Someone to watch over me

Today’s fun fact:

Mrs. A. Lincoln Filene of Boston, music patron and philanthropist, and George Gershwin, American composer, are among those who have contributed towards scholarships with Arnold Schönberg, internationally famous musician and teacher, who will come here next month to teach at the Malkin Conservatory of Music in Boston. Schönberg is an exile from Germany.

From a September 26, 1933 New York Times report. (That’s Filene as in Filene’s Basement, by the way.) Most of us Schoenberg fans know of his one-year stint at the Malkin Conservatory, before he left for California on the grounds of, depending what you read, health or disappointingly poor students (probably both). I’d even run across mention of Gershwin’s support. But his remarks were new to me.

Gershwin’s gift to the Schönberg scholarship fund was made as soon as he was informed of the great modernist’s coming to the United States. Himself an exponent of the use of the modern, native idiom in composition, Gershwin was delighted to come to the aid of the man who has been one of the most daring musical experimenters of our time.

“America may well consider herself fortunate,” Gershwin said yesterday, “to have so distinguished a composer and teacher choose this country for his home. It is my sincere hope that Schönberg will stay a long, long time. His teaching at Boston cannot fail to stimulate and better musical expression here.

“Furthermore, it will once more prove to Germany our intense disapproval of its tyranny and bigotry. Germany’s loss will be this country’s musical gain.”

Time magazine also covered Schoenberg’s arrival.

He has upset conservative concertgoers more than any other modern composer. Philadelphia and New York have not forgotten the harrowing chromatics in Die Glückliche Hand, which Leopold Stokowski gave three years ago. The much talked-of Wozzeck, which the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company put on, is a Schönberg stepchild. His pupil Alban Berg wrote it.

Three weeks ago Arnold Schönberg landed in the U. S., surprised everyone by being a shy, mild little man not a bit fierce or radical in his comments on music or German politics….

Critics took the stand that in his effort to develop something new Schönberg had lost his real inspiration and become a hard-headed mathematician…. But no one has denied his genius as a teacher. In Europe where he had the facilities he took his pupils into his home to live, helped them study Bach and Beethoven, then let them write the kind of music which came naturally to them. His U. S. pupils will have to go through the same fundamental training. The one thing he will not encourage is imitation Schönberg.

It’s interesting that at this point, Gershwin had not actually met Schoenberg;* most likely Gershwin’s enthusiasm stemmed from his 1928 meeting with Alban Berg in Vienna. Also note Schoenberg’s high reputation in the press—even in Time, which doesn’t think much of the music—contrasting with the prophet-in-the-wilderness perception of Schoenberg’s arrival on these shores (a perception cultivated not a little by Schoenberg himself). Gershwin’s comments, assuming they reflect his thinking (the quote does sound a bit like a press release), show him on the cutting edge for 1933, both culturally and politically; this is, after all, only a few months after the Reichstag fire, and still prior Hindenburg’s death.

The Malkin Conservatory seems like a great topic for study, incidentally—it was only in existence for a decade, yet attracted such students and faculty as Schoenberg, Roger Sessions, Ernst Krenek, Nicolas Slonimsky, Conlon Nancarrow, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Fiedler. Imagine those convocations.

*Update (1/15): Or had he? A murky minor mystery of history—see comments.

11 comments

  1. Matthew, Howard Pollack’s biography of Gerhswin sheds some interesting new light on the Schoenberg-Gershwin relationship. He says they “apparently” met in 1928 in Vienna. And it seems that Edward Kilenyi used “Harmonielehre” as a text when giving Gershwin harmony lessons in the period circa 1915-23. Kilenyi had made an incomplete translation of the Schoenberg text.

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  2. Alex: that’s interesting. The 1933 <>Times<> article reports that Gershwin had yet to meet Schoenberg:“Gershwin, who has never met Schönberg, said that he looks forward to making his acquaintance. While staying in Berlin some time ago, Gershwin recieved from Schönberg an autographed photograph.”Maybe Pollack’s “apparently” is in reference to the photo (I have yet to read the Pollack—its length caused me to file it as a summer project), but I suppose Schoenberg’s good wishes could just have easily been passed along by Berg. The Kilenyi story intrigues me—I’ll have to review “Harmonielehre” and see if there’s anything in there subsequently cataloged as “Gershwinesque.”Another thing I found interesting about the article was how it seems to portray Gershwin and Schoenberg as, to some extent, musical peas in a pod, both representative of their countries’ respective modern traditions.Lisa: Shapero was attending the Malkin Conservatory as a high school student. He wrote a 12-tone String Trio which he dedicated to Krenek, who was his teacher. As a <>high-school student<>.

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  3. Hmm! A mystery. Pollack cites this same NYT article, but he states that Gershwin “visited” Schoenberg on April 24, 1928 (the date of the signed photograph). Since the famous meeting with Berg took place two weeks later, it’s hard to imagine how Gershwin could have acquired a signed photo without meeting the Meister face to face. Perhaps Gershwin simply forgot about the meeting?Other signs of GG’s interest in AS: he heard “Pierrot Lunaire” at its 1923 American premiere, acquired the Six Little Piano Pieces in 1927, and heard the Kolisch Quartet play the first movement of the Second Quartet in Paris in 1928.I looked at the Kilenyi notebooks in the Gershwin collection at the LOC. Some very interesting stuff in there. GG had a propensity for adding chromatic passing notes to simple chorale exercises. I found this remark: “All altered scale steps and, consequently, altered chords are of melodic origin!!”

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  4. I’ve seen plenty of signed and dedicated opera singer photos that were issued in response to a letter. The signed Schoenberg photo doesn’t mean they met. I wonder if Pollack has harder evidence of a meeting between the two in 1928.

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