An opera about Schoenberg in Hollywood

An opera about Schoenberg in Hollywood


norman lebrecht

August 20, 2018

Boston Lyric Opera has announced the November world premiere of Tod Machover’s lates work, titled ‘Schoenberg in Hollywood’.


press release (to be taken with a pillar of salt):

Surprising, comical and powerful, Schoenberg in Hollywood is inspired by the life of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg after fleeing Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s. Upon settling in Los Angeles by way of Boston, Schoenberg found himself at a personal crossroads of culture and belonging. While seeking ways to connect with a wider public through his music, he was introduced to the world of filmmaking through Harpo Marx, and considered an offer to compose a score for the film, The Good Earth. Afterrejecting the film commission – and the lure of greater fame – Schoenberg rediscovered his musical identity and heritage by maintaining his artistic integrity.

Machover – who is widely recognized as one of today’s most visionary and influential composers – says Schoenberg’s search to reconcile art with entertainment, reflection with action, and tradition with revolution is “one of the most inspiring stories of our time.” The opera explores the humor, heroism and pathos of Schoenberg’s struggle, he says, offering “a glimpse of what may have happened if Schoenberg had reconciled those opposites,” he said. Armitage says she is “honored to work on such a powerful new opera. Tod turned an ebullient and penetrating libretto into masterful music. Schoenberg riffs on popular and esoteric culture, and
examines deeply the complexity of being human, in both the personal and political realms.”


  • buxtehude says:

    Can’t wait.

  • Frankster says:

    I remember an old story of Oscar Levant.. He invited Schoenburg to a Hollywood party at the home of Harpo Marx. Also there was Fanny Brice (the last of the Red Hot Mommas). She was introduced to Schoenburg and was delighted. “You’re a composer! Here’s the piano.” she said, taking his hand, “We’ll sing some of your songs.” The embarrassed Schoenburg never accepted another Levant invitation.

  • Olassus says:

    Schoenberg in Brentwood.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    If it’s not a 12 tone opera, it’s not worth hearing.

  • Adams says:

    If it’s as bad as Schoenberg music, it will contribute operas dwindling, dying audience. 12-tone may intrigue critics, but audiences hate it.

    • Tim Horton says:

      Audiences? You’ve asked them all have you? It is not bad music, you just don’t like it. That’s not the same thing.

      • buxtehude says:

        I’ve asked them. They don’t liked — actually they hate it, if it’s sprung on them by surprise. It is bad music, when you have to hear it. As to a spot on the library shelf, I say let it be.

        Personally I would favor a kind of Beyreuth for this particular kind of bad music, and another for Stockhausen & St-types of composers — I could go on. The venues should be small enough to create a taste of scarcity — the devotees could fight one another for tickets on really hot occasions, and at other times enjoy being around others like them.

        In this way the rest of us and the industry would be free of so much bad music which at present is bringing so many bad results.

        • Tim Horton says:

          I would just like to ask you why you think Schoenberg output is bad.

          • buxtehude says:

            Such a question.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Schoenberg wrote some wonderful music: Verklärte Nacht, much of Gurrelieder, and the First Chamber Symphony which can stand, without blushing, next to Beethoven (it is quite dense music but entirely tonal and after a couple of times, it makes perfect, expressive sense). Nr two of the Five Orchestral Pieces: Vergangenes, is a masterpiece. And much of Pierot Lunaire is stunningly expressive and original, hallucinatory. Nonsensical to dismiss such oeuvre with one gesture.

          • buxtehude says:

            No it’s not nonsensical. What you like pales before the quantity and massively bad impact of what he generally championed and is known for. On occasion at least the broad brush is merited.

        • Tim Horton says:

          I’d still be grateful if you could explain your reasons for thinking his music is bad. I’m intrigued.

          • Stuart says:

            John – totally agree with your comments. I’d add the string quartets to the list of positives.

    • JoBe says:

      If you hate Schoenberg’s atonal music, you can still enjoy his tonal music, such as Pelléas & Mélisande ( or the Second Chamber Symphony (

    • barry guerrero says:

      Not great, but I’ve heard worse. I know it’s a matter of taste, but I would take Machover’s work over Schoenberg’s ‘astringent’ treatment of the “Jacob’s Ladder” legend. Here’s an excerpt of Kubelik giving the world premiere in Wien in 1961

    • Hilary says:

      I quite liked the so-called Symphony in D. I wonder if it was inspired by the history of Detroit?
      A certain freshness about it and he knows when to move away from the meandering unison line on the orchestra and I liked the interplay with the non-musical sounds. Humorous , and unpretentious. Give me this over George Benjamin any day.

