A different kind of isolation: exiles in Paradise

A different kind of isolation: exiles in Paradise


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2020

The cellist Brinton Smith has a new album out, pursuing the next stage of his fixation with the 1940s Jewish refugees in Hollywood. Here’s a note he has written for Slipped Disc:

“Hitler shook the tree and America gathered the apples”- Thomas Mann

Los Angeles in the early 20th century was a thriving but culturally undeveloped city, with little in the way of concert or operatic culture. An influx of refugees, however, fleeing war and persecution in Europe and lured by economic opportunities and beautiful weather, rapidly formed, within a few square miles near Hollywood, one of the most talented and prolific communities in music history. Attempting to recreate the world they left, they altered the course of American culture.

Performers living in Los Angeles in that era included Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Lotte Lehmann (After a trio concert with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, Rubinstein once quipped, “not bad for local talent!”) The émigrés also included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Dylan Thomas, Bertrand Russell, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Leon Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler, but, perhaps most remarkably, Los Angeles hosted arguably the most unprecedented gathering of compositional talent in a single city since 1800s Vienna. Representing virtually every facet the musical spectrum, they included Joseph Achron, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Hans Eisler, George Gershwin, Louis Gruenberg, Bernard Hermann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Miklós Rózsa, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Steiner, Igor Stravinsky, Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, and Erich Zeisl. As Stravinsky said in that era, “Hollywood is the center of the music world!”

Most were refugees- the majority Jewish. They came to America in waves, fleeing the Czarist pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the rising anti-Semitism and the impending war in Europe, and formed a tight-knit community, relatively unnoticed by the city around them. Though the world they had left behind was an inferno, they lived in peace and relative luxury in what must have seemed an almost unreal paradise. Many, like Ernst Toch, spent the war years attempting to save their relatives, but anti-Semites in the State Department enforced tight restrictions on Jewish immigration and, shockingly, from 1933-1945, the quota for Central and Eastern Europeans was never once filled.

These former luminaries of Western intellectual life lived in exile in a city devoted to commerce and mass entertainment. They had not only to rebuild their lives, but to redefine them. As Feuchtwanger noted, “They were immigrants first, and only after that were they the people they really were “ In a joke popular in the community, two dachsunds met in Santa Monica and one said “Here, it’s true, I am a dachshund, but in the old country, I was a St. Bernard!”

Today (Friday) we release a Naxos CD titled Exiles in Paradise: Émigré Composers in Hollywood that explores some of these remarkable composers with a survey of works and new transcriptions for cello and piano. They range from Korngold to Schoenberg, from seldom heard compositions by Toch and Gruenberg to Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. The stories of some of these composer’s deserve wider knowledge:
Joseph Achron (1886-1943, LA 1934-43) was a Lithuanian Jew, known as much for his violin playing as his compositions. Schoenberg described him as “one of the most underrated modern composers” and Achron was notable for his embrace of Jewish musical idioms at a time when most Jews were more concerned with integration. His friend and fellow Auer pupil, Heifetz made Achron’s Hebrew Melody known around the world. Achron composed for films, continued his violin career, and premiered his Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Louis Gruenberg’s (1884-1964, LA 1937-64) family, like those of Godowsky and Gershwin, immigrated in the late 19th century, fleeing pogroms and restricted opportunities in Russia. Gruenberg gained rapid, but fleeting, fame in America with his 1933 Opera The Emperor Jones, even appearing on the cover of Time. Gruenberg moved to Los Angeles and became an active film composer, with several Academy award nominations and at least 39 film score credits. His work stopped in the 1950s, likely as a result of blacklisting. Fellow Beverly Hills resident Jascha Heifetz commissioned and recorded a violin concerto in 1944, marking a second high point in Gruenberg’s career as a composer of concert music.

Ernst Toch (1887-1964, LA 1936-50, 58-64) was a Viennese Jew who taught himself to compose by studying the scores of Mozart quartets. Forced from his professorship in Mannheim by Hitler, Toch found refuge in Hollywood, where he scored music for films in relative obscurity (his music for the chase scene in Heidi is perhaps his best known score) and taught both music and philosophy at USC. Toch was a leading avant-garde composer in the pre-war years, and believed his music represented a ‘third way’ between serial music and traditional techniques, but in later life Toch abandoned polytonality in favor of a more traditional approach.

We close the album with It Ain’t Necessarily So by George Gershwin, in the transcription of his friend and neighbor, Heifetz. Born Jacob Gershowitz to recently arrived Lithuanian immigrants, Gershwin grew up to personify American music, and seemed the appropriate ending to this story. It is remarkable how much of the American scientific, economic and cultural dominance in the 20th century flowed from those who came to its shores seeking refuge, opportunities and fair treatment that their own governments would not afford them. These composers transformed the musical culture of America in ways that are only now beginning to be fully appreciated.

