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Pearl Harbor music: Weill and Schoenberg

Of the distinguished refugee composers chased to the US by Hitler, two – Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg – so memorably responded to Pearl Harbor that one is tempted to surmise that no American-born composer could have reacted with such exigent fervor to the Japanese attack.
The two works in question are Weill’s Walt Whitman Songs and Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. I have now had three occasions to present them in tandem (most recently at Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival earlier this month). That neither piece is well known or much performed is a frustration.
In America, Weill became an American (his wife Lotte Lenya once corrected me when I pronounced her husband’s name with the “v” sound of the German “w”). An artist at all times attuned to his collaborators and to his audience, he gravitated to Broadway. He shunned the Eurocentric Metropolitan Opera and also his fellow German immigrants. “Americans seem to be ashamed to appreciate things here,” he told Time in 1945; “I’m not.”
Of Weill’s four Walt Whitman songs, three – “Beat! Beat! Drums!”,”Oh Captain! My Captain!,” and “Dirge for Two Veterans” – were a 1942 response to the December 7, 1941, attack; he set a fourth Whitman Civil War poem – “Come Up from the Fields, Father” – in 1947. His early death, in 1950, pre-empted further such Whitman settings. As the Weill scholar Kim Kowalke has long maintained, the four extant songs form a felicitous cycle. They’re tuneful, they’re touching, and they fascinatingly mediate between Broadway and the concert hall – as if Weill were propounding a distinctive New World art-song genre. The most beautiful of them is the “Dirge” (Thomas Hampson has recorded it with piano). The most startling is “O Captain!”, set as a breezy Broadway or cabaret ballade that at first seems unsettlingly casual. (Is this a Brechtian “alienation” strategy left over from Berlin? If so, it purposefully commands attention from both heart and brain.)
The four songs were first set for voice and piano. Weill orchestrated the accompaniments for three of them. Carlos Surinach orchestrated “Come up from the Fields” after Weill died. As a cycle with orchestra, the Whitman songs have to my knowledge been given only twice in the US – by Post-Classical Ensemble on the East Coast and by Pacific Symphony on the West. They should be widely known in this version, not least because “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is, it seems to me, far more effective with orchestra.
Schoenberg, a truculent, irremediably highbrow artistic personality, remained ever German in Los Angeles notwithstanding his substantial effectiveness as a teacher (at UCLA) and influence (on American composers, if not American listeners). Though he expressed “disgust” with American popular culture and was alienated by Hollywood, his private students included Hollywood’s leading film composers. And he was as prone to gusts of patriotism as to fusillades of disparagement. He once described himself as “driven into paradise,” where “my head can be erect.” For his children, he prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into animal shapes.
Three presentations of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon have not quenched my thirst to encounter this music – to my knowledge, the most impassioned, most compelling World War II piece composed in the US — in live performance. Pearl Harbor here singularly ignites the composer’s astounding capacity for rage and exaltation. Only Schoenberg would think to set in its entirety (for speaker, string quartet, and piano) a poem as dated and prolix as Byron’s ode. But Byron’s excoriation of Napoleon, and his closing apostrophe to George Washington, translate for Schoenberg into such scorching contempt for Hitler, and grateful reverence for FDR, that the poem’s obscurities are forgiven. Among Schoenberg’s serial compositions, this is a work with such emphatic tonal tendencies (it closes refulgently in E-flat major: the key of the Eroica Symphony), such absorbing motivic interplay, such hypnotic mood-pictures that any audience properly prepared (I urge that the poem be read during intermission) cannot resist a compelling performance. As I write in Artists in Exile: “The work’s British, American, and Germanic resonances remain unblended and mutually incongruous. That even at his most ‘American’ Schoenberg (so unlike Weill) is proudly and incorrigibly German makes this patriotic gesture the more touching.”

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