  • Elisabeth Matesky says:

    My Mother served as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pianist for his most advanced classes in Theory; Form and Analysis + Orchestral Structure &Compostion
    at UCLA, playing vast portions of his Orchestral/Chamber Ochestral scores at the Piano with some works minus Piano Reduction parts, impromptu, & near flawlessly ~

    She knew the Arnold Schoenberg’s well, usually being invited to parties & musical ‘Salon’s’ at their Brentwood home!

    She shared much about her two full years as Schoenberg’s pianist & added duties as his Teaching Assistant in the Last Chapter’s of her long life which
    she had guarded from the time of her graduation at UCLA with Honour’s & the Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music before circa ’41, silent only until very shortly before her ( past 5+ years) passing ~

    I know one thing for sure: Schoenberg had great integrity & did reject a major Hollywood film Studio offer due to & I won’t tell why on here! The
    point being ~ Schoenberg detested fabrications of ‘whatever’ ~ Just listen
    to his uniquely complicated atonal style of Composition which certainly offers clues to what is mentioned above & passed on to me, her violinist daughter & protege of Jascha Heifetz, with our JH Violin Master Class films
    now on YouTube if one needs verification of my musical background in an
    effort to suggest this dalliance w/ very possibly enhanced laced tales might be an assault on Arnold Schoenberg & his Family at this time ~

    Go easy, Mr. Machover, ’cause Schoenberg’s “Ghost” is moving about!

    With goodwill, respectfully submitted in Memory of ‘Momma’, a friend of the Iconic Composer ~

    Elisabeth Matesky

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very interesting & sympathetic…. must have been quite an experience to work with such fascinating man. Indeed Schoenberg was a man of strict integrity, so landing in Hollywood (for the climate and European contacts, I suppose, rather than the attraction of the film business), must have caused him many a toe cringe.

      S’s obsession with teaching I always found puzzling. His students, as far as I have read and heard (for instance, from Alexander Goehr, whose father was a friend and conductor), were always much impressed and adored him. Obviously he had an academic streak, altough he never had any serious academic training himself. He was an autodidact, both in composing and theorising. Of all the students he taught (hundreds? thousands?), only Berg and Webern developed into prominent composers, but seemed to have inherited some of S’s twisted thinking: Berg trying to combine 12-tone system with tonality, Webern reducing music to microscopic cristals and becoming a nazi enthusiast, and they together called themselves a ‘school’ although never an academic institutionalisation was ever attempted. Even more crazy, the name ‘Second Viennese School’ as the trio was launched in history by modernist enthusiasts, steals the aureole of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven who were supposed to form the ‘First Viennese School’ although these earlier three never suffered from academia and they never taught (Haydn reluctantly gave some advice to the young Beethoven but apparently did not like teaching and also not this particular student). So, to defend a very difficult aesthetic position, some sort of academic perspective was invented, reaching back to the three earlier, and obviously much more successful composers, which is intellectually dishonest and can only be considered a piece of propaganda which does not cover the contents of what these three really composed.

      Of course Schoenberg had to make ends meet since his music did not bring-in enough money to maintain a family. So, teaching was an obvious choice. But S’s teaching other students than Berg and Webern, who followed him into atonal territory, was mainly the German/Austrian classical tradition, and if his heavy tome ‘Harmonielehre’ (1911) is anything to go by, as well as his later books on music theory, his way of instruction must have been (selectively) interesting for theorists and players, but entirely fruitless for composition students: post mortem analysis is not helpful for any serious composition student because writing music is something very different from analysing it. I’m inclined to see S’s teaching as a neurotic way of having his ego and authority confirmed and vindicated, since he was, most of the time, rejected by the performance culture – and an educational context is more vindicative and vile attacks from students are, most of the time, quite unlikely.

      Compare Schoenberg’s teaching with Debussy’s advice to young composers to forget existing rules, and go into Nature and try to absorb the creative forces which give life to so many different appearances, and try to make a method out of that, and forget it and make a new one with every new piece. Both Debussy and Schoenberg stood at the craddle of 20C music, and Schoenberg apparently picked-up the dark, neurotic side of 20C history, while Debussy opened a new perspective entirely independent from the destructive tendencies of the last century. Also, D”s music has become part of the regular repertoire, and Schoenberg’s has not – apart from a fringe taste.

