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Dissonance among the exiles

“I have made a discovery,” the composer Arnold Schoenberg said in 1921, “which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next one hundred years!” These ecstatic words ushered in the birth of the Austrian’s radically innovative 12-tone method of composition and unleashed a near-century’s worth of dissonance and atonality in avant-garde classical music. But if Expressionism in music was considered disturbing and “decadent” by many in Weimar Germany, Schoenberg was just one of many cultural avant-gardists who were marked for harassment, imprisonment or even death once Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists rose to power.

When that day arrived Jan. 30, 1933, the exodus of German (and later, Austrian) musicians, painters, writers and scientists started out as a trickle and by the late 1930s had become a flood tide.

California soon gained a bumper crop of geniuses. One of the first to arrive in Los Angeles along with Schoenberg was Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Jewish Viennese composer of lush, traditionally flavored music who arrived here in 1934 to write film scores for Warner Bros. Otto Klemperer, the towering conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Kroll Opera House, gave up his initial naivete about “the new Germany” and accepted a post as conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1933. And some of the most famous German writers of the 20th century — Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger and the 1929 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Thomas Mann — all would call Los Angeles home for the duration of World War II.

Feuchtwanger had seen the coming danger earlier than most. In 1930 he wrote “Erfolg” (Success), a work that many consider to be the first anti-Hitler novel. His best-selling historical novel, “Jud Suess,” an unflattering portrait of an 18th century Jewish financier named Josef Suess Oppenheimer, could have made him a hero to the Nazis, but they hated him anyway because he was Jewish. Later, the Nazis produced a vicious film portrayal of “Suess” without mentioning Feuchtwanger’s novel at all.

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After arriving in L.A. in 1940, the Feuchtwangers learned of a palatial three-story house, then standing vacant, on Paseo Miramar in Pacific Palisades.

Originally christened “Miramar” when it was built by The Times in 1928 as a “demonstration house” to attract interest in Palisades development, the house was in serious disrepair. The Feuchtwangers got it for a song, $9,000, and proceeded to fill several rooms with books. Mann moved to the Palisades a year later.

According to Imogen von Tannenberg, who today oversees the artist-in-residence program for European artists at the former Feuchtwanger estate (now known as Villa Aurora), not all of the exiles in Los Angeles got on well with each other.

“Mann and Schoenberg were the worst,” she says, adding that Feuchtwanger himself often acted as calm conciliator at his frequent gatherings of exiles at Miramar. “It was what we call in German a Schicksalsgemeinschaft; a community imposed by fate. These people sometimes despised each other. Their egos clashed frequently, and Brecht, especially, burned his bridges with all but a few. But the alternative,” she adds, “was isolation, which is not a survivable option.”

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On many Sundays, according to Tannenberg, the estimable quartet of film director Fritz Lang, Mann, Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, would meet at “their” table at Du-Par’s at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, for talk over a cozy breakfast of coffee, sausage and pancakes, all of it touched, unavoidably, by a nostalgia more bitter than sweet.

Not all of the artists reacted to their new surroundings favorably. According to Von Tannenberg, attitudes ranged from the “totally insufferable” Brecht’s dislike of flowers and fresh air (he felt “moved” to write poems railing against nature while he was here), to Schoenberg’s anxious, uneasy feelings of cultural isolation. Compare that to the euphoria felt by Schoenberg’s fellow Austrian, the younger 12-tone composer Ernst Krenek: to have finally made it to the great Southwestern desert he had dreamed of since his youth in turn-of-the-century Vienna. He settled happily in Palm Springs.

Feuchtwanger never left Miramar. Productive to the end, he died there in 1958. His many novels are still widely read in Europe today. Von Tannenberg notes that both the Villa’s public cultural events — film screenings, recitals and readings — and the Feuchtwanger Fellowship residency, which is given annually to a writer suffering persecution in his or her home country, serve as a memorial to the exiles and what they gave to the world’s culture, during an earlier, European age of barbarism. All-too-human, they forged, tested and destroyed friendships, while creating great works of art during their period of exile in a now lost, more serene Los Angeles.

tonymostrom@gmail.com

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