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Now He's the Pride of Vienna

Composer Arnold Schoenberg's Nachlass leaves L.A. for a city that once shunned him.

June 21, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

VIENNA — 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.

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