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Driven Into Paradise

The Wall Street Journal

As the world looks to Hollywood this Sunday with its glittering Academy Awards, I shall be remembering a less-recognized group of Oscar nominees and winners. 

In 2014, after 15 years performing and researching music by composers murdered by the Nazis, I decided to take a closer look at those who escaped them. Escape is in my DNA. My grandparents escaped Hitler for exile in South Africa, leaving behind a Berlin home that the Nazis turned into their version of Bletchley Park—a code-breaking headquarters. In the 1970s my parents departed South Africa for exile in London, and my father’s novels were subsequently banned there for their highly critical view of Apartheid. So when I started to explore one of the greatest flights in history, of European cultural and intellectual talent—the thousands of artists, musicians, writers and creative minds who began arriving in Los Angeles from 1933—I found a fascinating tale that seemed strangely familiar. 

I had long been aware of this group of émigré musicians. Next to music, I’ve always had a passion for film, most of all for the movies of “vintage Hollywood,” for me the period beginning with the epic cinematic storytelling of the 1930s. As a young violinist, I was struck as much by the sound of the violin in these movies of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. In “Intermezzo,” for example, the instrument would sing and a softly lighted Ingrid Bergman would turn dewy-eyed as Leslie Howard declared his love.

I took note of the violinists playing this glorious mood music. To a young boy in London, names like Toscha Seidel, Felix Slatkin, Eudice Shapiro and Louis Kaufman sounded as exotic as the films they embellished. But then writing for the studio musicians of prewar and postwar Hollywood was a group of astonishing composers, many of whom had escaped the Nazis, and who helped shape what was to become the “Hollywood Sound.”

I had started researching them, but felt I needed to dig deeper. So I called the composer and former Los Angeles Times critic Walter Arlen, now 94. Mr. Arlen escaped Vienna in 1939 and still lives in L.A. As one of the last eyewitnesses to this period, he was a wealth of information; after five minutes on the phone, I knew I needed to get to California with a film crew and record what he had to say for a documentary I had in mind. I wanted to know what it had been like for these exiles. Arnold Schoenberg, the godfather of 12-tone music, who had escaped Europe in 1933 and settled in Los Angeles a year later, remarked that he had been “driven into paradise.” Mr. Arlen concurred. When he arrived in 1939, he told me, “UCLA was full of eucalyptus trees, the campus also had an orange orchard—the whole area was fragrant with orange blossom.” 

Just what life as a Hollywood composer could entail I learned by talking to André Previn, a later exile from Nazi Germany who began his career in the Hollywood studios as an arranger and orchestrator in the ’40s. He told me that a composer who had once been a student of Ravel’s might find himself writing a Viennese waltz one minute, a cowboy song or a Can-Can the next.

Eric Zeisl, a forgotten master and one of the youngest of the émigré composers, received no screen credits for the two-dozen feature films he scored. He died at age 53, far too young, but not before completing several concertos, four ballets and some stunning chamber works. 

The more witnesses I spoke to, the more I gained the sense that Hollywood represented the quintessence of escape—on many levels. The physical, forced departure from Europe. The escape from the music they had been writing. And, in no small way, the escapism of the silver screen. 

A monument of sorts to these exiles exists in the form of the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades. Owned by Lion Feuchtwanger, the novelist and playwright, and his wife, Marta, it was a sanctuary for foreign intellectuals. The couple hosted readings by Thomas Mann and musical soirees with the likes of Kurt Weill and Charlie Chaplin. 

Although today the Villa Aurora, restored to its former splendor, houses a superb artists’ residency for international cultural encounters, it remains a living museum, with countless relics of the exiles. It still houses part of the library that had grown to nearly 30,000 volumes before Feuchtwanger’s death. There are portraits of many of the guests, Ernst Toch’s grand piano and even the organ on which Hanns Eisler and the conductor Bruno Walter performed. However, perhaps its most interesting artifact is the dart board bearing Hitler’s image that today hangs in the director’s office.

But my real discovery came when I began to play and record these composers’ music. Their ability to express emotion tinged with nostalgia was unique, especially through the violin. Some people quip that Korngold’s music “sounds like Hollywood.” I think it was the other way around. These émigrés and others—such as Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, who had come to Hollywood earlier—transformed the notion of film music, adding a fin-de-siècle European symphonic grandeur. In Korngold and Steiner’s case, they often introduced a leitmotif, a recurring theme that followed the character throughout the film. Essentially an operatic composer, Korngold described each film for which he scored as “an opera without singing,” his music no longer passively accompanying the images but actively engaging in dialogue, emotion and presentation. 

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