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Twelve Tones in Tinseltown


Omar Ebrahim as Schoenberg as Bogart.

Arnold Schoenberg fled the darkness and despair of Hitler’s Europe for 1930s Hollywood—a bold new world of golden sunshine and camera-ready beauty. Can he find a way to reconcile reflection with action, and tradition with revolution? What meaning has art in the wake of atrocity?

These are questions composer Tod Machover tries to settle in Schoenberg in Hollywood, a Boston Lyric Opera New Works Initiative commission. But the show is not some subtle intellectual disquisition. Rather, the composer told BMInt, There’s actually a lot of action, and believe it or not, there is even some blood—read about Richard Gerstl’s relationship with Schoenberg’s first wife, Mathilde, to get an idea where that is heading. Schoenberg’s life, in addition to his music, was one of the most dramatic you could imagine. So even though our cast consists only of three singers playing Arnold Schoenberg, A Boy and A Girl, they all change all the time. And the electronic handling of the 16-piece ensemble will offer lots of layers and effects.

Running for four nights (November 14th-18th) at the Emerson Paramount Theater; tickets HERE.

BMInt spoke with Machover recently.

FLE: Now, I can’t remember whether Schoenberg was introduced to Irving Thalberg by Karl Marx or Harpo Marx

TM: It was Harpo, actually.

Who was actually able to speak.

Harpo Marx could definitely speak. I never personally heard him, but yeah, he was a pretty vocal guy when he used to do interviews, kind of like Teller of Penn and Teller, whom I do know.

And I think all three of the brothers played piano pretty well.

That I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Chico certainly did; I have no idea about Groucho, and Harpo was actually quite a good harp player. As for Schoenberg, I felt very close to him from really when I started out when I was a kid, and knew a fair amount about him from growing up in a musical family and playing cello; I knew his music through listening as well as playing. I came across an extraordinary book by Alexander Ringer called Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew about 20 years ago. It really opened up all kinds of other aspects of Schoenberg’s life and career that I really hadn’t thought about, and inspired me to embark on this project. Before Ringer’s book, there hadn’t been a huge amount written about Schoenberg’s time in LA. Most of it, such as Salka Viertel’s, was first-person, mostly pretty self-interested, not very scholarly. But Ringer covered quite a lot, and he told this particular story about Schoenberg being introduced to Irving Thalberg—then head of MGM—and Thalberg did propose to Schoenberg to write the film score for The Good Earth, which in fact ended up winning the Oscar that year, but not with Schoenberg’s music, obviously, and there are a couple of accounts about what happened. I think it’s probably true that Schoenberg came back and proposed a fee that was way, way higher than any Hollywood composer would have gotten, and he also wanted to have complete control of the soundtrack. He even wanted to write Sprechstimme for all the speakers.

And I think he also said he was going to need seven or eight months.

That I don’t remember. I don’t know if time and schedule were discussed. Is that what you heard?

I remember reading something of this from Dorothy Crawford’s Hitler’s Unwilling Emigrés about this Hollywood German composer crowd. But there’s also the anecdote about the jukebox on his birthday. Do you know that story?

I don’t.

His kids took him to an ice cream parlor for a birthday and they had seeded the jukebox with Verklärte Nacht. [laughter]

That’s pretty good.

Which was the only thing that really approached popular music that I’m aware of.

Well, there’s a lot of ambiguously tonal music from when he was in Hollywood, like the Suite in G … but what interested me about doing a Schoenberg project first of all just was that story with Thalberg. It was a distillation of all the contrasts in his life, and his attempt to reach a huge audience even though he always wrote very complex music. What do you give up if you reach a lot of people? Can you keep your language and still write a film score? Can you do something that makes a difference politically, when you are 7000 miles away from Europe?

When he was in LA, he actually wrote a lot of music that I think he wanted to be, and thought was, very straightforward. In addition to the Suite, he wrote a couple of pieces for student string orchestras; you can see what he’s trying to do to simplify things, but he couldn’t do it. Ultimately, it all had either too much counterpoint or just too much going on under the surface. That’s why nobody could play it, although I find that music of his really interesting to listen to.

He also wrote Brahms’s Fifth Symphony.

Absolutely. He did, yeah, a bunch of transcriptions of repertoire pieces during that period. But even the transcriptions are crazy in interesting ways. They have so much to listen to that I think most people get a headache. But I always find it really challenging and interesting. And so anyway, that Thalberg story—and many other things I discovered in the Ringer book—was very resonant. Have you read it?

I haven’t.

