Now He's the Pride of Vienna

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Christian Meyer speaks very good English. In a wide-ranging discussion of several hours--including a tour of the new Arnold Schonberg Center, which Meyer heads, and lunch at a nearby guest house--he only once stumbled over a word, unable to come up with the English equivalent of a German term.

It happened, however, to be the most important word of the interview, the term for the collection of the composer's manuscripts and other memorabilia contained in the beautiful new center, an archive in an elegant former mansion in the center of Vienna. But, in fact, there is no good English word for it. "Estate" is too broad; "legacy," too vague. Scholars the world over use the German term Nachlass, which means "what's left behind."

There is some irony in this. The relocation of Schoenberg's Nachlass from Los Angeles, where it had been housed at USC, to Vienna has been controversial. Los Angeles likes to claim Schoenberg as part of its cultural heritage. The composer, who was born in Vienna and shaped by the city's rich culture, emigrated to America in 1933. Though recognized as one of the two most important composers in Europe at the time (Stravinsky was the other), the Nazis expelled Schoenberg from a teaching post he held in Berlin. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism in 1898 then reconverted en route to exile in America.

Vienna was even less welcoming. The Viennese musical establishment had always been hostile to Schoenberg's ultramodernism, as he led the breakdown of tonality and eventually developed the 12-tone system of composition in the early '20s. Anti-semitism (which didn't recognize his Christian conversion) made it worse.

"I still remember," he later wrote about his Vienna experience, "a man saying with authority about me: 'And if he were Mozart himself he must get out.' "

Schoenberg spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles, and never returned to Europe. He wrote much music here and had it premiered in the United States. In private lessons and at USC and UCLA, his teaching made a major impact on American music still felt today. His sons, Ronald, a judge, and Lawrence, a retired teacher, were born in Los Angeles. A daughter, Nuria, the widow of Italian composer Luigi Nono, was 2 years old when she came to America.

But now Vienna seems downright ecstatic to have the composer back, although it is also trying to be sensitive to all of the political issues such a reclamation raises.

"If I lived in Los Angeles, I would feel exactly as you do about losing this Nachlass," Meyer says sympathetically. "But you have to understand, we didn't come seeking it. It was offered to us. Schoenberg was the most important Austrian composer of the 20th century, and this is an invaluable opportunity for Austrians to have direct access to an important aspect of their culture which they might not know as well as they should. And don't forget, most of us were not born when Schoenberg was forced to leave 65 years ago."

Furthermore, Vienna believes that Los Angeles' loss could well turn out to be the music world's gain.

The USC debacle, which resulted in the closing of the Schoenberg Institute last year and included an ugly court case, left a sour taste for many admirers of the great composer. The contents of the institute, the Nachlass, had been donated by the Schoenberg heirs with the understanding that the university would administer the archive and maintain the Bauhaus-style building, created for the collection (at a cost of $500,000 raised by the USC trustees) in 1975, as a place devoted to the study of a single composer.

But USC began to feel constricted by an institute with such a single-minded purpose. Although it hoped to retain the Schoenberg collection it wanted "more bang for the buck," as one administrator put it. Namely it wanted classroom space in the building. From USC's point of view, that wasn't inconsistent with maintaining the archive. The family disagreed.

When the legal dust cleared, the Schoenbergs decided to relocate the Nachlass, and Vienna eagerly lobbied for it. Early last year an agreement was made, and with remarkable speed a new facility was created. It opened its doors in March, although workers were still putting on finishing touches in May, and there was the smell of wet paint.

The new Arnold Schonberg Center is different in many ways from the USC Schoenberg Institute, not the least in the way it has reverted to the German spelling of the composer's name (he Anglicized it after moving to America). First, and most important of all, it sits almost at the geographical center of traditional classical music. Located on Vienna's Schwarzenbergplatz, it is just across the street, and past a spectacular fountain, from the Musikverein, the city's famed concert hall and home of the Vienna Philharmonic. The equally famed Vienna Conservatory is a very short walk away.

The new center takes up the second floor of an elegant building, the Palais Fanto, with an interesting history. "David Fanto, a petroleum dealer, supplied the emperor with oil during World War I," Meyer explains. "But Franz Joseph couldn't pay for it, so he gave Fanto a large quantity of marble, which was used for the staircase."

The mansion was built in 1916 and later converted to office space. On the floor below the center is the Ethiopian embassy. Placido Domingo owns the penthouse apartments, which he uses for his Vienna office and residence.

The Austrian government supports the center and spent $4 million of taxpayer money to turn the 6,500-square-foot space into a state-of-the-art research center, exhibition space and concert hall. The government has also agreed to continue to support it with a budget of around $1 million a year, Meyer says, "for an eternal period of time." (USC's budget was $300,000). And if the politicians ever change their minds about the meaning of eternity, the city has to pay the costs of relocation.

