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Arnold Schoenberg’s Musical Response to FDR



What kind of American was Arnold Schoenberg?

In Los Angeles, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he adopted English as his primary language. He watched The Lone Ranger on TV. For his children, he prepared peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches cut into animal shapes.

Then Pearl Harbor was bombed. Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, in reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan, is one of the most stirring musical responses to a world event ever conceived. It’s the closing work on PostClassical Ensemble’s “Music and Wartime” concert on December 7 – Pearl Harbor Day — at the Washington National Cathedral:


The same PostClassical Ensemble program of music composed during World War II includes Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 (1944) and a selection of the Hollywood Songs composed by Hanns Eisler, setting unhappy poems by his fellow Los Angeles refugee Bertolt Brecht.

Eisler had studied with Schoenberg in Vienna after front-line service in World War I. He made his name in Berlin during the 1920s and ‘30s as the preferred composer for workers’ songs – Kampflieder (“songs of struggle”) – linked to a Workers-Singers Union with 400,000 members.

With the coming of Hitler, Eisler fled to the US, where he attempted to help New York City’s Composers’ Collective foster a comparable proletarian song movement enlisting Aaron Copland, among others. This went nowhere and Eisler wound up in Los Angeles. Though he found employment as a film composer, another musical outcome – an expression of estrangement to set beside Schoenberg’s Pearl Harbor patriotism — was the Hollywood Songbook.

Of his American exile, Schoenberg wrote that he “came from one country into another . . . where my head can be erect, where kindness and cheerfulness is dominating, and where to live is a joy and to be an expatriate of another country is the grace of God. . . . I was driven into paradise.”

Meanwhile Eisler was blacklisted and interrogated as the “Karl Marx of Music.” He was conspicuously deported in 1948. His response, also widely reported, read: “I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period; I was proud at being driven out. But I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way.”

In East Berlin, Eisler composed the national anthem for the German Democratic Republic. Though re-united with Brecht, he discovered himself ideologically suspect all over again. In effect, he is a composer who endured a condition of exile for most of his professional life.

Schoenberg died in Los Angeles in 1951, Eisler in East Berlin in 1962.



  1. The irony being that the culture of LA is one of the least likely places Schönberg’s work would find a true home. Eisler was blacklisted and deported, but ultimately, Schönberg’s music was also also, in effect, deported. USC paid some millions for his archive and built an institute to house them. Then the university lost interest as postmodernism arose, severely neglected the institute, and finally paid half the costs to move the archive to the Schönberg institute in Vienna. Dodecaphonic music meets Mickey Mouse didn’t quite work out. The Steven Spielberg building at USC makes more sense. And appointing the eccentric Paul Zukofsky, of all people, to manage the archive instead of a musicologist was an odd decision to say the least.

    So the archive went back the country that wanted to murder Schönberg, and which still has one of the most racist political climates in Europe. But it also went to a continent where high modernism still rules the new music world instead of America’s pomo embrace of pop culture and neo-romanticism. History’s rich ironies. One of the characteristics of true artists is that they are always homeless one some level. The NYT has a good report of the whole mess here:

  2. Yes, Los Angeles has completely ignored Schoenberg. They have a “classical” radio station in Los Angeles, KUSC-FM, that would rather have an announcer eat a live rat on the air with Béarnaise sauce than to play any of Schoenberg’s works, including the works he wrote in Los Angeles. (One possible, very rare exception, is “Verklärte Nacht.”) KUSC-FM is the radio station of USC.

  3. Gregory Pierre Cox says

    Thank you Joe for this wonderful posting.

  4. Joe, thanks for this post but mostly for programming this great and, unfortunately, timely work. I wish I could attend.
    This past September the Schoenberg Ode was performed during the annual Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival. It had been programmed for some months so it was sheer coincidence that the performance was just a month after the fascist/KKK/alt-right “events” in Charlottesville, the first of which (the Tiki-torch march) took place just down the lawn from Old Cabell Hall where the concert was to be held. It was difficult to do the usual pre-concert hype/adverts/mailings without appearing to take advantage of the tragedy in our midst. It was going to be difficult enough given the very name Schoenberg is an invitation to so many to stay home – even to this day in a relatively enlightened college town. Nevertheless, Byron & Schoenberg had something to say to us at this very moment. I wrote an email blurb that went out trying to thread the needle to grab audience. I also put it up on one of my now-&-then blogs, “Chamber Music +” ( Timothy Summers did the program note for that concert ( (Tim (violin) & Raphael Bell (cello) are the artistic directors of CCMF – I’m just a board gofer). There was actually a better audience than we had expected for this concert. And, despite the usual uninformed man-splaining-to-spouse/date about arid, mathematical 12-tone that I kept overhearing as the audience filed in, the Ode got an enthusiastic reception well beyond the usual polite standing-O. (Yes, Virginia, Schoenberg CAN affect you at the gut level – just forget about the counting the notes nonsense.)

    As a follow up here, I have a related question for you & your readers. Does anyone know of a chamber music version of Survivor from Warsaw or a composer who might have an interest in re-scoring it for a smaller ensemble? LOC has the original short score (I have a copy 🙂 ) if anyone is interested – and I have a presentation idea.

    • Shortly before his death, the conductor Kurt Frederik, who premiered Survivor, was working on a piano/vocal version of the score — if that would be of any help. Unfortunately, I do not know if he finished it, or how it could be obtained. Prof. Karl Hinterbichler at the University of New Mexico might have more info. You can google his email address at the university. Frederik studied with Schönberg at the Conservatory in Vienna, along with Webern and others, but fled Austria after the Anschluss. He lost his entire family and never returned to the country.

      • Thanks for this info, Bill. A piano-vocal version might be interesting, but I think it would still need a few others in an ensemble to ‘get across the lights’ in performance. The short score would be more helpful in that regard. I don’t know Prof. Hinterbichler & may write for more info since I have been taken for some time with the strange & wonderful story of it being premiered in Albuquerque of all places. The audience at that first performance in the UNM gymnasium was so enthusiastic that Kurt Frederick asked them if they wanted to hear it again. Big ovation so he encored it on the spot. Also fascinating that to sing the Sh’ma Yisrael at the close of SFW, the men from the UNM chorus were joined by a men’s choir from a Methodist church in Estancia, NM, consisting of farmers and cowboys. When they heard about the planned performance of a new work by Schoenberg they asked to be included. These guys had to travel over 50 miles across mountains in pre-1948 cars & pick-ups to get to UNM to sing in a 12-tone piece! — Different times!!

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