It is pretty extraordinary. It traces over a long period of time how, first of all, Schoenberg rediscovered his own relationship to Judaism, and then how the Nazis had an incredible nose for racial profiling, even describing his music in racial terms from the very beginning, in ways that I had never seen that in music criticism. And of course, this kind of thing is all over the place. But reading Ringer’s book was the first time I realized that if music does express everything about a person, it can also be used against people in all kinds of ways. Music has resonances that are far beyond the notes on the page, and Schoenberg may be an extreme case of this. This seemed interesting to look at in this opera as well.

Of course, Schoenberg was certainly ambivalent about Judaism, and I think before Hitler he was in something of a state of denial.

He never did the popular thing. In his teens he converted from Judaism to Protestantism when he was in Catholic Vienna. They hated him almost as much for that as they did for previously being Jewish. In fact, he didn’t think consciously about Judaism for a long time. That said, he saw the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism very early on, and he was just about the first Jewish artist to leave Germany when Hitler came into power, in 1933.

Harvard Musical Association published A Musical Life in Two Worlds: The Autobiography of Hugo Leichtentritt, who was the first musicologist in America by some measures. He wrote about his relationship with Schoenberg, among many others in Berlin in the 1920s, and of when he himself was in America, when he passed for a Christian. By the ’30s, he repented his earlier lack of courage.

Yeah, and Schoenberg got kicked out of the Berlin Conservatory, where he was the professor of composition, almost immediately after Hitler took over, in ’33. He left Germany soon afterward, passing through Paris, where he converted back to Judaism in 1933, of all things. Marc Chagall was the witness at the reconversion ceremony. Reconversion was hardly a popular thing to do then … maybe in ’45, but certainly not in ’33. Schoenberg was always a bit ahead of the curve, and he also became very political, and really cared about getting the word out about what was going on in Europe, and what was happening to the Jewish people, and what was happening in general, all the while writing this music that was very difficult. This raised many interesting questions that I wanted to address in this opera.

But it didn’t remain absolutely strict 12-tone music in the sense that you had to complete one row before you started another, except in the very earliest days, as I understand it. That he did become a little bit less doctrinaire about what was required.

The period before World War I was so interesting and rich and layered, and not traditionally harmonic, but definitely not yet 12-tone. Some of the 12-tone music, which Schoenberg started formally in the 1920s, is really great. I happen to love his Suite Opus 25 for Piano, and Moses and Aaron is pretty amazing. There were about 10 years—from ’22-’23 to ’32-’33, about the time he got to the States, where things were pretty 12-tone, and that continued even after he got here. The Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto are pretty strictly 12-tone. But a lot of the music after he got to the States was sometimes tonal, sometimes modal; other times it was shifting here and there with bits of 12-tone. The String Trio Op.45 has pitch sets, but they’re not 12-tone sets. That’s a really great piece, one of the very best.

You know who was the first composer of a 12-tone piece?

Oh, what was his name? Josef Hauer?

Exactly. I happen to know this because I have the harmonium that was imported to UCLA the year that Schoenberg arrived, so I learned about the existence of those 12-tone pieces for harmonium that Hauer used to demonstrate the system. I guess he and Schoenberg debated on who had priority. I don’t think Schoenberg ever acknowledged that he wasn’t the first.

Right. But I don’t remember too much correspondence where he’s bickering about that. There was certainly some bickering about “Why don’t you play my music?” or “You’ve insulted me!” Schoenberg had pretty thin skin. [laughter]

Both of them to each other, or one particularly to the other?

I don’t think there’s huge amount of correspondence between Schoenberg and Hauer at all. The correspondence is between Schoenberg and almost everybody else.

What would Schoenberg think of your compositional style? And do you include any actual musical quotes in your opera?

Scene from “film” portion of the opera: Sara Womble (Mathilde), Jesse Darden (Richard Gerstl), Omar Ebrahim (Schoenberg as Bogart)

The hardest thing about composing this opera was to figure out how to tell this particular story, and how to offer a possibility of listening to Schoenberg in a different way, without quoting Schoenberg. I didn’t want to make it a pastiche, and I didn’t want to compare my music with Schoenberg’s, of course. But there are bits of Schoenberg, including some quotes, although not a lot. Some of this music comes in places where somebody refers to it, or when the narrative comes to a particular moment when Schoenberg discovers a new part of his language, then we might hear a tiny bit of Verklärte Nacht or the Second String Quartet, just to experience the real thing when Schoenberg discovers it.

