In the 1930s and 40s, Los Angeles and Hollywood were among the most special
places for young American composers to meet their exiled colleagues from Europe. German pianist Susanne Kessel‘s CD revives the spirit of those years, during which Schoenberg, Chaplin, Stravinsky, Gershwin and many others
went in and out of Lion Feuchtwanger‘s Music of European Immigrants
and their American Contemporaries
Rachmaninoff · Bach/Siloti · Milhaud · Krenek · Hupfeld · Schönberg · Stravinsky
Williams · Knell · Gershwin · Eisler · Shapiro · Cowell · Chaplin · Arlen · Cage
Susanne Kessel, piano
Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, California. A program of short piano pieces, rich in contrast, reveals the gamut of music that evolved in this creative atmosphere. Rachmaninoff‘s unmistakable
late romantic drama is heard next to music of the avant-garde of the time (Schoenberg, Krenek, Eisler); for something completely different, Kessel throws in evergreens and film melodies like As Time Goes By or Somewhere.
The German “Kreis der Freunde und Förderer der Villa Aurora e.V.” (Circle of Friends and Supporters of the Villa Aurora [a non-profit association]) was founded in 1987 to save the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, California, and to honor and remember all those German artists, intellectuals and writers
who found safe harbor on the USA’s West Coast during the Nazi regime.
Since 1995, the Villa Aurora has provided scholarship recipients who are residents of or who work primarily in Germany with the opportunity to live and work on its premises. In cooperation with the PEN Center USA, the Villa Aurora annually awards a fellowship for up to twelve months to a writer who is currently being persecuted. In addition, the Villa Aurora Circle of Friends organizes a series of transatlantic
symposia to promote European-American
cultural exchange. The concept of the Villa Aurora artists’ residence distinguishes itself from similar residencies in that it tries to publicize
the results of the artist’s stay in a series of subsequent programs and documents, making these accessible to German audiences. The CD by Susanne Kessel is part of this series.
Her piano concerto was performed with great success in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Villa Aurora on May 23, 2004. Above all, we have supported this CD because it pays homage to composers who were forced into exile during the Nazi regime. Many of these composers were regular visitors to the Villa Aurora during the time that Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger lived in it.
The Villa Aurora has set itself the goal of reviving
the former Feuchtwanger house with the same spirited cultural exchange that served as a model during the period of exile.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler
Susanne Kessel on this Recording
Early in 2004 I traveled to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of music. I had been invited to perform several piano recitals with my program
“Das Kalifornische Konzert” (Californian Concert). In addition, I wanted to meet relatives,
descendants, students and colleagues of the major composers who had lived in Los Angeles during their years of exile throughout
World War II. It was planned that these encounters should form the basis for a WDR radio production in Germany. In addition, even before my trip I had contacted a number of younger LA composers who I wanted to meet in order to study some of their piano works with them. It became an exciting journey centered
on composers of the city of Los Angeles: a pianistic portrait of Los Angeles.
In the 30s and 40s of the 20th century, many of Europe’s most famous and significant artists
lived in the USA, far from their homelands. Most of them chose LA as the locus of their exile. Hollywood’s film industry provided vital
opportunities to earn a living as well as a promising professional milieu for composers, writers, directors and actors. They lived in the residential neighbourhoods of Los Angeles: Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica – and waited for the end of the war.
Many artists who were already famous in Europe were able to continue up the career ladder in the USA, e.g. as Hollywood film composers,
university professors or as highly regarded
novelists or screenplay writers. Some, however, could not maintain the success they had known in their home countries. Conditions for artists were often different than in Europe; there were both literal and figurative “worlds” between the continents. Audiences were different,
and culture was promoted according to laws that were often very difficult for immigrants
to understand and accept. Those who didn’t accept America on its own terms failed. But at the same time, it was important for all of these artists not to overstep the bounds of artistic
self-abnegation – despite all artistic and cultural reorientation.
The presence of the major European artists
enriched California’s cultural life immensely,
and it was the young Americans who benefited the most from the composers who likewise taught. An entire generation of
American composers and musicians trained with Arnold Schoenberg, the major composer of the Second Viennese School, or with Ernst Krenek, a friend of Rilke, Adorno, Kokoschka and Berg. The European composers were able to convey to their students an artistic horizon that was much broader than the latter would otherwise have obtained, a horizon far beyond the bounds of pure composition instruction. But even those composers who worked in the film industry brought new musical aspects to America. It was a time of intensive cultural exchange
between Europe and the USA.
