Printer Friendly

Schoenberg's New World: the American Years.

By Sabine Feisst. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, [xvii, 379 pp. ISBN 9780195372380. $35.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Sabine Feisst, educated in her native Germany but currently on the faculty of Arizona State University, opens her notable monograph on Arnold Schoenberg's American years with a chapter that shoots down one "myth" after another: that he was alienated in the New World (as a Jew, he was probably that much more of an outsider in Europe, but in any event, he had a large number of friends in the United States); that Schoenberg was burdened with financial and medical problems in America (he earned a solid middle-class income and enjoyed relatively good health); that he had fascist leanings (his Ode to Napoleon and A Survivor from Warsaw represented "vivid musical indictments" [p. 10] of fascism); that his American works succumbed to popular taste, especially in their use of tonality (such developments represented a sound response to his changed environment and anticipated postmodern trends); that he was dissatisfied with the quality of his pupils (he had a number of exceptional students, including John Cage, Lou Harrison, Earl Kim, Leon Kirchner, Oscar Levant, and several leading film composers); and that he was unappreciated and undervalued in America (he had considerable success getting his music published and performed, especially as compared with many of his colleagues, and in addition proved enormously influential). According to Feisst, many of these popular misunderstandings regarding Schoenberg derive from the anti-American prejudices of Eurocentrist commentators, who for polemical reasons have tended to cherry-pick some of the composer's more provocative remarks.

Feisst proceeds to provide a framework for a more accurate picture of Schoenberg in the context of the New World. Chapter 2 details the considerable American interest in Schoenberg that preceded his emigration in 1933. The third chapter, the heart of the book, explores his three-fold identity as Austro-German, Jew, and American subsequent to his arrival in the United States. The "German identity" section considers his steadfast devotion to the German classical tradition and his relations with a distinguished circle of German and Austrian emigres, including Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann, who are presented somewhat as conspirators in the making of Doktor Faustus, with Schoenberg an unwitting dupe; and his former student Hanns Eisler, whose deportation he refused to protest, a clear lapse, although understandable enough in light of his temperament and circumstances. (By contrast, he wrote a strong letter on behalf of the incarcerated Henry Cowell.) The "Jewish identity" section explores his fervent but unorthodox Jewish beliefs, including his exalted dream of a Jewish Unity Party under his leadership that would unite the Jewish people in a national homeland. The "American identity" section shows Schoenberg as successfully adjusting to his new circumstances, from adopting English as his primary language (including dropping the umlaut from his surname) and wearing brightly colored clothes to mingling with Hollywood celebrities and championing the cause of a national American music (which, given the 1930s slogan "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism," perhaps could be described in part as, "Dodecaphonism is Twentieth-Century Americanism").

In each of the three sections, Feisst isolates several compositions intended to illustrate these separate identities, discussions that highlight the risks or at least the limitations of dividing Schoenberg into three. Feisst herself, for instance, alludes to the influence of both Bach and Hollywood film scores on A Survivor for Warsaw, a work cited as exemplifying the composer's Jewish identity. Similarly, she mentions the German classical tradition and Hebrew cantillation in the context of the Fourth String Quartet, but treats the work as reflecting the composer's American identity apparently on the basis of its relative accessibility and the popularity of string quartet composition in his adopted homeland. By segregating the works in this fashion, Feisst means only to emphasize an aspect of Schoenberg's identity as found in a particular work; but she might have accomplished this by referring to such perceived traits across the board as opposed to pigeonholing the composer's catalog. (Related problems arise in the context of some of the biographical commentary as well: why do his attempts to rescue his Jewish-German friends threatened by the Nazis, for instance, reflect a German as opposed to a Jewish or even an American identity?)

The book's fourth chapter covers the many performers and sponsors of Schoen-berg's music during his years in America, including Antony Tudor's successful dance to Verklarte Nacht, Pillar of Fire. "According to my findings, American musicians gave over seven hundred performances of tonal and nontonal works during his American years," writes Feisst (pp. 182-83)--which gives an idea of the thoroughness of the author's research. Even if Koussevitzky, Walter, and Toscanini neglected his music, a number of other conductors championed his work, including KIetnperer, Mitropoulos, Monteux, Reiner, Rodzinski, Stock, and Stokowski, to name only some of the most eminent. Feisst's recognition of the support of Schoenberg by the director of the League of Composers, Claire Reis, might help debunk yet another myth, that of the League's alleged animosity toward him and atonal music.

Chapter 5 similarly surveys Schoenberg's relations with a wide array of publishers, including his principal European publisher, Universal Edition, increasingly under siege by fascists in the 1930s and 1940s, but unwilling, even after being taken over by "Aryanziers," to free him from contractual agreements. The composer's hope to have his scores represented by a single publisher materialized only after his death with his family's establishment of Belmont Music Publishers, the name, as Feisst explains, a French version of the German "schon[er] Berg" or "beautiful mountain."