Otherwise it’s all my own musical language. One of the things that interests me so much, and this is especially true with this story, is why is it so difficult to combine direct expression that appeals to many, many people with complex, rich content. Where is the line where something becomes too pleasing or it loses its edge? But if you tip slightly the other way, people can’t follow and get a headache. You take something that has a melody and feels pretty acceptable to almost anybody, and change just a few things, and people find it very difficult to listen to. I always encourage people to venture over that line more than they usually do. That’s not new for the most sophisticated listeners, but a lot of listeners have to be encouraged to make that leap.

I tried in this opera to create that line, to establish a language, where you can move quickly and subtly to either side, something I always play with in my music, and try to create sections which sound recognizable and all of a sudden transform and you’re somewhere else, somewhere much more complex. Or maybe there’s a section that starts out complex and all of a sudden becomes very straightforward and makes a particular musical point for a second and then snaps back.

Structurally, what happens in the opera—spoiler alert—is that we start and end with the Thalberg scene. Thalberg does welcome Schoenberg and does offer him the opportunity to write this film score, and they do go back and forth about what music is and what a film score could be, and Schoenberg thinks to himself about what that opportunity allows him to do and whether it would be worth it. All of that is expressed in my own musical language. And then Schoenberg has a moment when he tries to decide whether to do it, whether to accept the commission. Could he keep his musical integrity and also reach a gazillion people, and therefore get the message out about what is really happening in Europe? Then without being explicit about it, he makes his own film, a film about his extraordinary life, that follows the full arc of his personal, musical, spiritual and political development, illustrated through the lens of film and musical history. We follow Schoenberg on this journey, the culmination of which is what I have called “Schoenberg’s Vision,” a glimpse of all of the different forces that Schoenberg marshaled, all being reconciled and united. At that moment, Thalberg comes back to tell Schoenberg to get out of his studio, that “This is awful; you’ll never work in Hollywood again and never make a film,” to which Schoenberg answers, “I already have!” The opera show tries to evoke the entire journey, to show what it means and what it sounds like. Sometimes it’s told through Schoenberg’s music, but most of the time it’s told through mine.

Now, that film, of course, is a hypothetical film that just exists for the opera, correct?

Absolutely; yes, it is.

Could that be a standalone piece?

Perhaps, but one of the key elements of Schoenberg in Hollywood is that Schoenberg’s actual story, and his retelling and reimagining of it, involve the constant intermingling of live action and film. The whole show moves in and out of singing and live performance, and projections that are sometimes hyper-crisp like the most beautiful cinema, sometimes blurry like memory, and often in between. For this reason, the whole set has been designed to resemble an MGM soundstage from the 1930s, looking like a big loft with places to easily hang lights and backdrops and props and partitions. Nothing is permanent, and everything can change very quickly. Like the music.

So basically, the bare Paramount stage stands in for an MGM soundstage.

Yes, it feels specific and historical, but it is also one big chameleon.

Is there a pastiche of historic images? Or were there new images created for this?

They’re almost all new images. My colleague Peter Torpey, who did his PhD with me at the Media Lab and produced much of the imagery for my Death and the Powers opera, has done amazing work creating the media for this filmic and imagined world in the new opera. He created it all from scratch, although archive footage—some of it lent by the Arnold Schoenberg Center, in Vienna—does appear. We filmed everything in May with the singers, using my 18th-century house and barn in Waltham as the “film studio.” Something is almost always appearing on various screens and surfaces, and it blends with the live action in subtle and surprising ways, much as the audio technologies blend acoustic and electronic sounds.

We hope we’re not in for a slideshow.

You will be witnessing a new kind of film; almost none of it is static. It’s almost all moving-image and I think very beautiful.

Will there be much action on stage? There aren’t any spear carriers, though you mentioned blood.

There’s actually a lot of action, and beyond Gerstl’s relations with Mathilde referred to earlier, Schoenberg’s life was one of the more dramatic you could imagine. So even though our cast consists of only three singers playing Arnold Schoenberg, A Boy and A Girl, they change all the time. Schoenberg is Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx, the Boy is Thalberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, the Girl plays both wives plus Harpo Marx, to name a few of the switches. Omar Ebrahim, Jesse Darden, and Sara Womble are extraordinary, and it will be exciting to see them transform continually while keeping the human focus of the drama … and of course singing their hearts out with some very tricky but catchy music.

I originally developed the ideas and structure for Schoenberg in Hollywood with my longtime collaborator (we worked together on my Resurrection and Skellig operas) and close friend Braham Murray, who died suddenly in late July. Karole Armitage, the great choreographer and director who was already movement director for the project, has taken over as director, and is doing a marvelous job at realizing Braham’s vision while injecting the project with her own magic touch.

