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Revolutionary on Beacon Street

Recalling Arnold Schoenberg’s time as a Bostonian

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 1, 2009

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The other day I went out to buy some milk and passed Arnold Schoenberg’s home.

It is indeed hard to imagine, but Schoenberg, the modern musical revolutionary, once lived in Brookline. At 1284 Beacon St., to be exact, in Pelham Hall, right near the heart of Coolidge Corner. His wife and daughter lived there too, and a yappy white terrier.

Not that you would know this from any sort of plaque on the face of the building. Curiously enough in a region more engaged with Schoenberg’s musical legacy than most, few seem to remember that this great and ever-controversial composer spent five months here, teaching at the long-defunct Malkin Conservatory in Back Bay.

This afternoon, about a half-mile away from where he taught, Emmanuel Music will perform two canons Schoenberg wrote (in Chautauqua, N.Y.) during his first year in this country. They come as part of a Haydn-Schoenberg program that is itself part of a promising Haydn-Schoenberg season at Emmanuel. On Nov. 14, in keeping with this theme, John Harbison will conduct Haydn’s “Creation’’ coupled with Schoenberg’s rarely performed Prelude to the “Genesis Suite’’ of 1945.

While his local sojourn became a footnote in his larger story, it was significant as the very first stop in the composer’s long exile in America, which lasted almost one-quarter of his life. Boston is where he first settled, learned English with remarkable speed, and began a poignant second act in a country that would by turns ignore, bewilder, infuriate, awe, and deeply transform him for the remaining 18 years of his life.

While still in Europe, as early as 1923, Schoenberg had been eerily prescient about the deep roots and virulence of German anti-Semitism. After Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, he was twice-marked as both a Jew (by birth) and a composer of “degenerate’’ modern music. By March 1933 he had been forced from his teaching post at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin.

He first fled to France, where he reconverted to the Jewish faith he had abandoned in 1898, and he even announced that he was prepared to leave his art behind and dedicate his life to the cause of protecting world Jewry. For a composer who had seen himself as part of the great German musical tradition, the historical moment shook him to his core, right down to the spelling of his own last name. (Around this time he switched from “Schönberg’’ to the more anglicized “Schoenberg.’’)

He had held what was probably the most important musical teaching position in German-speaking Europe, but, in a theme that would repeat for many emigres, his prestige at home simply did not translate abroad. He received no new invitations for academic posts, except for one unlikely offer from an obscure school in Boston recently founded by a cellist named Joseph Malkin. “ACCEPT TEACHING’’ Schoenberg cabled from Arcachon, France, to Malkin in Boston. And with that, he resigned himself to the next stage of his life. He left Europe two months later, 59 years old and feeling “the wrench in my very bones.’’ He was never to return.

In America, his music was as controversial as it was in Europe. There were splashy articles in the New York Times and elsewhere announcing his imminent arrival, followed by big welcome receptions in New York, Washington, D.C., and ultimately at Harvard University. A scholarship competition was established to help worthy American students study with the great European master. George Gershwin and Leopold Stokowski made donations.

But the excitement quickly faded. Soon after he arrived, Schoenberg learned that the school had no orchestra and only half a dozen classrooms. The students were few and underskilled, the tuition fees prohibitive, the soundproofing unacceptable. Within weeks, Schoenberg was teaching from his own apartment, where he lived with his second wife, Gertrud, and his young daughter Nuria.

One of his earliest Boston students, Lois Lautner, recalled him as a “gnome-like figure . . . [with] sad brown eyes,’’ constantly exasperated by his students’ insufficient training and his own inability to communicate in English. But he learned quickly and found ways to make himself understood. Lautner recalled showing him an invention and a fugue she had written one week. He studied it very closely, then asked: “You are a modern Frau, nicht? Why you write like Bach?’’

Judging from Lautner’s published recollections and those of one other student, his Boston class seemed to have felt awed and entirely unprepared for their audience with a musical genius who held them to the highest European standards. Schoenberg took teaching extremely seriously and pored over his students’ compositions to help them discover exactly where a piece had gone wrong. But if he intimidated them he also drew their sympathies as an aging Old World maestro adrift in the wilds of Depression-era New England.

Most difficult of all for Schoenberg was the harsh Northeast weather. He found it intolerable with his chronic asthma and bronchitis. He was known to teach with a giant muffler wrapped around his neck or, on one occasion, with towels stuffed into his pant legs after having waded through snow banks. A coughing fit in a taxi to Symphony Hall was so severe that he had to withdraw from the Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts he was scheduled to conduct.

But he was also endearingly curious about his new home. Basic things about America astonished him, such as its sheer size. In one early lesson he asked students to point out where they came from on a map, and he listened incredulously as each one reported how long it would take to reach that place by train. Schoenberg himself commuted weekly to New York City, where he had agreed to teach a second group of Malkin’s students. Sounding a familiar Northeast Corridor lament, he observed: “I step on the train [in New York] and the birds are singing and it is like spring; I step off the train [in Boston] and I shiver because the temperature has fallen fifty degrees! It is too much. No wonder I have a cold ever since I come to this country.’’

While he was here, the city did not exactly go wild for his music but the BSO did perform his symphonic poem “Pelleas und Melisande.’’ He thought the orchestra was “extraordinarily good’’ but had much less complimentary things to say about its conductor Serge Koussevitzky. “In my firm opinion,’’ Schoenberg wrote, “he is so uneducated that he cannot even read a score.’’ (It is true that Koussevitzky employed pianists to help him learn the difficult scores to new works. His aesthetic sympathies also lay with the camp of Schoenberg’s archrival, Stravinsky, which surely did not go unnoticed.)

Schoenberg was not long for the Northeast, leaving Boston by March 1934 and after a brief stint in New York, moving to Southern California in autumn 1934. His struggles in America did not end, but in Los Angeles he could, literally and figuratively, breathe more easily. He gave private lessons to film composers, taught at UCLA and USC, mingled with the large German émigré community, and played tennis with George Gershwin. Living off Sunset Boulevard, down the street from Shirley Temple, he embraced aspects of American culture that might have once seemed unimaginable. His son Lawrence, born in Los Angeles, once fondly reminisced to me about their family dinners at the counter of the local Thrifty drug store.

Schoenberg’s time in this country was ultimately too complicated to reduce to any simple stories, but his brief Boston chapter sounded many themes of his larger American exile: honor and ignominy, resentment and resilience. Near the end of his life, he claimed that emigration did not change him in any fundamental ways but there is no mistaking a profound shift in his core attitudes toward the audience for his art. Most remarkably, the one-time prickly revolutionary wedded to an elite vision of music decided late in life that he wanted to be loved by the masses. “There is nothing I long for more intensely,’’ he wrote from Los Angeles in 1947, “than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky - for heaven’s sake, a bit better but really that’s all. . . . People should know my tunes and whistle them.’’

These days, you don’t hear much music when you pass Schoenberg’s bustling block on Beacon Street. But then again, now that we know he lived on the seventh floor, maybe a few nods will float up in that direction, or even, amidst the din of traffic, a few whistled notes of his “Pierrot Lunaire.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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