July 18, 2019

Music of Two Jewish Émigrés Performed at Colburn School

In his book about 20th-century symphonic music, “The Rest Is Noise,” Alex Ross writes that in the early 1900s, young European artists were determined to create a “rupture from the world of the present. … This offensive moved on all fronts: music, painting, literature, architecture. … Many of these young people spoke up for the outcasts, and many were Jews who were beginning to comprehend that [they] could never assimilate themselves into an antisemitic society.” 

Maybe it was this feeling of outsider-ness that led a young Arnold Schoenberg, in Vienna, to compose music that broke with the conventions that had existed for hundreds of years. 

According to contemporary accounts, when Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony premiered in 1907, some in the audience whistled, others walked out. During the performance, one critic rose and shouted, “Enough!” Schoenberg did not let that deter him. In the decades that followed, his experiments with tone and counterpoint became an enormous influence on symphonic composers. 

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 was one of the two early 20th-century pieces performed on June 15, at Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles, when a classical ensemble called Pittance Chamber Music presented “A Tale of Two Émigrés With James Conlon.” The other émigré featured was Erich Korngold, a prominent movie composer during the 1930s and 1940s. Conlon, music director of the LA Opera, conducted the program and also provided context and commentary. 

Pittance Chamber Music is a play on words: Normally, those in the group perform unseen in the pit of the LA Opera but the Pittance concerts, staged at various venues, give these talented musicians a chance to come out of the pit and be seen. 

Pittance was founded in 2013 by Lisa Sutton, who serves as the company’s artistic director as well as the assistant concertmaster of the LA Opera. She told the Journal that playing in the pit for an opera “is a vital role, but a secondary one, always playing underneath the singer, but [at the Pittance concert], the musicians have an opportunity to be on stage and just play and play and enjoy every moment.” 

Sutton said Conlon was responsible for picking the Korngold String Sextet, Opus 10, partly because he has been very active in encouraging interest in composers whose music was suppressed in the years just before and during the Holocaust. The Nazis labeled the music of Korngold and Schoenberg “degenerate” and banned it from public performance. 

Because of racial laws put in place after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, Korngold and Schoenberg sensed what was coming. Even though they had been integrated into Austrian life, both left Europe and became émigrés, finding refuge in Southern California —  Schoenberg arriving here in 1933, Korngold in 1934. Though both found success in Los Angeles, they were refugees, struggling with English and adapting to American ways. In spite of being what one writer has called “strangers in paradise,” many exiles missed their old life, especially the culture. 

“[Erich Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg] are the most prominent popular composer and the most prominent concert music composer. What’s amusing is that it takes
two completely different sets of ears to absorb that music.”

— Russell Steinberg

But only up to a point. Conlon pointed out that Schoenberg wrote: “The lesson has at last been forced on me … and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not German and not European. Indeed, perhaps, scarcely a human being. … But I am a Jew.” Conlon also quoted Korngold’s wife, Luzi, who wrote: “We were Viennese. Hitler made us Jews.”

Conlon said that Southern California welcomed these émigrés. “At that time, L.A. was very open to immigrants and immigration. We are a country of immigrants and no story, no period, shows the power of that more than the story of these composers who came to Southern California.” 

Korngold, a child prodigy born in 1897, was only 16 when he composed his String Sextet, Opus 10. According to Conlon, in 1914, at a private premiere, when Korngold brought together six string players from the philharmonic, the small audience included Korngold’s parents as well as the cream of Viennese musicians: conductor Bruno Walter, the sister of late conductor/composer Gustav Mahler, composer/teacher Alexander Zemlinsky. 

At the end of the piece, the musicians asked the listeners if they thought the young Korngold’s tempo markings were correct. After Korngold’s father gave his opinion, the teenage composer said he felt the tempo markings were just right. “Korngold’s mother,” Conlon said, “turned to her son and said, ‘Quiet, the adults are talking.’ ”

Russell Steinberg, artistic director and conductor of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, told the Journal pairing Korngold and Schoenberg in the same concert was “interesting. Erich Korngold was rooted in the older world of Richard Strauss, the world that came out of Wagner’s operas, so when Hollywood was looking for music for films, Korngold was the natural source. Korngold took the Wagner idea of leitmotifs and converted that to film music, and that was the way film music was written for a very long time. [It] directly influenced John Williams,” Steinberg said.

“Schoenberg, on the other hand, was the person who put the final knife through the tonal system,” Steinberg continued. “His influence in the 20th century is just unrivaled. He broke through to a completely modernist world, so it’s interesting to have [Korngold and Schoenberg] together. They’re the most prominent popular composer and the most prominent concert music composer. What’s amusing is that it takes two completely different sets of ears to absorb that music.”

When introducing Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Conlon said that although Schoenberg “revolutionized” music, “he had a tremendous respect for the traditions into which he was born.”

Conlon pointed out that the German-Austrian musical traditions of the late 19th century had two opposing camps: that of Richard Wagner and that of Johannes Brahms. Wagner was about “extreme expression, passion, exuberance, intensity, almost theatrical at moments.” Brahms, on the other hand, was about “a very strict sense of form and structure.”

At the time, Conlon said, you could not be a member of both schools. Either you liked Brahms and hated Wagner, or you liked Wagner and hated Brahms. “But Schoenberg’s generation,” he said, “understood that this was nonsense. They understood that you could make a synthesis of Brahms and Wagner.” 

As played beautifully by the Pittance Chamber Music, that thorny synthesis of structure and passion, of order and emotion, is in Korngold’s String Sextet and it’s also in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, which, more than a hundred years after its premiere, can still stir the sensibilities of an audience used to the comforting tonalities of Mozart and Beethoven.