The new space is a bit austere but stylish. Shaped like an arrowhead to conform to the triangular design of the building, it has at one focal point a small but attractive circular library, which is open to all visitors. There is a long, narrow exhibition space, also open to the public, and on display are paintings by the composer (who was also briefly an artist of the Blaue Reiter school), letters, photographs and many of the composer's quirky inventions (an irrepressible hobbyist, he made his own chess sets and mechanical devices and was an amateur bookbinder). A modern computer setup, with the latest in expensive flat screens, allows visitors to access archival material in digital form, to listen to recordings of Schoenberg's interviews, speeches and any of his compositions. The center has begun the process of digitizing manuscripts and hopes to eventually make access available on the Internet (the web site is www.schoenberg.at).

Other rooms house the rest of the 60,000 pieces of the Nachlass, with an archival work room for scholars. A wedge-shaped concert hall is at another angle of the arrowhead (it has been described as acoustically vibrant by some, overbearing by others). It, too, is up to date, with modern equipment to project video and data, and it can be turned into a studio for high-fidelity radio broadcasting.

The architect for the renovation is Elsa Prochazka and she has added some personal touches. The hallway that leads away from the concert hall to a corridor of small seminar rooms (to be occupied by the Vienna Conservatory's own academic Schonberg Institute), resembles a space station. Undulating brushed aluminum walls contrast with Old World bleached wood floors. There is also an already popular shop that sells otherwise hard-to-find Schoenberg scores, books and CDs.

But excellent as the facility is, location, as they say in real estate, is everything. And this is what really makes the Schonberg Center a center.

It attracts the general public for the exhibition hall and the shop, and it is in easy access of the city's center. Though open less than two months when I visited, it was already popular with music lovers and the curious. School children take excursions. And famous musicians flock. Conductors Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado dropped in to look at manuscripts of works they planned to conduct. The pianists Maurizio Pollini and Alfred Brendel ran into each other there, and spent a couple of hours going through the exhibition together. At the time of my visit, a table still had on it the materials that opera stage director Peter Stein had examined the previous day.

As it did at USC, the Schoenberg family imposes stringent conditions on its donation, defining what is appropriate in terms of the performances and activities of the center, and it monopolizes the center's board. The Viennese have handled them tactfully. The chancellor of Austria, Viktor Klima, had an audience with them. Vienna's Councilor for Cultural Affairs Peter Marboe is one the center's strong supporters.

"We're really delighted," Lawrence Schoenberg proclaimed over the phone recently, just as he was about to leave L.A. for Vienna to attend a board meeting at the center. "The funding is as secure as we can hope for. And it seems to be really accessible, which we had made one of the conditions."

The composer's son also seems to be satisfied that the family has not been taken advantage of politically. He says he is not naive, that he realizes that some of the remarks he heard at the opening ceremonies--at which Klima called it a great day, the return of a composer to a country in which he could not have survived a half-century ago--may have been the work of politically savvy speech writers. But the enthusiasm of the opening week of festivities, which included an all-Schoenberg Vienna Philharmonic program conducted by Mehta, was genuine, he feels.

Meyer, a pianist with an economics background who had been the business manager for the Konzerthaus (one of Vienna's main concert halls) and later ran an arts consultant business, says that the degree of goodwill and support for the center has surprised even him. "I still can't believe that no political party opposed it. I thought surely the Greens, or the even more liberal Blues, would protest spending $4 million on elitist culture. But they were in favor."

There is, moreover, evidence all over Vienna that this may not be the ferociously conservative and prejudiced society it once was. For instance, an evident fascination with all things Jewish pervades the city. One sees window displays about Jews in just about every bookstore in connection with Israel's 50th anniversary. The great intermission hall of the Vienna State Opera has an exhibit on Jews in music, with a particularly strong emphasis on Mahler, a former director of the State Opera who converted to Catholicism early in his career.

And Schoenberg, who was once too modern for Vienna, now seems to be integrated into Viennese cultural life in a way that never happened in Los Angeles. One example is an art exhibition celebrating a century of eclectic modernism. Hung next to each other is a portrait by Schoenberg of Alban Berg's wife, Helena, and a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman.

Pianist Leonard Stein, one of Schoenberg's star American pupils and the original director the Schoenberg Institute at USC, puts it all in perspective. "Vienna," Stein points out, "has been vilified by association. But Schoenberg made his peace with the city. He was offered the keys to Vienna on his 75th birthday and was happy to accept. His ashes are buried there.

"And there are good reasons why the center is there now. The government supports it. It cares about memorials, whereas in L.A., there isn't a true memorial to anybody. Maybe you have Schoenberg Hall at UCLA, but that's all. L.A. is not a place where you celebrate the past."

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