Exiles in Paradise worldwide release March 13th

Piatigorsky with Castelnouvo-Tedesco



  • Robert Battey says:

    One of the finest cellists in America.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      And irritatingly to us mere mortals, his actual university degrees are in mathematics!

      • Shalom Rackovsky says:

        I need hardly remind the readers of this blog of the very close connection between musical, mathematical/scientific and linguistic abilities.

  • The View from America says:

    This recording looks like it’s well-worth obtaining. Thank you for informing us about it.

  • V.Lind says:

    Looks a fascinating album. Do you know if there are any worthwhile books about the same subject? I would cherish a recommendation.

    • Kevin says:

      There are many great books out there about émigré composers in LA, but a good starting place is Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s “A Windfall of Musicians.”

    • Brinton says:

      I will quote Alex Ross from the postscript to his recent New Yorker article, since he does such a nice job, but I particularly recommend the Dorothy Lamb Crawford book, as well as Salka Viertel’s just re-issued The Kindness of Strangers. Ross: “the literature is large and ever-growing. It includes Reinhold Brinkmann’s Driven into Paradise; Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California; Sabine Feisst’s Schoenberg’s New World and Schoenberg’s Correspondence with American Composers; Mark Berry’s incisive brief Schoenberg biography; Kenneth Marcus’s Schoenberg and Hollywood Modernism; and H. Colin Slim’s Stravinsky in the Americas. Of particular interest in this male-dominated field is Lily Hirsch’s short, rich life of Anneliese Landau; a foretaste can be found in this essay on the website of the OREL Foundation, which is based in Southern California and works assiduously to honor exiled or murdered composers and musicians. ” Here’s his entire postscript: https://www.therestisnoise.com/2020/03/emigrenotes.html

  • Wonderful news! A sale here, guaranteed. A few years ago, I played a recital of Karl Weigl’s music at Villa Aurora, Lion Feuchtwanger’s LA home. The home boasts a wonderful Blüthner piano there belonged to Ernst Toch and there is a beautiful bust of the composer in the same room.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    McCarthyism put an end to this golden period.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting story. It must be said that most of the musically superb immigrants were unhappy in America: “Yes I’m happy here aber glücklich bin ich nicht”.

    Integration in American society did a lot of good to America’s cultural standing, but it often was a lowering of standards for the immigrants themselves.

    The later more ‘traditional’ music of Toch is more interesting than his earlier experiments:


    This music is not ‘more oldfashioned’ but makes use of more universal musical dynamics. It sounds as a more human, a more musical alternative to later Schoenberg, stemming from the same Viennese cultural sphere.

  • Brian says:

    Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” was written in Pacific Palisades with extensive help on the musical side by Theodor W. Adorno. Both authors are must-read, the latter especially on Mahler and Berg.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Doktor Faustus is a masterpiece.

      But Schoenberg felt personally offended by the remote but yet strong association with the sick composer as depicted in the book, selling his soul to the devil with his 12-tone system, and dying of veneral disease. The reference to evil and sickness that he might have induced kept Schoenberg often long awake at night.

  • Olassus says:

    Gershwin the émigré?

    • Brinton says:

      “Born Jacob Gershowitz to recently arrived Lithuanian immigrants, Gershwin grew up to personify American music, and seemed the appropriate ending to this story.” I apologize if that wasn’t clear enough, but there was a deliberate reason to chose Gershwin, born in America to recently arrived immigrants, who grew up in a household speaking Yiddish and Russian and became the epitome of American music as the closer to a CD of people who were otherwise immigrants. Not only the fact that he was close with almost all of the emigre community, but the fact that he represents the next generation. Also notable, Godowsky’s son co-invented color photography and married Frances Gershwin, while his daughter Dagmar was a silent film star.

      • Olassus says:

        What is clear enough is the cover of your Naxos CD which wrongly lists an American native as an émigré.

        • Brinton says:

          I’m sorry this bothers you. I don’t design the cover. It’s explained clearly in the liner notes, which is what I controlled, so I doubt it will cause confusion for anyone who buys the CD. His inclusion was meaningful to me for the story arc (particularly as Godowsky’s son married Gershwin’s sister) , and I was not willing to sacrifice it for the sake of literal correctness in the title (though when this was a recital program, Gershwin was the encore, which is a more natural fit) I’ll be happy to cross it out with a sharpie if you want to buy a copy 🙂 Stay well-