OCTOBER 18, 2018 – Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is known as one of the brightest lights of the German Expressionism Movement. After escaping the early wave of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Austrian native left Munich and ended up in Boston in 1933. After a year or so, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
From Nov. 14-18, Boston Lyric Opera will bring Schoenberg back east with the world premiere production of Tod Machover’s “Schoenberg in Hollywood.”
Machover has been hailed for his compositions and for creating new technologies that – like Schoenberg – stretch the boundaries of music. Machover is academic head as well as director of the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. He also has brought musical expression to larger communities through his famed “robotic” operas and city symphonies.
Who were your earliest musical inspirations?
My mom is a Juilliard-trained pianist who decided to become a very creative music teacher. My dad was a pioneer in the field of computer graphics. So I grew up with both influences in my life. My mom grew up in a European high culture family in upstate New York, while my dad grew up a pure populist in Iowa, so that contrast influenced me, too. As my parents had a strong interest in both music and technology, we also listened to a lot of avant-garde music so I grew up with a great mix.
How did Jewish music influence Schoenberg (and you)?
Schoenberg grew up in a very religious family, knowing traditional Hebrew liturgy but also loving classical western music. In this opera, the music of Bach mixes with cantorial music, as if Schoenberg is trying to decide how they might fit together. I also loved the music of Bach growing up – especially his liturgical music. My mother’s family was pretty observant and I was lucky to grow up listening to some of the best cantors I have ever heard. I [also] played Bach and experimented with cantorial music and wired my cello for rock, and morphed all of this in many ways.
What first excited you about Schoenberg?
My mother had been to Juilliard where the Juilliard Quartet had recorded Schoenberg’s music, including his famed “String Trio.” My mother had also studied with Eduard Steuermann, who had been one of Schoenberg’s top students. Schoenberg’s music is difficult, so I did not play it until later, but I did listen to it quite a lot.
I have always admired [Schoenberg’s] music and his being an uncompromising, courageous inventor who was always ahead of his time. It took the audience a long time to come around and, in many ways, he is still not as appreciated as he should be, and that is part of the reason why I wrote this opera.
About 20 years ago, I came across a book called “Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer as Jew” by Alexander Ringer. I had never really thought about Schoenberg’s Judaism. He had written an opera called “Moses and Aron” that he never finished, and his other Jewish-themed pieces were not among his most famous. But in reading Ringer’s book, I realized how his connections to his Judaism were profound and personal. I also realized how much of the resistance to his music was very mixed up with anti-Semitism. As he deviated from traditional tonal harmony, people said that he was writing meandering “Jewish” melodies unconstrained by the rules of harmony. Learning that people talked about Schoenberg’s music in that way made me realize how deeply music is tied to all of our ideas – and prejudices. I wanted to explore this more deeply, and that is where this opera came from.
Schoenberg converted from Judaism [to Christianity], but little by little, with the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism, he fully discovered his Judaism and realized that many of the underlying principles of his music were closely related to Jewish music and ideas. So he converted back to Judaism in Paris soon after Hitler came to power (in 1933 with Marc Chagall as the witness). And for the rest of his life, he kept searching for what Judaism meant to him. He was asked to be the president of the Jewish State and even wrote a constitution for Israel.
He also spent his years of exile in Los Angeles (1934-1951) thinking about how music could make a real difference in the world. So when Schoenberg got to Hollywood, he was completely energized to write music that would wake people up to the destruction of Europe and the annihilation of the Jewish people. He wanted to make a difference for the Jewish people and for all people.
How do you make Schoenberg’s story and his music accessible?
The opera moves pretty quickly, but I think audiences will easily be able to follow everything. One thing that was important was to keep Schoenberg at the absolute center of things. He is there from beginning to end and you are always experiencing everything with him, through him.
The opera is full of melodies – some of which I hope audiences will go away singing – as well as lots of interesting and intriguing sounds. I know that I truly enjoyed working on “Schoenberg in Hollywood,” and hope that audiences get as much pleasure and stimulation out of listening to the opera as I did in writing it.
Performances are Nov. 14-18 at the Emerson/Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston. For tickets, call 617-542-6772 or visit blo.org.