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Sic Transit Schoenberg: The Melody Doesn't Linger On

July 21, 1996|Paul Boyer | 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)

MADISON, WIS. — 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.

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