Sic Transit Schoenberg: The Melody Doesn't Linger On

Paul Boyer, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of "Promises to Keep: The United States Since World War II" (Heath)

How are the mighty fallen! Arnold Schoenberg, whose status in 20th-century high culture once seemed unassailable, has become the focus of an unseemly squabble between his heirs and the University of Southern California. After extended legal battles, the composer's family is removing the Schoen- berg archive from USC, charging that the university reneged on commitments made when the material was deposited in 1973. Facilities supposedly dedicated to Schoenberg alone have been used for other purposes. Cultural institutions as far away as Berlin and Vienna are scrambling to benefit from USC's embarrassment. Hovering in the background are intima- tions that the composer's standing has diminished greatly since his death in 1951.

Like a lightning flash in the night, this unhappy incident illuminates larger cultural realities. It makes plain, for example, that high culture and great universities, however rarefied they seem, do not exist in a vacuum. Just as the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so are museum curators, library archivists, academic administrators and the guardians of cultural reputations influenced by the larger social milieu.

One member of the now-defunct Friends of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute exaggerated when she said, "If Schoenberg had written music for a football marching band, we would have been a lot more successful"--but the comment underscores that high-culture questions and academic-policy issues unfold in a wider context.

These issues are not resolved by appeals to lofty ideals or abstract principles. They involve a confusing tangle of interest groups, from alumni to accountants to critics, and they work themselves out against a background of clashing personalities, vulnerable egos and an ever-shifting cultural climate.

The controversy also underscores the fleeting nature of fame--in the cultural realm, as in the political. Tastes evolve; judgments change. Adm. George Dewey, who blasted the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in 1898 and uttered the immortal words, "You may fire when ready, Gridley," was once lionized as an authentic American hero. He is remembered today, if at all, as an embarrassing relic from an imperialistic, jingoistic age.

The once-commanding reputations of artists, composers and writers similarly erode. The novelists Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize-winners who dominated the literary firmament in their heyday, languish largely unread today, except by students in literature courses. Writer Lytton Strachey built his reputation on a 1918 book ironically titled, "Eminent Victorians," and devoted entirely to biographical essays debunking some of Victorian England's brightest cultural heroes, from Florence Nightingale to Gen. Charles George Gordon.

It happens all the time in academia. Faculty and students obliviously inhabit college buildings named for forgotten notables and benefactors. Bereaved colleagues and grateful alumni endow named professorships and lecture series for revered teachers and scholars with towering reputations; within a few decades, younger academics scratch their heads over who, precisely, is being honored--and why.

In 1915, Harvard University tore down modest Gore Hall, honoring a once-prominent Massachusetts family, to erect the imposing new Widener Library, financed by a family of Philadelphia street-railway magnates and corporate tycoons. Will Widener, in turn, someday give way to an even grander Bill Gates or Sam Walton library?

Religious leaders and sports heroes suffer the same fate. When Jerry McAuley, founder of a famous New York City rescue mission, died in 1884, admirers erected a statue in his honor on Broadway at 33rd Street. It did not last long.

As some reputations fade, others rise, reflecting the shifting tides of politics and culture. The stock of female cultural figures is booming at the moment, benefiting composers like Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, and writers from Zora Neale Hurston back to Jane Austen. (Perhaps a movie based on Schoenberg's life would help; Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson worked wonders for Austen.)

My own hometown, Madison, Wis., recently underwent a spate of school name changes. Samuel Gompers School, honoring a once-celebrated Jewish immigrant labor leader, is now Black Hawk School, commemorating the Sac warrior who led an Indian uprising in these parts in 1832. Marquette School, named for the 17th-century French Jesuit explorer, is now Georgia O'Keefe School. Thoreau School survived--but for how long? And so it goes.

The Schoenberg controversy also underscores an inherent tension between the relatives of deceased notables and the cultural institutions that acquire their papers. The former wish to memorialize the departed and keep their memory shining brightly for future generations. The latter take a more detached view--especially as time passes and memories fade. They see their function as primarily one of providing access to researchers intent on assessing the person's life and career--sometimes critically. They shy away from the "keepers-of-the-flame" role. Unconsciously, perhaps, but inevitably, they calculate the institutional benefits, rather than the reputation implications, of acquiring and maintaining the papers of deceased worthies.

Our presidential libraries illustrate this tension vividly. For years, the John F. Kennedy Library endured a kind of schizoid existence, unable to decide whether its purpose was to aid scholarly researchers or maintain a shrine where reverent tourists and awed schoolchildren could honor a fallen hero. The Richard M. Nixon birthplace, grave site, museum and library--facing a tougher sell in the shrine department--betrays some of the same ambivalence.

Sometimes the controversy involves not only the papers of a departed notable, but his or her actual physical remains. Descendants of President Ulysses S. Grant, for example, are currently threatening to remove Grant and his wife from their imposing tomb on New York's Riverside Drive to some more tranquil resting place--perhaps the Grant homestead in Galena, Ill. The descendants are understandably upset that Manhattan officials seem unable to protect the tomb from graffiti artists.

Historical reputations fluctuate as wildly as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and our continuing battles over memorial sites, archival collections and textbooks gauge the ups and downs. Once upon a time, no self-respecting U.S. history text omitted Nathan Hale's stirring (if apocryphal) declaration: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." How many of the Beavis-and-Butthead generation can identify Hale today?

Recently, I visited Xian, China, the capital of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. In 212 B.C., having completed the Great Wall, Qin conscripted hundreds of thousands of subjects for one of the great public works projects: the construction of his own tomb. Not only does the tomb survive--a great tumulus that dominates the surrounding landscape--but so do 7,000 life-size terra cotta effigies of warriors buried in serried ranks in trenches facing the tomb. India's Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Egypt offer other examples of tombs erected by rulers determined that their importance be properly grasped by future generations.

Ah, those were the days! Unfortunately, in our fickle modern age, when reputations rise and fall with dizzying speed, it takes a bold person to predict how he or she will fare in the historical sweepstakes. With the junkyards of Russia awash in gargantuan statues of Vladimir I. Lenin that once dominated vast public squares, we should not be surprised when lesser mortals experience the indignity of posthumous reassessment and downgrading.

Still, this wrangling over Schoenberg is regrettable--whatever shifts our cultural Geiger counters may register at the moment. Surely, a nation that can dedicate museums to Dan Quayle and Norman Rockwell, and declare Lawrence Welk's birthplace a national historic site, should be able to devise an appropriate way to honor this still-towering figure of 20th-century music driven to our shores by Nazi racism in 1933. But fashions change, reputations rise and fall and, as the author of Ecclesiastes noted long ago, time has a way of taking the measure of us all.*

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