Morton Subotnick, one of today’s most significant American composers of electronic music, grew up in Los Angeles. In his teens, he took lessons near Los Angeles with the French exile composer Darius Milhaud. After visiting a concert together in Los Angeles, Morton Subotnick told me about his youth in the 40s:
“By the time the Second World War was over, I began to be aware of the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Because they were the two most prominent figures. It was an amazing time! I had a special deal with Darius Milhaud: I told him what was going on in the avant-garde in Los Angeles and he told me what had been going on in Paris in the 20s. We were really blessed in New York and in Los Angeles with these giants of culture who came over. It changed the USA. It changed the whole art world because of their presence. They brought something very special. I think it was a blessed time. Not so blessed for them, but it was a blessed time. When you are young and you are going through that, you think this is normal, but as the years went on I began to realize that this had been a very special time in Los Angeles. Los Angeles which before and after was a town where Hollywood dominated. For one period of time it was an intellectual Mecca and I happened to grow up there and so it was a very blessed experience. As the years went on and the people got older, they disappeared and nobody took their place. It’s like having a house growing up in the jungle. You build the house and you cut the vines and then you have a beautiful house. And if you don’t cut the vines, the vines take over again. And Hollywood has taken over again!”
(Morton Subotnick, 2004)
Arnold Schoenberg’s assistant, California pianist, composer, conductor and musicologist
Leonard Stein, lived in the Hollywood Hills and was still organizing an extremely well known concert series for new music entitled “Pianospheres” in 2004. He allowed me to visit him at home. We talked about his years with Arnold Schoenberg, and he worked with me on some of Schoenberg’s piano pieces. When I asked him if Schoenberg had ever really adjusted to living in Los Angeles, Stein answered:
“Oh yes, he had an amazing way of adjusting. Simply because he liked teaching! He tried to find a way of teaching these ‘stupid’ Americans,
you see. But he adjusted!”
(Leonard Stein, 2004)
Several days after our meeting, Leonard Stein died at the age of 87. He was an important witness
of those times and played a central role in the musical life of Los Angeles for decades.
Many of the descendants of the émigrés still live in LA today. It was highly dramatic for me to be able to meet the sons and daughters, students and colleagues of those major composers.
Most of them were enthusiastic about my idea to play a program uniting the works of the emigrants and the American composers of that specific era. Many invited me to their homes and discussed the cultural diaspora in Los Angeles at great length with me.
I also visited Gladys Nordenstrom Krenek, the widow of Ernst Krenek. She has lived since the 1950s in the Krenek home in the desert town of Palm Springs, 200 kilometers northeast
of LA. Ernst Krenek’s estate, his library, his correspondence and much more had been recently moved to the Ernst Krenek Institute Private Foundation at the University of Krems in Austria, and she now had to get used to the unusually empty house. Gladys Nordenstrom Krenek, also a composer, met her husband when she studied composition with him. Today,
she is tirelessly absorbed with cataloging his estate and constantly travels between the USA and Europe.
“I think that Krenek always remained an Austrian. He was actually an Austrian through and through. But he enjoyed living in California very much. He loved the desert. He had a great affinity to this aridity, to the dryness
– but above all, he loved the sun and the vegetation.
He said he had his own light and he felt very well here, I must say. He was isolated, however. He had had more friends and cultural
connections in Europe. Here, he had to be extremely independent – much more than he would have had to be in Europe. He did have friends here, American colleagues, especially Roger Sessions. We were friends with Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft. Milton Babbit was also one of his friends. And of course his students! All his students at Hamlin University became professors at the University of San Diego.”
(Gladys Krenek, 2004)
After one of my concerts, Yvonne Jurmann invited me to visit her in her wonderful house in Hollywood. She is the widow of Walter Jurmann, immortalized through such hits as Veronika, der Lenz ist da, San Francisco and his music for Marx Brothers films. Just like Gladys N. Krenek, she also lives in the house she shared with her husband and takes care of his estate as well as keeping his memory alive throughout the world. She is a frequent guest of honor at concerts in which Walter Jurmann’s music is performed, e.g. by Max Raabe and the Palastorchester and many others. She told me her husband had written the song Ninon for her. And that is why I added it to my program!
“He remained a European his whole life. In his manners, in his tastes. But you can do that in America! That’s the great thing about this country: you can stay yourself. And it’s respected.
He was very thankful to America that he really had the opportunity to show his talent.
But he was open for new ideas throughout his whole life and was a very good observer. He wanted to understand the atmosphere in America with his whole heart. And this is what enabled him to write American-sounding music.
