adding insult to injury, Hollywood was not quite the gravy train many had expected. Then, as now, film music was oddly inhospitable to the language of the contemporary concert composer, despite a rich, shared theoretical heritage. Living here, it often feels as if the fields are cousins who speak related dialects, but have little to say to one another. Although a few composers, such as Korngold and Eisler, clambered their way through the labyrinth of the Hollywood process, the majority struggled. Hollywood has its own rhythms and hierarchies, and composers are employed at the end of the creative process. As Stravinsky noted after visiting the studios for the first time, “each…is a kind of principality, with its own borders, trenches, police, cannons, machine guns, as well as its ministers for the various technical and artistic operations.”[3]

Again, Los Angeles seems a place where cultural dichotomies are magnified—in this case, the rift between mid-century American and European musical priorities. In Europe, these composers had enjoyed prestige for their intellectual achievements. In the World War II-era United States, however, movie-goers wanted respite, escapism. At the core of the matter, American commercial art’s primary concerns and values are those of the working and middle classes, while art music’s fantasies come from a lineage of aristocratic patronage, however far receded into the past. It’s easy to see how movie studios might scoff at a European artist’s claim to creative eminence, just as Europeans turned their noses up at the thought of composing in a style suitable for the masses.

In perhaps a fitting symbol for the closest these worlds ever came to true mutual assimilation, Disney’s Fantasia—many a middle-class American’s introduction to classical music—edited Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring freely, about which the composer could do nothing, having signed over complete creative control. Stravinsky wrote of the screening in 1939, “I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, ‘But it is all changed,’ … It was indeed. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated—though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.” This is hardly the image of a cinematic gesamtkunstwerk that a European composer might have imagined.

All of this history should make an impression on us, but in our sprawl, this history seems less potent, spread thinly. In the McCarthy era, many of these artists were targeted and blacklisted; Eisler was deported for his outspoken views. In 1995, USC signed over its Schoenberg Institute archives to a Berlin foundation and renamed the building. We are still not quite sure what to do with this history.

For me, there is more than a little frustration with my own culture for not embracing these artists more fully. I have the nagging sense of missed opportunities, despite the many fruitful encounters which occurred. But maybe it wasn’t our place to fully integrate these composers into our musical culture. As Americans, we must define for ourselves the direction of our concert music, and be grateful that this creative period, with its fragmentation and disappointments, existed at all.

1. Dorothy Lamb Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 109

2. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 24.

3. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 163.