Archives of Jewish Composer to Move from U.S. to Austria
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Archives of Jewish Composer to Move from U.S. to Austria

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The Arnold Schoenberg Institute, which holds one of the world’s most valuable musical archives, is leaving Los Angeles for Vienna.

The decision by Schoenberg’s heirs has been sharply denounced by some university scholars, who point to the Austrian capital’s long history of anti- Semitism before and during the World War II era.

Claudio Spies, emeritus professor of music at Princeton University, called the move a “form of blasphemy” and “outrageous beyond measure.”

The institute, created in 1973, has been housed in its own building on the University of Southern California campus.

The collection, now valued at $50 million, includes the published and unpublished music, drawings, essays, poems and memorabilia of one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, frequently described as “the father of modern music.”

Since its inception, the institute has been at the center of bitter disputes between Schoenberg’s three heirs, who donated their father’s collection, and USC administrators.

Schoenberg’s family has charged USC with consistently violating the terms of their donation. The university, in turn, has accused the Schoenbergs of impinging on its academic freedom and trying to run the institute as a family shrine.

After a series of lawsuits, family members announced in May that they would seek a new site for the collection.

In the following months, Berlin, Vienna and The Hague emerged as the most serious suitors to house the Schoenberg collection.

In confirming the selection of Vienna, Lawrence Schoenberg, a son of the composer, said the bids from each of the European cities had been far superior to the current arrangements with USC.

While USC support for the institute runs at $300,000 per year, the city of Vienna and the government of Austria have pledged $1 million in annual support.

Schoenberg also said the new site at the Palais Fanto will house the collection in a permanent museum setting that will have a larger space for the composer’s archives and paintings.

Renovations at the Palais Fanto are expected to take three to six months, after the official signing of the agreement this month. Permanent relocation of the Schoenberg Institute is anticipated for early 1998.

Lawrence Schoenberg acknowledged that he and his siblings had considered political and emotional objections to the move, but that the Viennese were eager to house the composer’s legacy in the city of his birth.

Schoenberg said he had hoped that the University of California at Los Angeles and the Getty Museum would act jointly to keep the collection in Los Angeles, but that he had not received any concrete proposals.

In a parting shot at USC, Schoenberg said, “I feel that we were evicted by the university.”

The composer lived in Los Angeles for 17 years, until his death in 1951. He taught at both USC and UCLA. The music building on the UCLA campus bears his name.

Berlin’s losing bid was blamed on the municipal council in a scathing statement by Walter Jens, president of Berlin’s Academy of Arts.

“I bow to the Viennese, who understand culture a little bit better than the incumbent village council of Berlin, which does not know who Arnold Schoenberg was,” Jens said.

But one USC professor, Moshe Lazar, said, “Schoenberg hated Vienna.”

Lazar, who has translated the composer’s early neo-Zionist play, said the Viennese “don’t understand his music. They like operettas.”

Lazar had made an unsuccessful effort to have the institute transferred to Israel, thus fulfilling the composer’s final wishes.

Shortly before his death, Schoenberg accepted the honorary presidency of the Israel Academy of Music and in one of his last letters directed that his legacy be housed at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Herbert Zipper agreed with Lazar. The 92-year-old Viennese composer, conductor and musicologist, who described Schoenberg as his early mentor, said that “hardly any of Schoenberg’s music is played in Vienna.”

If Schoenberg’s heirs “can change that and make his works part of the musical experience of the Viennese public, I will congratulate them [to] no end,” Zipper said.

He added that even though must of Viennese culture was created by Jews, or through the support of the Jewish middle class, “the history of anti-Semitism in Austria is long and never-ending.” “If I could cry, I would,” Zipper said, summarizing his reaction to pending move of the Schoenberg collection.

But the harshest words came from Princeton’s Spies, who said he was both a student and teacher of Schoenberg’s music, as well as a friend of the composer’s family.

Spies also charged Vienna with anti-Semitism, bureaucratic incompetence and a lack of musical appreciation.

“There was no earthly reason to take the institute away from USC,” he said. “Arnold Schoenberg became an American citizen and this is a national treasure. It should stay in this country.”

“Everybody knows how sloppy the Austrians are,” he added. “They certainly won’t handle the archives any better than did USC.”

Spies also said that as a Jew, he objected strenuously to the institute’s transfer to Vienna.

“The Viennese were never friendly toward Schoenberg,” he said in a telephone interview.

This move “is more monstrous than if it had gone to Berlin,” he added. “The heirs had no business dealing with the enemy.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund