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Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years by Sabine Feisst (review)
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The title of Sabine Feisst’s recent book on Arnold Schoenberg plays on a two-pronged metaphor. On the one hand, the notion of “Schoenberg’s New World” conjures up images of the composer as fearless explorer negotiating the expansive shores of a strange and distant land—an image tinged with opportunity, excitement, and discovery. On the other hand, given Schoenberg’s compulsory exile from Nazi Germany, this metaphor also harbors a sense of desolation and despair. Feisst laments the exaggerated role that the latter reading has played in previous interpretations of Schoenberg’s American period (3–14). While earlier biographers, she argues, have tended to lean on the trope of Schoenberg as an exiled composer, marooned in the cultural wasteland of a vapid, hyper-capitalist Southern California, Feisst offers something of the excitement and opportunity that accompanied the discovery of this “new world,” despite the inauspicious circumstances of his exile. Feisst is careful not to downplay Schoenberg’s difficulties in immigrating to the United States in 1933. But she offers ample evidence to suggest that his career here was by and large a successful one, characterized as much by contentment in certain facets as it was by well-documented frustration in others.

Feisst begins by examining Schoenberg’s American reception during the first quarter of the century. As a counter to the notion that the composer was essentially unknown in the United States prior to his immigration, Feisst’s thorough investigation of over fifty American reviews written before 1920 (many of which had been neglected in previous biographies) documents not only performances of Schoenberg’s music during the teens and twenties, but also their ample (and often positive) reviews by American journalists and musicologists. Thanks to these “early rapprochements,” as Feisst describes such performances, Schoenberg arrived in the United States not as an obscure, unknown artist, but rather as an acknowledged and respected, if somewhat controversial, leader of modern music (15–43).

In chapter 3, “Negotiating Three Identities,” Feisst examines the many ways in which the composer managed to maintain his Jewish and German cultural roots while embracing many aspects of American culture. As evidence of Schoenberg’s acculturation, Feisst emphasizes his commitment to communicating in English, even urging that his German vocal compositions be performed in translation (113). Feisst also highlights his willingness to embrace many facets of American popular culture. First-hand accounts from Schoenberg’s students and friends detail the composer’s seemingly incongruous infatuation with American television and radio shows such as The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, his adoption of American clothing styles, his interest in UCLA football, and his well-documented friendships with Hollywood celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, and his student Oscar Levant (114).

In a musical realm, Schoenberg’s interactions with American composers such as Cowell, Sessions, Slonimsky, and George Gershwin also contributed to his acculturation. Although much has been made of his belief in the superiority of German music, Feisst emphasizes Schoenberg’s great admiration for many American composers, such as Gershwin, Sessions, and Ives (138).

Perhaps the most immediate way in which Schoenberg attempted to reach American audiences in the 1930s and 1940s was through his compositions. Among the works that Feisst views as tailored to American tastes are the Suite in G for String Orchestra, and Theme and Variations for Band, op. 43a, the latter a work that Schoenberg had hoped would be appropriate for college bands (150). Perhaps not as obvious as these is the 1936 Fourth String Quartet, op. 37, a piece whose language, Schoenberg felt, was more accessible than that of his Third Quartet (143). Feisst posits several factors that may have contributed to this easier comprehensibility, including the use of classical forms for each of the movements (sonata form, scherzo, lyrical slow movement, and rondo), the cyclical use of themes, and the much-discussed allusion to D-minor tonality in the quartet’s opening movement (143–44).

For Feisst, Schoenberg’s desire to maintain something of his Austro-German identity is manifest in his arrangements of this period, including his orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 25 (1937), the Three Folksong Settings, op. 49 (1948), and the Violin...

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