He was very successful because he did this with his whole heart. And he didn’t focus on the bad: first badmouthing Vienna and then badmouthing Los Angeles, which most emigrants
(Yvonne Jurmann, 2004)
I paid the very first of my visits to the Villa Aurora
– the residence of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger
in Pacific Palisades, situated on a hill directly overlooking the Pacific Ocean. My teacher Peter Feuchtwanger had told me many years before about his great-uncle’s house. The house was in Spanish style, with a salon and library. It was one of the most important
meeting spots of European emigrants during their Los Angeles exile. This is where Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Krenek, Alfred Döblin,
Sergej Rachmaninoff, Bruno Frank, Fritz Lang, Ludwig Marcuse, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Franz Werfel, Igor Stravinsky, Heinrich Mann and many others went in and out. Such private circles as these in the Villa Aurora were important
meeting places as well as essential for social and artistic survival in a foreign country. The opportunity to exchange views in a circle with European norms was of the greatest importance for helping such artists maintain their personal stability – and artistic integrity as well. But the exchange with American colleagues
was also important in order for the émigrés to get a foothold in the New World and make new artistic discoveries. Intensive discussions regularly took place with such artists as Charles Chaplin or George Gershwin (Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin were passionate tennis partners!); despite this, the emigrants did tend to remain among their own.
Das Kalifornische Konzert musically re-enacts
the meetings of the European and Russian
emigrants. It was an unforgettable experience
to be allowed to perform in the salon of the Villa Aurora – in the exact room where the composers of the works on the program may have discussed their futures. This is how it must have sounded when they met and played their newest works for each other.
I played this program a number of times in Los Angeles and was deeply moved when a composer who accompanied me much of the time told me that my audiences in the last weeks had consisted primarily of second- and third-generation Jewish musicians of European
descent. Most of them mentioned nothing of this to me, but followed me silently around on my concert tour through the salons of Los Angeles.
I recorded the famous silent work 4’33 by John Cage on May 30, 2004 in the salon of the Villa Aurora, its windows wide open, sitting at
Ernst Toch’s Blüthner grand with only a few listeners.
Accompanied by distant sounds from airplanes or motorcycles, the chirping of the birds in the evening reverie truly conjured up the atmosphere of one of Lion Feuchtwanger’s legendary salons. I dedicated this piece to Leonard
I wish to extend my grateful thanks to all those who made this project possible and supported me along the way: the Villa Aurora, Mechthild Borries-Knopp, Dieter Oehms, Ute Kirchhelle, Gladys Krenek, Leonard Stein, Michael Meyer, Alex Shapiro, Peter Knell, William Kraft, Heidi Lesemann, Claudia Gordon, Morton Subotnick, Ralph Grierson, Karen and Mike Lang, Jan and Bruce Hanifan, Martin Erdmann, Dietmar Bonnen,
David Kremser, and last but not least the German Federal Foreign Office.
On the Composers
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler
Harold Arlen, born in 1905 in Buffalo, New York, performed in vaudeville theaters and sang in the Harlem Cotton Club before achieving fame in the film industry, especially with his music for the 1938 movie The Wizard of Oz. His most well known standards include It’s Only a Paper Moon and Stormy Weather. He lived and worked both in Hollywood, where he knew George and Ira Gershwin well, and in New York, where he composed for Broadway and died in 1986.
John Cage was born in 1912 in Los Angeles
and studied there with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schönberg, living most of his life in New York, however. Cage’s first opportunity to publish a composition came in 1943 in Henry Cowell’s journal New Music. Shortly before Cage’s death in New York in 1992, he developed
a comprehensive retrospective of his musical compositions and artworks for the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art.
Born in 1889 in London, Charles Chaplin
worked in the USA from 1910 until a 1952 European visit, during which he was refused re-entry to the country by Joseph McCarthy and his Unamerican Activities Committee. Although this prohibition was subsequently rescinded, Chaplin later visited the USA only on occasion and died in his last residence, Corsier-sur Vevey, Switzerland in 1977. Chaplin
claimed responsibility for some of the music in his films, but could not read music himself. He would thus whistle his melodies to such composers as Hanns Eisler and Georg Kreisler, who would then write them down and orchestrate them.
Henry Cowell, born in Menlo Park, California
in 1897, was a composer, pianist (primarily of his own works), music theoretician, composition
teacher and tireless promoter and propagator of new music. In 1925, he founded the New Music Society in Los Angeles, and in 1927, the quarterly journal for new scores he called New Music. In 1955, he and Sidney
Cowell published the first monograph on Charles Ives. He died in Shady, New York in 1965.
Hanns Eisler, (Leipzig 1898 – East Berlin 1962), remained an Austrian citizen his entire life. He studied in Vienna with Arnold Schoen-berg until the two quarreled over Eisler’s stance on socialism, a quarrel that was only
overcome during Schoenberg’s exile in California.
Between 1942 and 1948, Eisler lived primarily
in Pacific Palisades and wrote film music
for Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Joseph Losey, among others. After appearing in front of the Unamerican Activities Committee, he was banished from the USA and settled in East Berlin.