      I know of performers who know exactly how to play the most sophisticated and musically-demanding music, but who would not be able to theorise about it because they don’t think ABOUT music but IN music. Also I know of performers who know everything and completely fail to produce satisfying performances. And any gradations in between. So, it does not seem to be the case that being conscious of musical processes is essential. And Schoenberg is a perfect example of a super brain which still gets musical reality wrong time and again, in spite of his immense (and selective) intellectual understanding.

  • Philippa Ballard says:

    ==post mortem analysis is not helpful for any serious composition student because writing music is something very different from analysing it.

    Yes, very well put. All those wannabe composers flocking to Stockhausen’s ‘Composition Seminars’ in his latter year were treated to laborious analyses of his latest bleeding chunk from the LICHT cycle.

    • Hilary says:

      “post mortem analysis is not helpful for any serious composition student because writing music is something very different from analysing it.”

      True. Birtwistle said something to this effect as well.
      And yet, there’s obviously a merit in digesting various influences and styles/looking at scores by other composers or you would just end up re-inventing the wheel all the time.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Digesting influences is a very different proces from post mortem analysis, and it goes without saying that knowing other music is a basic requirement for any composer – the question is how one goes about it. It is the difference of approach between the gynaecologist and the lover. Teaching in the way of the former does not much help the latter, in contrary, it may create insurmountable psychological barriers.

        • Hilary says:

          Fair enough, a good analogy.

          Schoenberg himself put it quite neatly. He was frequently asked to explain his 12-tone technique and likened it to the centipede asked how it moves its 100 legs.
          I suspect the compositional process is a mixture of instinct and rational control. Sometimes one getting the upper hand, but an equilibrium of some sort.

          • Hilary says:

            which in turn highlights the potential problem of PhDs in association with musical compostion.

  • Michael B. says:

    Please do not prejudge this work. It may turn out to be something very different than what you are expecting. Some years ago, he wrote a fairly conventional opera, “Resurrection,” based on a Tolstoy story; although some electronic enhancements were used, they were pretty subtle. The opera was premiered by Houston Grand Opera and recorded on Albany Records. In the liner notes, Machover stated that he had always been fascinated with Russian culture (all four of his grandparents had emigrated from the Russian Empire shortly after Tolstoy wrote “Resurrection”), and he studied various Russian composers assiduously in preparation for writing this work.

  • Elisabeth Matesky says:

    @JOBE ~

    To add to Schoenberg Pupil’s, we must not omit American born ‘Apostle’s’, (my Mother’s class-mates) Earl Kim & Pulitzer Prize Winner in Composition, Leon Kirchner, both of whom deferred to my Mother, (in case you didn’t read my earlier Post above, my Mother, blessed w/a ‘savant’ ear in harmony & transposition, serving as Schoenberg’s Pianist for his most advanced classes in Theory; Form & Analysis + Orchestral Structure & Composition at UCLA, for two years in addition to her duties as Professor Schoenberg’s T,A, (teaching assist), was often consulted by Leon Kirchner re his pre-published composition harmonies. My Mother – an extremely modest musician-woman, rarely spoke of this until Ending chapter’s of her long life, but opened up about things she considered ‘private’, not wishing to take credit from close Schoenberg class-mate/friend, Leon Kirchner … She was un-naturally adept at performing Arnold Schoenberg’s Atonal Orchestral/Chamber Orchestral scores at the piano, impromptu (when Prof Schoenberg needed her to play vast section’s from one of his scores to demonstrate what he was teaching/ conveying to pupils’ vis a vie his use of specific compositional atonal techniques used to highlight varied degrees of human emotion in his atonal composition style ~ )

    If any who have contributed here knew Arnold Schoenberg, personally and professionally, please come forward or forever withhold too much criticism of Arnold Schoenberg, an Icon of Twentieth Century Composition! As 1 of 7 original pupil’s of Jascha Heifetz (see my JH Violin Master Class film – Khachaturian, JH-7, Elisabeth Matesky *Russian version, Library of Congress Master Performers), please note Mr. Heifetz did admire Arnold Schoenberg, as did **Igor Stravinsky, whom we knew & worked with in Los Angeles, but **later on after Schoenberg’s passing … As for Schoenberg re Stravinsky: he was most respectful & admiring of Stravinsky’s unique style composition, according to my Mother, whom Schoenberg trusted/ admired – being able to perform his very complex atonal scores, & some without piano reduction parts, impromptu, mind you ~ near flawlessly!

    Warmest musical greetings to All from America ~

    E. Matesky

    • John Borstlap says:

      OK…. but the works are there, they are in the public sphere, and can be related to in any way one wishes. They belong to musical history and they are part of what happened spiritually and psychologically in the last century. Of course Schoenberg wanted his atonal pieces to be emotionally expressive, but that does not mean that the communication arrives at the end of the listener in the same way as he intended it. For sophisticated musical ears, there is in his 12-tone works a contradiction between intention and effect, and this can be related back to their compositional system, which also can be detected in the works themselves. There is no reason why these works could not be criticised.