We are in the final stages of production design right now [early September], preparing to start rehearsals in a month or so. Since Karole is trained as a choreographer, she is shaping the movement and gesture of everything that happens onstage (as she did with both people and robots in my Death and the Powers opera), so I am certain that nothing will be static. Since each of the singers changes roles and costumes so frequently, and since much psychological messaging must be conveyed in subtle ways, the movement that Karole designs will be indispensable; luckily, she does this better than just about anyone. Sometimes there will be a lot of action, sometimes all will be still, but I think it will all be wonderfully human and vivid and fun to watch.

As an overall production, this one is relatively lean compared with some other projects of mine, like the Brain Opera or Death and the Powers. The sets, by Simon Higlett, who is one of the great designers in the UK, are beautifully done. I worked with him on Resurrection that I created for Houston Grand Opera in 1999, and it is a great pleasure to be working together again. Simon’s set for this show is very beautiful, but not elaborate.

You’re famous for your hyper-instruments. But will you enhance or expand the singing? Or is that going to be strictly normal acoustical production?

The singers and the 16-player ensemble will be subtly amplified with a sophisticated sound system. Many times it won’t sound amplified. The ensemble is placed behind the set and is revealed only at the very end of the opera, when the screens fly apart. Electronics are often used to add to textures, to enhance both blendings and contrasts, and, paradoxically, to make the acoustic ensemble sound more real and present. The voices are also subtly amplified, with Schoenberg’s voice becoming fractured and layered near the end, for his big “Vision” scene. I wanted to avoid any kind of cliché, so each sound and technique has been carefully crafted. In general, I am not trying to attract special attention to the electronics, i.e., they are not part of the narrative itself, as in my VALIS or Death and the Powers, but they are almost always there, including for a variety of “soundscapes” that create a sense of place, whether it is late-19th-century Vienna, the American West, or an ideal future. I think that all the electronics blend seamlessly with the acoustics—although there are definitely a few surprises here and there!

It all centers on the artistic, emotional experience, on what Schoenberg’s life and art can teach us, and on how his example can inspire us to find something new.

Tod Machover (file photo)

Schoenberg in Hollywood: An Opera by Tod Machover
Music by Tod Machover
Libretto by Simon Robson
Based on a Scenario by Braham Murray
Commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera
Sung in English

Emerson Paramount Theater             

Nov 14 | 7:30pm
Nov. 15 | 7:30pm
Nov. 17 | 7:30pm
Nov. 18 | 3pm


Conductor David Angus
Stage Director Karole Armitage
Original Production Concept Braham Murray (1943–2018)
Set Designer Simon Higlett
Costume Designer Nancy Leary
Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago
Media and Projection Designer Peter Torpey
Sound Designer Ben Bloomberg


Called “America’s most wired composer” by the Los Angeles Times and a “musical visionary” by the New York Times, Tod Machover is recognized as one of the most innovative composers active today, and he is celebrated for inventing new technologies that expand music’s potential for everyone, from celebrated virtuosi to musicians of all abilities. Machover studied with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at the Juilliard School and was the first Director of Musical Research at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris. He is Academic Head of the MIT Media Lab (Cambridge USA), where he is also Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media, and Director of the Opera of the Future Group. Machover is also Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Visiting Professor of Composition at the Curtis Institute of Music. Machover is particularly known for his critically acclaimed, award-winning operas, from the Tolstoy-inspired Resurrection to the “robotic” Death and the Powers, and for his collaborative City Symphonies that “have rethought the symphony as a community event” (Mark Swed, Musical America).


Simon Robson studied Politics and Philosophy at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge and Acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His first play The Ghost Train Tattoo was premiered at the Royal Exchange in 2001, and his collection of short stories The Separate Heart was published in 2004 and short-listed for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His first novel, Catch, appeared in 2010. Both are published by Jonathan Cape. Since then, he has adapted Purcell’s Indian Queen for Les Arts Florissants and written the narration for Carolyn Samson’s Marie Fel concerts with Ex Cathedra. His most recent commission was to both curate and perform a concert of Shakespeare songs and speeches with Anne-Sofie von Otter and Julius Drake for the Oxford Lieder festival. He has just completed work on his second novel.


Braham Murray was a Founding Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre Company for whom he directed over 70 productions. The final one was Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town with the Halle Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder in the pit. In 1964, his Oxford production of Hang Down Your Head and Die transferred to the West End and Broadway. From the Century Theatre, where he was Artistic Director, he became a Founding Director of the ’69 Theatre Company; credits include She Stoops To Conquer and Charley’s Aunt (with Tom Courtenay) and Mary Rose (with Mia Farrow).

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