George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898, achieved fame through his songs and musicals as well as well as his ‘symphonic jazz’ compositions such as Rhapsody in Blue. He also took lessons in composition and music theory from such composers as Henry Cowell even after writing his first film scores for Hollywood
in 1931. He died in 1937 in Beverly Hills, where he was friends with Arnold Schoenberg – the two were tennis partners.
Herman Hupfeld, born in 1894 in Montclair, New Jersey, began his musical career as a saxophonist in a Navy band. He wrote countless
songs for the popular music and film industries,
including As Time Goes By. This song was originally composed for the musical Everybody’s Welcome, but it didn’t achieve worldwide fame until its inclusion in the 1942 film Casablanca. Hupfeld died in his home town in 1951.
Walter Jurmann, born in Vienna in 1903, went to Berlin in 1927, where he quickly rose to fame in the popular music industry and in film, writing songs for Hans Albers, Richard Tauber and the Comedian Harmonists (Veronika,
der Lenz ist da). He fled to Paris in 1933 and continued working there with Bronislaw Kaper, as he did in 1935 in Hollywood, including
on such Marx Brothers films as A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Jurmann died during a visit to Budapest in 1971.
Peter Knell, born in 1970 in Pasadena, California,
studied at the Juilliard School in New York and at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to autonomous music, he also composes
for film and lives in his home city.
Ernst Krenek, born in 1900 in Vienna, was hugely successful after the 1927 premiere of his opera Jonny Spielt Auf, which was performed
in circa one hundred theatres and later
branded a “racial disgrace” and “degenerate”
by the Nazis. He emigrated to the USA in 1938, became an American citizen in 1945 and lived in Palm Springs, California from 1947 until his death in 1991. He exerted a great influence on the following generation of American composers
through his extensive teaching career.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, born in 1873 in Semyonovo
by Novgorod, performed for the first time in the USA in 1909 after achieving fame throughout Europe as a composer, pianist and conductor. He left Russia after the 1917 Revolution, lived in a number of European countries, New York, and after 1942, in Beverly
Hills, where he died one year later, shortly after becoming an American citizen. Rachmaninoff’s
works were not only one of the biggest
influences on Hollywood film music but were frequently cited in films as well – even though the composer adamantly refused to write for film.
Arnold Schoenberg, born in 1874 in Vienna, was soon one of the most influential and controversial
composers in all of Europe. He was appointed professor for composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1925; in 1933, he was fired by the Nazis in breach of contract. He continued teaching in Los Angeles
at two universities (USC and UCLA) and died in that city in 1951.
Alex Shapiro, born in New York in 1962, studied at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan
School of Music and has written many pieces for film. She is the head of The American
Composers’ Forum of Los Angeles and lives in Santa Barbara and Malibu.
An invitation to hold the Charles-Eliot-Norton
Lectures at Harvard University in 1939 was the reason for Igor Stravinsky, born in 1882 near St. Petersburg, to leave Europe. He moved to Los Angeles the following year, where he lived as a free-lance composer and conductor and from where he started many international concert tours. He died in 1971 in New York.
The composer, pianist and doctor of law Alexander Tansman, born in 1897 in Lodz, Poland,
first began his international career after moving to Paris in 1920. He was forced to leave France the same year he became a French citizen, 1938, seeking refuge in Los Angeles between 1941 and 1946. He then returned to Paris and published various works, including a monograph on his friend Igor Stravinsky. He died in Paris in 1986.
Born in Vienna in 1887, Ernst Toch was a composer, pianist and doctor of musicology. After teaching in Berlin for four years, he emigrated
to London in 1933, moving to the USA one year later, where he taught – like Henry Cowell and later John Cage – at the New York
New School for Social Research, a newly founded offshoot of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. He became an American citizen
in 1940 and died in 1964 in Los Angeles.
John Williams was born in New York in 1932. He moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and studied at UCLA with Italian immigrant Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He is one of the most successful Hollywood composers ever, and has written the music for numerous films, including
all films of Steven Spielberg, such as Jaws, E.T. etc.
Born in 1905 in Vienna, Eric Zeisl was a well known Lied and operetta composer who even received the 1934 Austrian State Prize for his Requiem Concertante. He first emigrated
to France, and then to the USA in 1939, where he was far less successful. He taught at the City College in Los Angeles, where he died in 1959.
Pianist and conductor Alexander Ziloti, born in 1863 in Charkiv, was a student of Peter Tchaikovsky and Franz Liszt who then taught in Moscow, among his students his cousin Sergei Rachmaninoff. After nine years touring Europe and North America, he was appointed head of the Moscow Philharmonic from 1901 to 1903. He founded a concert series for new music in St. Petersburg in 1903, in which guests from all over Europe appeared. Ziloti emigrated to England in 1918, continuing on to New York in 1921, where he taught at the Juilliard School until 1942 and died in 1945.
Translation Elizabeth Gahbler