The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

The first half of the history of European composers in America is unfortunately fraught with tragedy, only some of them finding success and/or happiness here. The problem stems of course from the fact that many were unwilling exiles from Nazism, but also relates to problems of lack of acceptance and respect in American society. They came from a place where they were revered as masters and where their work was valued.

They came to a place that had no artistic use for them unless they changed what they were doing drastically. The uncompromising among their number could only support themselves by teaching, but that was often an emotional disappointment because the low preparation level of American music students did nothing to change the belief among many of the Europeans that composition couldn’t be taught in a classroom. Nonetheless some of these composers succeeded in having a lasting effect on the American music scene through film scoring or teaching the few American students advanced enough to get something from them.

A few even managed to keep their reputations afloat based on concert music. Some continued to compose but achieved next to nothing in terms of public recognition; their legacies are being brought to life through the hard work of their devoted descendants and a core group of 20th Century music die-hards.

Béla Bartók is the most famous of those who were unable to achieve much of anything in America. As one of those who didn’t believe that composition can be taught, he subsisted on one of those charity-salaries-for-the-worthy-but-unemployable from Columbia University that was ostensibly meant for ethnomusicological research. Unfortunately therefore, he did not leave a lasting direct impact on American composers — a tragedy because America really could have used some composers who were influenced by his real world musical values, his verve, and his character. In failing health, he only completed four works in his final five years.

Like Bartók, the brilliant and iconoclastic Russian avant-garde composer Arthur Lourie did not adjust at all to life in America and although he preserved his life by fleeing Nazi occupied France in 1941, his fame as a musician ended. Though unable to get many performances or any recordings of his music here, Austrian exile Karl Weigl appears to have been happy in America. His family assimilated successfully and he continued to compose prolifically, in addition to supporting himself with freelance teaching and copying. His music has substance and, though clearly modern, is not 12-tone and is therefore acceptable to the ears of non-academic Americans. Fans of Mahler, Strauss, Bartók, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky should have no difficulty enjoying the music of Weigl. Perhaps if he’d had the networking talents of his offspring, he might have had more performances and recordings while he lived. However, he was advanced in years when he got here and perhaps had no desire to learn American-style networking. There are excellent recordings of a few of his excellent string quartets now available due to the aggressive efforts of the Karl Weigl Foundation.

Unlike Weigl, Gabriel von Wayditch, was not a refugee from European turmoil, having followed his Hungarian father to the USA in 1911. He took the word uncomprising beyond anything the greatest prima donnas ever could have conceived. Alone in his South Bronx apartment he composed nothing but operas, fourteen all told, most of them too long for conventional performance. (Ten are over four hours and The Heretics clocks in at 8 1/2 hours, almost, but not quite, complete). He wrote all his own librettos, which are in his native Hungarian, and required both massive orchestras and elaborate sets, many with impracticably frequent scene changes. His music, though rooted in tonality, is dense and heavily chromatic, often modulating every few measures. Though he was an accomplished pianist who performed publicly and had connections at WNYC and the Metropolitan Opera, he created virtually nothing for a specific performance. (Only one of his operas was staged in his lifetime.) Not surprisingly, the only recording of his work features two of his early operas, The Caliph’s Magician and Jesus Before Herod, both shorter and less challenging than the majority of his oeuvre. Although with stakes this high his obscurity can’t be blamed only on American ignorance and apathy, the proper promotional machinery in Europe has made funding possible for works as seemingly impossible as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quartet.”

Like Wayditch, Edgard Varèse wrote the music he wanted to write without any regard for performance. Before emigrating from France, Varèse destroyed everything he wrote there and although all his surviving works were composed in America, they all have French titles. Although his music was considered unplayable in its time and Varèse dreamed of a future where electronic instruments would supplant human performers, nowadays there is a whole new music army of Varèse devotees who perform his music with polish and style. And, through his student Chou Wen-chung and the fandom of Frank Zappa, his sphere of influence is much larger than his body of 12 compositions.

Austrian Arnold Schoenberg was already sixty when he settled in Los Angeles as an exile from Nazism. Though nonplussed by America’s lack of respect for his greatness, he became a successful academic at UCLA. His serialist ideas had a profound impact on a generation of Ivory Tower American composers, few of whom, unfortunately, picked up on his ability to communicate emotion through atonal music. Perhaps this is what was meant by the assertion of various European maestros when they said that composition could not be taught. (In a weird twist of fate, Schoenberg’s most famous American students were John Cage and Marc Blitzstein, neither an advocate of twelve-tone composition. Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, the architects of American serialism, never studied with him.) In any event, nothing Schoenberg ever said indicated a level of respect for his students. His musical life became less and less productive after moving here and he cannot be considered a successful transplant from Europe. At best, the tragic relationship between Schoenberg and the American music world while he was alive can be described as mutual antipathy.

Kurt Weill is a case unto himself, for his detractors consider him to be a failure after moving to America, while his fans consider him to be perhaps the only European composer to fully and truly become an American. (Given the standards that Weill himself set for making such a judgment, perhaps only a handful of composers, such as Lukas Foss or Miklós Rózsa, can claim to be Americans.) Weill, setting a pattern later followed by Miles Davis, earned the enmity of the “serious music” crowd by changing his tune to something Americans of the time could and would relate to. His earlier music, composed for a more sophisticated audience, was, and still is, considered much more substantive by the music establishment.

Like Weill, immigrants Victor Herbert (Ireland) and Irving Berlin (Russia) wrote accessible, light music which suited American tastes and became quite famous. Herbert had more of a track record in Europe before coming here, having worked as a cellist in Germany and Austria. He also became the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He was a founding member of ASCAP. Berlin, who came to the States as a child, created a musical output that is legendary and which dominated American songwriting until the advent of rock’n’roll. It is a fitting touch of irony that America’s most popular Christmas and patrioric songs — “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” were both penned by this Russian Jewish immigrant.

Miklós Rósza (Hungary), Erich Korngold, and Max Steiner (Austria) did great things in Hollywood. Though the perception of commercialism of their work has always tainted them in eyes of the art-for-art’s-sake purists who dominate the concert music world, these artists created a dramatic sound that is much missed in this day of movie soundtracks dominated by pop hits and MIDI-generated generic pabulum. Contrast the supposed masterpiece at the end of the recent film Mr. Holland’s Opus with anything these gents wrote and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. These composers were both innovative and masters of tradition, extending the European symphonic tradition as film music. And the dramatic needs of the films they scored allowed them to work with advanced techniques that concert audiences wouldn’t tolerate.

A refugee from the Great War, Steiner arrived penniless in New York in 1914. Over the next decade and a half he worked with Herbert, Kern and Gershwin, eventually heading for Hollywood and landing some legendary jobs, including King Kong, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Gone with the Wind. In the liner notes to the Marco Polo CD of the King Kong soundtrack, a quote from Steiner gives food for thought: “The idea [of movie music] originated with Richard Wagner. If [he] had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer.”

Rósza’s 90 film credits include Spellbound, Ben Hur, and Double Indemnity. In between assignments, he squeezed in concertos and other concert works which critics at the time categorically dismissed because they were the work of a film composer. In recent years the recorded output of Rósza’s work has mushroomed — his descendents work hard at promoting it and a significant number of ambitious conductors and record labels have become passionate advocates. In a lesson to all who attempt to promulgate art music in the U.S., it is important to note that the publishing royalties from Rósza’s successful film scores have helped to fund these performances and recordings. And, as recordings and performances continue to proliferate, he may well become considered one of the 20th century’s great composers despite the critics.

Korngold’s music has also appeared on CD’s and concert programs in recent years and now lesser-known Hollywood composers of significant talent are receiving CD exposure, too. German Franz Waxman and Austrian Eric Zeisl both fled the Nazi terror in the ’30’s, Waxman directly to Hollywood with contract in pocket (based on previous film work) and Zeisl by way of Paris and then New York. Fortunately, both composers, who had been having successful careers in Europe, continued to create concert music after their arrival in the States. Waxman was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz and made an impact in Los Angeles by founding the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947. In addition to programming standard repertoire there, he conducted many world and American premieres, including works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler, Milhaud, Bernstein and many others. In doing so, he seems to have broken ground that other American festivals began to tread some two decades later.

When it comes to assessing how American he was, Igor Stravinsky is a challenging case. Because he moved here in 1939 and became a citizen in 1945, because he composed a great deal of music here and retained his prestigious reputation, it is justifiable to say he became an American composer in a purely national sense. However, I think it’s also fair to say that he is still viewed as Russian, or at least as a European composer. In all likelihood, Stravinsky viewed nationality and citizenship as something separate from his art and merely thought of America as a safe and free place to pursue his art. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that he made any more of an effort to be musically influenced by American culture after he moved here than before. However, his arrangement of the “Star Spangled Banner” and his elegy to JFK may attest to a greater emotional attachment to life in America than one might have thought.

The nightmare of World War II brought many European composers here, including Darius Milhaud (France), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Italy), Benjamin Britten (England), Paul Dessau (Germany), Hanns Eisler (Germany), Paul Hindemith (Germany), Stefan Wolpe (Germany via Palestine), Ernst Krenek (Austria), and Bohuslav Martinu (Czech) who while here even wrote a piece for the Caramoor festival incorporating the then-in-vogue theremin. The fact is that many of these European composers really did not become Americans in any way. Some of them even had no impact, but others did have a lasting and significant impact on American concert music. Some even returned to Europe after the war. The ones who really made it are the ones who knew how to operate in the American way: hustling, networking, self-promoting, assimilating (at least to some extent) and compromising. Others are beginning to come into the limelight because interested parties have chosen to do that hustling after the fact. Thus the influence of some of these individuals grows over time rather than diminishes. Whether or not they were Americans, the American music world continues to be much the richer for having had them here.

From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox

He wrote all his operas in the South Bronx, but Gabriel Von Wayditch’s mind was definitely in another world.
Sound sample – GABRIEL VON WAYDITCH: from The Caliph’s Magician
(VAI VAIA 1095-2)

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Even the lyrics by African American poet Langston Hughes set by émigré Kurt Weill seem to celebrate moving on.
Sound sample – KURT WEILL: from Street Scene – “We’ll Go Away Together”
(Sony Columbia 44668)

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