Chapter 6 addresses Schoenberg's teaching career--his positions at the Malkin Conservatory, University of Southern California, and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) as well as his private teaching (both of individuals and groups) at home. Carrying a relatively heavy workload some semesters at UCLA (by his own account, he taught more than one thousand students in America), he made on the whole a good salary for rather modest responsibilities. In the classroom and his writings, he emphasized the mastering of the basic elements of music through analyses of the German classics from Bach through Strauss (along with a sprinkling of works by Debussy, Sibelius, Ravel, and others)-- analyses that greatly influenced music theory pedagogy in the United States. Although he generally seems to have avoided discussing contemporary music, he also occasionally lectured on selected moderns as well as on his own work, including his use of the twelve-tone method. As to student use of the method, he saw serialism as a way for American composers to achieve "coherence" in their music (p. 139), but would not look at any twelve-tone student work until a certain maturity had been reached (pp. 226-27).

Feisst's final chapter, "The American Reception of Schoenberg's Music after 1945," of course could be the subject of an entire book as opposed to what amounts to an epilogue, but the author nonetheless manages to squeeze a lot of information into a mere seventeen pages, including commentary on assorted performers, composers, musicologists, critics, and theorists. She mentions, for example, the "embrace of dodecaphony" among Jewish-German emigres as signifying "an anti-fascist gesture and/or an accentuation of their Jewish identity" (p. 242), and she touches on the adoption of the twelve-tone method by the film community, including a Tom and Jerry episode composed by Scott Bradley in 1944. "In the postwar era," she summarizes, "more and more American composers adopted features of Schoenberg's music: atonality, structural complexity, the instrumentation of Pierrot, and above all, dodecaphony" (p. 241). And yet for all the interest in serialism, Schoenberg's most frequently performed orchestral works remained Verklarte Nacht and the Five Pieces for Orchestra--both of which preceded his twelve-tone pieces.

Given its wide breadth, the book has some surprising lacunae. Feisst says virtually nothing, for instance, about Schoenberg's relationships with his wife and children, although one wonders in what ways they might have assisted his acculturation to American life. Even more surprisingly, she does not discuss perhaps the most legendary aspect of Schoenberg's American years, namely, his habitation in the same city as Igor Stravinsky, and the ramifications thereof, although in a footnote, she mentions that Stravinsky socialized with Krenek (p. 332 n. 32).

In response to some of her targets--nativist composers who fretted about German or Jewish influence, Eurocentrists who decried American influence on Schoenberg's work, neoclassicists who set Stravinsky against Schoenberg--Feisst occasionally strikes a partisan note of her own. Schoenberg might well have been heroic--although it becomes clear enough in the course of this narrative that, while charismatic and noble, he could be highly demanding and unrealistic--and the American years a resounding triumph. But the entire topic could benefit from a more nuanced and dialectical approach. Feisst's bluntness at least seems in keeping with that of Schoenberg himself.

The book features a fine index and, on a companion Web site (, accessed 6 July 2011), a helpful chronology that might have been included in the book proper. The Web site also contains intriguing audio examples, largely drawn from Belmont Music Publishers, the Arnold Schoenberg Center, and YouTube. Unfortunately, the unnumbered, uncaptioned speaker icons in the text do not readily coordinate with these examples. In the course of chapter 4, for instance, six speaker icons appear, but the corresponding section on the Web has eight recordings. I did not immediately realize that the chapter's first icon, which follows the sentence, "They [critics] disliked the lengthiness of Pelleas, the orchestration of his [Schoenberg's] transcriptions, and his conducting, especially his slow tempo in Iferklarte Nacht," refers to the first and second audio examples (neither of which, incidentally, are recordings of Pelleas, any of Schoenberg's transcriptions, or Verkldrte Nacht as one might expect, but rather recordings of Schoenberg conducting other pieces). The chapter's second icon matches example 3, but then the third icon refers to example 5, with audio example 4, although pertinent, fitting no signifying icon in the text. The book's small font size and margins are likewise bothersome, with the body of the text looking rather footnotish.

Whatever its flaws, this is an important book, extensive in its research, lively in its presentation, smartly revisionist in its attitude--all in all, an inspiring homage to and celebration of Schoenberg's later years. 1 imagine that no one who reads it will think about the New World or for that matter the Old World Schoenberg in quite the same way again.


University of Houston
COPYRIGHT 2011 Music Library Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Pollack, Howard
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 23, 2011
Previous Article:Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna.
Next Article:Boulez, Music and Philosophy.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters