Exiles in Paradise: on the “Hollywood Renaissance” and Finding New Repertoire for the Cello: Part 1
This article is the first installment in a two-part series
As cellists, we tend to think of much of the repertoire that we play as European cultural traditions that we have assimilated. We generally associate American musical tradition with Copland, Ives, Gershwin and perhaps a few brief years in the life of Antonin Dvorak. Many musicians are unaware, however, that in the first half of the 20th century, an influx of European refugees, fleeing war and persecution, rapidly formed, within a few square miles near Hollywood, one of the most talented and prolific communities in music history. As they attempted to rebuild their lives in this exotic paradise, they indelibly altered the course of American culture.
Performers living in Los Angeles during this era included Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Lotte Lehmann and, for the last several summers of his life, Emanuel Feuermann (After a trio concert with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, Rubinstein once quipped, “not bad for local talent!”) The émigrés also included literary and cultural figures including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Dylan Thomas, Bertrand Russell, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler. However, perhaps most remarkably, Los Angeles hosted a gathering of compositional talent in a single city that was arguably unprecedented since 1800s Vienna. Representing virtually every facet the musical spectrum, they included Joseph Achron, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Hans Eisler, George Gershwin, Louis Gruenberg, Bernard Hermann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Miklós Rózsa, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Steiner, Igor Stravinsky, Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, and Erich Zeisl. As Stravinsky said in that era, “Hollywood is the center of the music world!”
Most were refugees- the majority Jewish. They came to America in waves, fleeing the Czarist pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the rising anti-Semitism and the impending war in Europe, and formed a tight-knit community, relatively unnoticed by the city around them. Many of them worked in the film industry and were sometimes derisively referred to as ‘Hollywood composers’ It was, in actuality, not that their music sounded like film scores, but rather that our entire conception of film music is descended from the distinct and memorable individual styles of composers like Korngold, Rozsa, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Waxman. Today’s film music- one of the last bastions of symphonic music in our popular culture- owes its genesis to the talents of these immigrants and traditions they brought with them into this new genre of symphonic music.
This month we released a Naxos CD titled Exiles in Paradise: Émigré Composers in Hollywood which explores some of the remarkable composers of this “Hollywood Renaissance” with a survey of works and new transcriptions for cello and piano, ranging from Korngold to Schoenberg, and from seldom heard compositions by Toch and Gruenberg to Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.
Our hope in releasing this album is to spark an interest in these extraordinary and, in some cases, neglected composers, and to broaden both the repertory and the technical boundaries of the cello, with transcriptions from the violin repertoire like the Carmen Fantasie. The classical world is mired in a cycle of repeating the same narrow repertoire. We can not continue to play only the same works, changing only the face of the performers. The variety between performers pales in comparison with the amazing breadth of repertoire that exists. Towards this goal, I would like to survey some of these composers and the potential repertoire they left us for- or adaptable for- the cello:
Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938, LA 1916-19) was a Russian child prodigy whose family emigrated to the U.S. in 1884. Known as one of the greatest technical pianists in history and the composer of some of the most difficult compositions ever written for the piano, Godowsky was almost entirely self taught. Among string players, he is perhaps most famous for his quip at Jascha Heifetz’s Carnegie debut, when Mischa Elman asked “It’s awfully hot in here, isn’t it?” and Godowsky replied “Not for pianists!” His son Leopold Jr. married George Gershwin’s younger sister, Frances and co-invented color photography, while his daughter Dagmar was a star of silent movies.
Godowsky’s music, largely for solo piano, sparkles with style and charm. We recorded Jascha Heifetz’s violin transcription of Alt Wien (Old Vienna) from his 1920 Triakontameron to set the opening mood of the album, but Godowsky has arranged the Larghetto lamentoso, Elegy, Valse macabre and Orientale of his 12 Impressions (1916) for cello and piano(and the rest of this set, originally for violin and piano could easily be arranged for cello)
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943, LA 1942-43) story is well known, but less known is that following a doctor’s advice, the Rachmaninoffs relocated to Beverly Hills in 1942, where he succumbed to melanoma the following year. Once dismissed by scholars as a ‘derivative’ composer whose music would quickly fade in popularity, Rachmaninoff has instead become the most frequently performed 20th century composer. We cellists are fortunate to have his monumental cello sonata, but with the hope of broadening the repertoire, I made a new transcription of his 1940 version of the Serenade from his set of five Morceux de Fantasie for this album. In addition to the cello Sonata and well known Vocalise transcription, , Rachmaninoff, composed three pieces for cello prior to the Sonata, a Danse Orientale, a Prélude and a Lied (Romance.) Additionally, many of his songs- in particular Daisies, Op. 38, No.3- work beautifully on the cello.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971, LA 1940-69) was driven from Europe by the outbreak of World War II and spent the last third of his life in Hollywood, where his house became a meeting ground for European intellectuals, including W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin (though, of course, never arch-rival Schoenberg).
Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Suite Italienne in collaboration with Piatigorsky is well known, so we chose to adapt a violin arrangement of the Berceuse from Firebird by Samuel Dushkin who worked closely with Stravinsky on his arrangement for the violin. Dushkin also transcribed the Scherzo from Firebird, and that, as well as many of his early songs, could also be successfully transcribed into the cello repertoire
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951, LA 1934-51) was the other of Los Angeles’ most famous composers. An Austrian Jew, Schoenberg was driven from his post in Berlin by the rise of Hitler, and came to America in 1934, settling eventually in Los Angeles, where he held teaching posts at USC and UCLA. Schoenberg’s house similarly became a gathering spot for European intellectuals in exile and among the guests at his Sunday teas were Otto Klemperer, Gershwin, Toch, Achron, Gruenberg, Varese, Harpo Marx and Peter Lorre.
While Schoenberg left a considerable amount of chamber music, he composed nothing for solely for cello aside from his 1913 free arrangement of the harpsichord concerto of Monn (debuted in America by Feuermann in Los Angeles in 1936 ) We chose to adapt Saget mir auf welchem Pfade (“Tell me which path”) from the song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. In this cycle Schoenberg, writing in a freely atonal style, says he felt that for the first time he had found his true compositional voice. Many of Schoenberg’s songs, particularly those in this cycle, are surprisingly effective for cello and piano.
Joseph Achron (1886-1943, LA 1934-43) was described by his friend Schoenberg as “one of the most underrated modern composers”. A Lithuanian Jew, known as much for his violin playing as his compositions, Achron was also notable for his embrace of Jewish music and idioms at a time when most Jews were more concerned with integration. His friend and fellow Auer- student Heifetz made Achron’s first overtly Jewish work, Hebrew Melody, well known around the world. Achron moved to America in 1924, settling in Los Angeles a decade later, where he composed for films, continued his violin career, and premiered his own Violin Concerto No. 3 (commissioned by Heifetz) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
I love Hefetz’s recording of Achron’s Stimmung, which focuses on creating moods with a single melody, varying only the harmony and accompaniment. Like many of his violin works, it can be played on the cello simply by lowering it one octave. His Hebrew Melody and other hebraique pieces for violin would make particularly good transcriptions for Jewish inspired programs or services. Achron also wrote his Berceuse, Op.20, Hazan, Op. 34 and the short Fragment Mystique, Op.43 specifically for the cello.
To be continued in part 2: The Film Composers: Korngold, Rozsa, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and more!
Hailed by Newsday for “extraordinary musicianship…forceful, sophisticated and entirely in the spirit of the music,” cellist Brinton Smith continues to win rave reviews for virtuosic performances with musical ideals rooted in the golden age of string playing. His debut recording of Miklós Rózsa’s Cello Concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra won widespread international critical acclaim, with Gramophone praising Smith as a “hugely eloquent, impassioned soloist,” and his recording of chamber music of Fauré with Gil Shaham was chosen by numerous critics as one of the year’s best albums. As a chamber musician, he has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, Cho-Liang Lin, Lynn Harrell, Sarah Chang, Dawn Upshaw and members of the Beaux Arts Trio and the Guarneri, Emerson, Juilliard, Cleveland, and Berg quartets. Mr. Smith is the principal cellist of the Houston Symphony and a faculty member of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. He was previously a member of the New York Philharmonic and the principal cellist of the San Diego and Fort Worth symphonies. His performances have been broadcast throughout the world including, in the US, on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Performance Today and Symphonycast. At age 10, Mr. Smith was admitted part-time to Arizona State University, studying mathematics, music and German, and he completed a B.A. in mathematics at age 17. He received his masters and doctoral degrees from Juilliard, studying with renown cellist Zara Nelsova and writing on the playing of Emanuel Feuermann.