Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Émigrés

Fritz Mahler

Fritz Mahler

We mark the birth – on July 16, 1901, 117 years ago today – of the Austrian composer and conductor Fritz Mahler. While we might not recognize his first name, we surely recognize his surname, and Fritz’ father was indeed a cousin of the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.

His present obscurity aside, Fritz Mahler was a well-known musician in his time. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He emigrated to America in 1936, where he taught at Juilliard and conducted the Erie Philharmonic and the Hartford Symphony.

For us, for now, the key phrase is “he emigrated to America in 1936”: Fritz Mahler was one of the hundreds – the thousands – of artists, scientists, writers, and intellectuals who managed to escape Europe in the 1930s. And thereby hangs our tale.


On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was appointed Chancellor of Germany: head of the German government. Until April 30, 1945, when a palsied and defeated Hitler put his 7.656 mm Walther pistol against his right temple and scrambled his diseased brain, he presided over as malignant and criminal a regime as modern Europe has ever seen.

Once in power, Hitler and the Nazi party quickly destroyed the democratic process that had brought them to power. At the same time, the racial and ethnic hatred that lay at the heart of Nazi doctrine became law, and the persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill began. With the annexation (the Anschluss) of Austria into the German Reich in March of 1938, German racial laws were applied to Austria as well.

The brain drain began immediately upon the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and continued for the remainder of the 1930s. Across the continent writers, intellectuals, scientists, philosophers, physicians, Jews and non-Jews alike took to their heels. It was an exodus of talent unlike any other in history.

The short list of composers who fled Europe is itself extraordinary.

Great Music of the 20th CenturyThe Vienna-born Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) resigned his professorship at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin on March 1, 1933, just before he was to be fired. He eventually became a U.S. citizen and lived out the remainder of his life in southern California. The French-born Jewish composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) almost waited too long to get out of Europe; the Germans had already occupied Paris when he and his family managed to escape through Portugal to the United States. The German-born Jewish composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) – whose Threepenny Opera contains one of the most famous songs in the theatrical repertoire, Mack the Knife – left Germany in March 1933. He became a U.S. citizen along with his Viennese-born wife, the Tony Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated singer and actress Lotte Lenya (1898-1981). (Because we need to know: Lenya is best known to American movie audiences as the Russian counter-intelligence SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb in the James Bond film From Russia With Love. Klebb killed her victims with a poisoned knife blade hidden in the tip of her right shoe. Following the appearance of the movie, Lenya recalled that whenever she met someone new, the first thing they’d look at were her shoes.)

Not everyone who skedaddled Europe did so because he or she was Jewish. Some left out of pure moral outrage, like Béla Bartók. Others, like the Austrian-born Ernst Krenek (1900-1991), fled because their music was declared as being “degenerate” and was banned. For Igor Stravinsky, serendipity played a role: a French citizen since 1934, he was in residence at Harvard when Germany invaded France in May of 1940. By necessity rather than by design, Stravinsky ended up staying in the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1945. The German-born Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) had a controversial relationship with the Nazis. Some of his music was banned, but much of it was not. Early on, he did his level best to get along with the regime: he swore an oath to Hitler, accepted a commission to compose music for the Luftwaffe, and conducted at official Nazi events. But his efforts to strike a deal with the devil went for nothing; his wife was Jewish and by 1938 they both knew that they had to get out. Hindemith and his wife emigrated first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where Hindemith became a U.S. citizen in 1946.

With the exceptions of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, all of these composers found work in American academies, and with the exception of Bartók (who continued his ethnomusicological research at Columbia University), they were engaged as composition teachers. Arnold Schoenberg ended up at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where the current music building bears his name. Ernst Krenek held teaching positions at Vassar College, Hamline University in Saint Paul, Princeton University, and the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. When Darius Milhaud arrived in the United States, the French-born Jewish conductor Pierre Monteux (who, as conductor of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe had conducted the premieres of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and The Rite of Spring and was at the time the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony), helped arrange a teaching position for Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California, not five miles away from my home where I am writing these words. Among Milhaud’s many American students were Dave Brubeck, Burt Bacharach, and Steve Reich. Paul Hindemith ended up at Yale University, where he became the scourge of a generation of unfortunate composition students.

Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles in September of 1934, where he settled – initially – in Hollywood. In 1936 he accepted a professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles. The salary – $5100 a year – allowed the Schoenberg family to buy a Spanish Revival-style house at 116 North Rockingham Avenue in the Brentwood Park neighborhood of Los Angeles – not far from the UCLA Campus and right across the street from Shirley Temple’s house – for $18,000.

(The house is still there. Built in 1925, it is currently listed as a five-bedroom, 3 bath, 3061 square foot house on 0.57 acres and valued by Zillow at a whopping $8,545,851! It is still owned by the Schoenberg family. Schoenberg’s son Ronald – who was born in Santa Monica in 1937 – is a retired Los Angeles municipal court judge who heard a domestic violence case against O. J. Simpson in 1989. Schoenberg’s youngest child – Lawrence – was born in Los Angeles in 1941 when Arnold was 67 years old. Lawrence Schoenberg is a retired public school math teacher, having taught at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, where he presently lives. For our information: Ronald Schoenberg and I are Facebook friends.)

Los Angeles became home to a remarkable array of refugee talent; aside from Schoenberg and Stravinsky, there were the writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler Werfel, the widow of Gustav Mahler; the sculptor Anna Mahler, the daughter of Gustav Mahler; the conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer; the filmmakers Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder; the composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, and Ernst Krenek. As the line went, “Hitler shook the tree and Los Angeles got the apples.”

Béla Bartók remained in New York; his last apartment was at 309 West 57th Street, just west of 8th Avenue; a block away from both Carnegie Hall and Columbus Circle. Today, the building’s entrance is flanked on the right by a bust of Bartók and a plaque commemorating his occupancy. To the right of the bust – at the time of this writing – is a Dunkin’ Doughnuts.)

Bartók’s youngest son Peter – who served in the United States Navy during World War Two – stayed in the U.S. and became a recording engineer. (Peter is 93 years old – he’ll turn 94 on July 31st – and lives in Homosassa, Florida: north of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast.)

For his part, Fritz Mahler – who had emigrated to the United States in 1936 and married the dancer Pauline Kroner – left no children behind. So it’s up to us to remember him today and to wish him a happy birthday!

For scads more information on Hitler’s rise to power and its enduring impact on twentieth-century music, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, “The Great Music of the Twentieth Century”.

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