The Arnold Schoenberg collection, donated to USC in 1973 by the famous composer's heirs, was supposed to be a Southern California cultural archive for the ages.
But now that the collection will be leaving USC--after disagreements between the university and the heirs over the treatment of the massive cache of scores, manuscripts, photos and memorabilia--the Schoenberg family says the search for permanent security for the Schoenberg Institute will most likely lead to Europe.
According to the composer's youngest son, Lawrence Schoenberg, the family is debating offers from the cities of Vienna, Berlin and the Hague--with several New York institutions, including Bard College, as dark-horse possibilities. No Southern California institutions have made offers for the collection, which USC has agreed to house only until December 1998, and even the interested East Coast parties have presented no concrete proposals.
Last May, the university and the heirs--Lawrence Schoenberg, a retired teacher and current acting director of the institute; Ronald R. Schoenberg, a municipal court judge; and Nuria Schoenberg Nono, widow of Italian composer Luigi Nono--agreed to a permanent parting of the ways.
The university was candid in stating it could no longer meet the family's demands that the building, which contains archives and a 200-seat recital hall, be used only for classes and activities specifically related to the composer, an important musical pioneer best known for his experiments with 12-tone music. In an April statement, university provost Lloyd Armstrong Jr. said the university was willing to lose the valuable collection rather than agree to "create a private shrine for the composer's heirs."
Any new institute, its acting director said, will be bound by the same rules, along with a provision that the heirs and their descendants participate as board members. The latter was another sore point with USC, where the terms of the donation called for such participation but, in practice, the Schoenbergs felt shut out of administrative decisions. Additionally, the family is looking for what it considers to be sufficient funds for the collection's upkeep.
"Right now there are three exceptional offers," Lawrence Schoenberg said, "and in each case, [for] substantially more than we have received here."
So far, officials representing the three European cities have presented the family with detailed architectural proposals. In Vienna and the Hague, plans call for the institute to be set up in existing facilities; in Berlin, it would be housed in the yet-to-be-constructed Berlin Academy of Arts. Each proposal also offers at least three times the annual funding of $300,000 that USC provides, as well as more than double the space, Lawrence Schoenberg said.
Most important to the family, however, is that the proposals seem to promise a long-term commitment to the family's desires. "They are going to fund this like a museum, which is something that is not done for just 15 or 20 years," Schoenberg said.
He added that the three cities are pressing hard for a quick commitment, but "we're not going to do it just for the sake of making a decision. We are going to be very careful." And he notes that the field remains open. In 1973, he points out, the family had nearly closed a deal to send the collection to the University of Michigan, with architectural plans already drawn up by Eero Saarinen, when USC made its offer.
Many music scholars decry the collection's now-certain move out of Los Angeles. The Viennese-born Schoenberg fled Nazism and lived in Los Angeles for 17 years until his death in 1951, teaching at UCLA and USC while continuing to compose. That the collection may leave the United States represents an even greater blow to American music scholarship, they say.
"It was a treasure for Los Angeles, a city where Schoenberg lived and worked," said Robert Marx, executive director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which remains interested in acquiring the collection. "It is a world-class archive, and the USC building is perfect for it. One can only express regret the departure is going to take place."
Along with the expected original manuscripts, scores, books and papers, the collection contains a full-sized replica of the somber study from Schoenberg's Brentwood home, and the refrigerated archive room offers a plaster "death mask" of the composer, sets of playing cards, chess pieces and game boards he designed, as well as books bound in ornate fabrics he made himself. One particularly odd inclusion is a box of used razor blades from the mid-1940s; in crabbed handwriting on the box, Schoenberg insisted that if left alone for a few years, the razor blades would miraculously become sharp again (archivists say they have not checked the edges).
Schoenberg said preliminary discussions were held with Stanford University, UCLA, the University of Arizona, the new Getty Center and others, but no deal could be struck.