Exiles fall out in La La Land

How Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg quarreled in the irritable hothouse climate of the Los Angeles émigrés


Thomas Mann (left) and Arnold Schoenberg:
Mann was “unpleasantly shaken up by Schoenberg’s insanity” and feared he might be “ruined”

Before and during World War II many illustrious European émigrés — Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Werfel, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood as well as Arnold Schoenberg and other composers — gathered amidst the sunny palm trees and beaches of Los Angeles. Schoenberg was puzzled by the hyper-real paradise: “It is Switzerland, the Riviera, the Vienna woods, the desert, the Salzkammergut, Spain, Italy — everything in one place.” Yet, like many others, he felt out of place and feared his identity had been lost: “To the Germans I am a Jew, to the Latins a German, to the communists I am bourgeois.” He had also lost his traditional supporters and lamented that “the Jews are for Hindemith and Stravinsky”.

All great modern writers — Proust, Joyce and Lawrence — based fictional characters on real people, often exaggerating their qualities to achieve satiric effects. Proust had used César Franck’s music as the model for Vinteuil’s violin sonata, and Mann said, “if I had been born a musician, I would have composed more or less in the manner of César Franck.” Using the montage technique, Mann absorbed into Doctor Faustus (1947) the Revelation of St John, Dürer, Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky and Nietzsche, and even described his sister’s suicides. He used Schoenberg’s music, but not his personal character, in his portrayal of the demonic composer Adrian Leverkühn.

The Doctor Faustus Dossier, a heavyweight labyrinth of absurd misunderstandings, describes the intellectual dispute between Schoenberg and Mann, two giants of German modernism, in the irritable hothouse climate of the Los Angeles émigrés. It contains extracts from the diaries and letters of Mann, Schoenberg and their allies; four German articles about the controversy; two essays reprinted from the 1980s, the second repeating the contents of the dispute; and six appendices with articles by Mann, Schoenberg and the philosopher-musicologist Theodor Adorno. The foreword by the editor (Schoenberg’s grandson) and the repetitive and tendentious introduction by Adrian Daub are distinctly pro-Schoenberg and anti-Mann. Daub condemns Mann’s “casual erasure of Schoenberg’s story,” “mendacious, fictional version of himself,” “fatal lack of respect,” “thoughtless appropriation,” “philistine judgment” and “aesthetic vampirism.” But the evidence in the book clearly contradicts these assertions and supports Mann.

Schoenberg bitterly resented the greater success and fame of Thomas Mann, whose name sounded American, his knowledge of English and support of his publisher Alfred Knopf, his Nobel Prize and undisputed leadership of the German émigrés. Mann’s pronouncement, “Where I am there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me,” sounds like Goethean hubris, but it was true.

Though the language of music is universal, Daub writes that “the Faustus affair pitted a writer whose dominant stature in German letters had translated smoothly into his new American environs against a composer who feared he had lost his relevance in the transition.” Schoenberg felt that in Doctor Faustus Mann had misunderstood and mishandled his intellectual and artistic property, the twelve-tone method, by attributing it to Leverkühn, a syphilitic madman damned by an unholy pact with the devil. Mann’s use of this aesthetically constricted method was confined to chapter XXII, and only musically sophisticated readers could understand his definition of “a fundamental figure, a series of interchangeable intervals, the five notes B, E, A, E, E-flat, and the horizontal melody and the vertical harmony are determined and controlled by it”. Schoenberg mistakenly believed that Mann’s commercially successful novel had cashed in on the recondite theory.

The controversy began as early as 1938 when Schoenberg asked Mann to help him publish an essay that predicted the Nazi Holocaust and urged the mass emigration of the Jews from Europe. With uncharacteristic frankness, Mann aroused Schoenberg’s wrath by claiming the essay had a “fascist” disposition towards terrorism. In 1944, when he decided to use the twelve-tone method in his novel, Mann feared objections from Schoenberg and predicted the end of their friendship. Four years later, when the composer threatened to sue for damages, Mann was “unpleasantly shaken up by Schoenberg’s insanity” and feared he might be “ruined”.

The egoistic and meddlesome Alma Gropius-Mahler-Werfel helped provoke the controversy by urging Schoenberg (who had eye trouble) to have the novel read to him, by distorting Mann’s meaning and by persuading Schoenberg’s wife that Mann wanted to belittle him. When Mann inscribed a copy of the novel to Schoenberg as “the real one,” he meant that Schoenberg was the real composer of the twelve-tone method. But his hypersensitive adversary misinterpreted the meaning and claimed that Mann meant to insult and degrade him by ascribing his theory to Leverkühn. His own outraged protests, however, drew public attention to his connection to the fictional character. He actually stopped a friend in a supermarket and insisted, “You have to know, I never had syphilis.” Time magazine, alerted to the sensational story, infuriated Schoenberg by asking if he had ever suffered from venereal disease.

Mann thought the idea that he had stolen the twelve-tone method was utterly absurd and that “no one on Earth, having read my novel, could possibly imagine that I was its inventor or was trying to pose as such.” Nevertheless, at Schoenberg’s insistence, he added a note at the end of all future editions stating “the twelve-tone or row system is in truth the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theoretician, Arnold Schoenberg.” But even this generous gesture failed to satisfy his touchy enemy, who objected to “a contemporary” instead of “the contemporary.”

Mann admitted, “I have merely a theoretical understanding of the new music. I know a little about it, but can’t really enjoy or love it . . . The world of the Ring is basically my musical home. . . . Would happily swap entire output of Schoenberg, Berg and [Ernst] Krenek for one passage” in Das Rheingold. His close friend, the conductor Bruno Walter, agreed with Mann’s “complete rejection of atonal music,” which shifted from harmony to dissonance and offended his aesthetic sensibility.

The twelve-tone method, never popular with musical audiences in America, is difficult to understand and to hear. Since Mann could not swallow Schoenberg whole, he sought an expert adviser, Theodor Adorno, who “sent Mann prose ‘descriptions’ of Adrian Leverkühn’s fictional works, and Mann incorporated several of them almost unchanged.” In his Philosophy of New Music (1949) Adorno obscurely defined Schoenberg’s method: “the reversal of the musical dynamic into a static-dynamic of the musical structure . . . clarifies the peculiarly rigid systematic character that Schoenberg’s composition acquired in its late phase.” (As Byron said of Coleridge in Don Juan, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”) Schoenberg, who loathed Adorno and considered him an unworthy disciple, exclaimed, “I have never been able to stand him, with his dripping wet, hurt eyes, which always seemed phony . . . his disgusting à la Hollywood manner was unbearable.” Finally, he displaced his aggression from Mann to Adorno and confessed, “often I was intense and said ugly things, and I am sorry.”

This book, intended to justify Schoenberg’s behaviour, actually reveals his rather comical persecution complex. The composer is ill-tempered and querulous, intransigent and uncompromising, constantly nursing grudges against his supposed enemies. Mann remains patient and polite, tolerant and dignified, and does everything he can to please Schoenberg, who is impossible to satisfy. Christopher Isherwood, an objective observer, wrote that Mann “isn’t in the least pompous. He has great natural dignity. He is a true scholar, a gentlemanly householder, a gracefully ironic pillar of society — solid right through.”