      • buxtehude says:

        A sophisticated way of explaining why he was a bad composer.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Was he? I don’t think so. Had he only written Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht, the 1st Chamber Symphony etc., in short: everything before he ran-out of ideas and inspiration (war trauma, midlife crisis, and the simple fact that extreme music like his ‘free atonal period’ which derives its effect from transgressing implied boundaries cannot serve as a basis to build upon), he would be a great composer. But he brought something into the world of music which has created havoc: the idea that tonality were only a human construct which could be replaced at will by some other construct, and that the musical tradition was something that could be separated from tonality – while it is clear that this tradition is fundamentally rooted in tonality and cannot be amputated from it. If you think that tonality is a mere culturally-conditioned way of writing and performing and listening, you give to people without any musical talent the means to create their own form of ‘music’. And if you claim that any sound can be music, as that silly decomposer John Cage claimed, then you open the doors to the ambitious musically-challenged crowds who smell their chance to parade as artists without having to really do something artistic:

          Also, Schoenberg claimed that musical developments were subject to the same internal forces as science, so you had ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ concepts of music, and it were important to be ‘modern’ and ‘of your time’ – a sort of prescription, like medicine, whether you like it or not. This gave people who find it difficult to really understand masterworks from the past the opportunity to call the Western musical tradition a “highbrow theme park that trades on nostalgia for a half-mythical past” (Alex Ross in a recent article in the New Yorker). I think this is outrageous, like saying that the Sixtine Chapel with the famous frescos by Michelangelo has become irrelevant since we now have Walt Disney pictures. Throwing away the great achievements of the human mind, which are there to remind us of our potential, is cultural suicide and, in the end, mere laziness and regression. So, ironically, Schoenberg – this ultra-elitist intellectual – helped a form of populism invading the musical world.

  • Daughter of Schoenberg's Alternate Pianist (w/Leonard Stein) says:

    Challenging All ‘critic’s’, to compose a ‘Moses & Aaron’ or Verklerte Nacht to see if major artist’s/Conductor’s agree to performing said compositions in atonal style, it seems nervy to label Schoenberg “a bad composer.” Go tell that to Simon Rattle, in person, who conducted a stellar offering of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 1, 9b in the Chicago Symphony Center “home” of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra w/his On Tour Berliner Philharmoniker, 16/11/09, to spectacular heights! Sir Simon was eager to meet Schoenberg’s alternate pianist to speak with her. As her daughter I know this to be the truth … Maybe try lowering a 104 degree temperature of angered criticism and get on with composing an Atonal styled Chamber Symphony to rival and, indeed, surpass the Op. 1, 9b work of this ‘bad composer’ ~

    • buxtehude says:

      No time to compose atonal works — too busy writing a novel built upon scrambled words but not to worry, there’s a system behind it, very intricate. Shedding old dead associations embedded in so-called Normal structures, traditional.

      It will be something! Plans already afoot for permanent placement on college lists. Only conservatives will refuse. Copies to Sir Simon, for his whole orchestra!

      PS: Not angry.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The First Chamber Symphony is a masterpiece which reaches the heights of the best Beethoven. And it is entirely tonal – the complex dissonances are still within a tonal context, and are, somewhere at three-quarters, resolved into a very surprising major triad, after the music has travelled through dense chromaticism, whole tone fields, and a harsh chord made-up of fourths. The moment when the fourths smoothly glide into the major triad is one of the most touching moments in the repertoire. Also the overall form of the piece (which is in one movement) is a miracle: everything from the symphonic tradition is there: first movement sonata form, adagio music, scherzo music, and apotheosis. The expressive energy bursts form the seams and different tonal fields are clashing, but eventually resolved in tonal harmony, although the conclusion leaves some doubts hanging in the air but also that is beautiful – in life things are never totally finished.

      If anybody would doubt Schoenberg’s talent, let her/him carefully listen to this wonderful work and rethink her/his opinion. Schoenberg was a grandiose talent and intellect who later-on failed catastrophically and unintentionally symbolizes what happened to the musical tradition in the last century.

      • JoBe says:

        I do prefer the Second Chamber Symphony, especially the recording conducted by Bruno Maderna, who was a composer of genius as well (and, sadly, also an illustration of the fact that if you are obese and smoke a lot, you will not live long… what a waste!).