80 years on, Arnold Schoenberg makes his big-screen debut

80 years on, Arnold Schoenberg makes his big-screen debut


norman lebrecht

April 16, 2015

In December 1935, Arnold Schoenberg was approached in Hollywood exile by Irving Thalberg to write music for his film of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Schoenberg was penniless, Thalberg fairly cultured for a movie mogul. There are two versions of what happened at the meeting. In one, Thalberg mentioned hearing Schoenberg’s ‘lovely music’ in a broadcast concert. The composer flashed back:  ‘I don’t write lovely music.’

In the other version, Thalberg began to describe a scene, a hurricane in a field where the heroine, pursued by her enemies, was giving birth. ‘With all that going on,’ said Schoenberg, ‘who needs music?’

It was not a meeting of minds.

Last night, ignoring indifferent UK reviews, we went to see Woman in Gold, which includes half a minute of Schoenberg’s music – Verklärte Nacht – being played in a Hollywood film. It was a reconciliation, of sorts.

The film was much more powerful than the reviews allowed and culturally authentic. The script was exceptionally authentic and Helen Mirren was flawless as the elderly emigrée aunt. The film relates the campaign of Schoenberg’s lawyer grandson, Randol, to claw back a Nazi-stolen Klimt painting from the Austrian Government. He wins, they lose. Out of the winnings, Los Angeles got a Holocaust Museum and LA Opera a huge endowment.


We spotted just one musical anomaly. On her flight from Vienna with her opera singer husband (played by Max Irons), the young heroine (Tatiana Maslany) tells a Nazi airport official that he has been summoned as a substitute to Cologne Opera by…. pause for celebrity effect…. Herbert von Karajan.


At the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, Karajan was barely known outside Aachen, where he was the young Generalmusikdirektor. It was not until he conducted Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin State Opera in October 1938 that the Goebbels press crowned him Das Wunder Karajan and his fame was made.


  • Mark Stratford says:

    Verklärte Nacht has been on the big screen before in that splendid French film ‘Tom a la Ferme’. So the headline here isn’t quite true

  • Brian b says:

    Wonderful film.

  • Grant Barnes says:

    The issue of whether the relevant U.S. statute under which Mrs. Altmann sued could be enforced retroactively before its enactment was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. At oral argument, counsel for Austria appealed to international law to shield sovereign governments from these kinds of lawsuits. He asserted that the “question is one of the expectations of one sovereign that it would be treated fairly by another.” To which, Justice Scalia shot back, “I don’t know if we protect expectations of this sort.” In Justice Stevens’ majority opinion, he stated the factual history firmly: “Seeking to profit from this requirement, the [Belvedere] Gallery and the [Austrian] Federal Monument agency allegedly adopted a practice of ‘forcing Jews to donate or trade valuable artworks to the [Gallery] in exchange for export permits for other works.'” Indeed, as Attorney Schoenberg has observed, governments’ killing people, stealing their possessions and continuing to profit from them cannot lead to “settled expectations” that the continued expropriation will be honorably observed under international law.

  • Hilary says:

    The opening of the Variations op.31: oscillating tritones -and some of the most memorable music he ever wrote- is used to gorgeous effect in a documentary about Karajan’s obsession with film. The errie music accompanys a night-time panoramic shot of Berlin.
    By contrast , the rest of the documentary is often careless in the use of music..eg.mixing up footage of Mahler 5, when the 9th is being described etc.

  • Mark Gresham says:

    I remember Randy Schoenberg was an active participant in the Usenet newsgroup “rec.music.classical” back in the pre-world-wide-web days of green text on black screens, circa the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s (I don’t recall the exact years, but in that time frame). I find it strange that Wikipedia would describe is character as “an inexperienced lawyer” — though Randy’s character was perhaps made that way just for dramatic purposes. By the time of Republic of Austria v. Altmann (2004) Randy and the Schoenberg family had already been through the Schoenberg Hall renaming fiasco with UCLA. Do I recall correctly that after the UCLA incident that the family moved much Schoenberg archive material from the USA to Austria? I recall that while participating in “rec.music.classical” Randy was a fairly vocal defender of his grandfather’s music.

    • Mark Gresham says:

      Update: Randy Schoenberg was born in 1966, so when he was involved with the “rec.music/classical” Usenet newsgroup he was in his 20s, most likely just after he graduated from Princeton (ca. 22), starting before he got his J.D. or while that was in the midst of that process. Not sure how I can find out exactly.