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Look Back In Anger:
The Strange Case Of Louis Gruenberg

by George Sturm

I am indebted for much of the information contained in this article to Robert F. Nisbett's fine dissertation, Louis Gruenberg: His Life and Work (The Ohio State University, 1979), and to the composer's widow, Mrs. Irma Gruenberg, who generously made both time and material available to me.

A 1911 caricature of Louis Gruenberg

Although Louis Gruenberg was not a native American — he was born in Russia on August 3, 1884 — he was only an infant when his mother, Clara, joined her husband, Abraham, in New York where he had found a job playing violin in a Jewish theatre. Perhaps the circumstances of Louis' first year of life already contained the unmistakable auguries of a personality: internationalist, family man, acquainted with alienation, explorer in thought and deed with a single, unwavering commitment to music and all who are touched by it.

His early musical education came from his father, from the New York public schools, and from the National Conservatory of Music (where he was seen and possibly heard, at the age of eight, by its head, Antonin Dvorak). He had playing jobs by the time he was nine, and therefore knew what it was like to make music for a living. At 15, he quit school, thinking he could learn more about the essentials of art and life on his own. It soon dawned on him, however, that his musical and human horizons could best be broadened by wider exposure, and he resolved to save money to go to Europe for study. After a brief period in Berlin, he went to Vienna where he met Busoni (who was to become his friend and mentor, and who even wrote the libretto for his first attempt at opera), and where he became acquainted with Schoenberg and his circle. (From Gruenberg's journal: "At the request of Busoni I offered to play a fourth piano part of Schoenberg's Three Orchestral Pieces, arranged for two pianos; my partner was von Webern. He was such a fanatic, he pounded the piano so unmercifully, that Schoenberg himself protested at rehearsals saying that what he (Webern) was playing were muted trombones." A scrapbook contains a Morgen-Konzert program for 4 February 1912. The last item in an all Schoenberg concert was indeed "Drei Orchesterstuecke (komp. 1909) fuer zwei Klaviere achthaendig arrangiert von Kapellmeister Erwin Stein.")

The outbreak of the First World War forced Gruenberg to return to America, where he became known as a first-rate accompanist. (The great Enrico Caruso made an amusing sketch of Gruenberg as a memento of their joint concert tour.) After the War, there was much shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Europe. His first major compositional coup came in 1919 when he won the Flagler Prize of $1,000 for an orchestral work, Hill of Dreams, and heard it performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. Gruenberg's biographer, Robert Nisbett, points out that this event was the pivotal point in Gruenberg's life, leading him to give up any pianistic aspirations and devote himself instead entirely to composition. He had, after all, been a successful concert pianist, having made several tours through Germany, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Finland (where he visited Sibelius). Busoni, in fact, tried, shortly before his death in 1924, to persuade him not to give up the piano.

The twenties saw an intensification of Gruenberg's involvement in several simultaneous dimensions. His First Violin Sonata was played by Carl Flesch and Egon Petri. He organized a forerunner of the ISCM-League of Composers, the American Music Guild, and, at the invitation of Edgard Varese, became active in the International Composers' Guild whose members included Carl Ruggles, Leo Ornstein and Arthur Honegger. He conducted, after an unprecedented 22 rehearsals, the U.S. premiere of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire on February 4, 1923. He was a delegate to the first International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg in 1923 and attended all the annual festivals between 1923 and 1928. (During a 1924 performance of Schoenberg's Die glueckliche Hand in Vienna, he met his future wife, Irma, a physician from Czechoslovakia.) He became fascinated with the idea of an indigenously American concert music, writing a series of jazz-oriented works which included Four Indiscretions for string quartet; The Daniel Jazz for tenor and eight instruments, a setting of Vachel Lindsay's text; Animals and Insects, another Lindsay text made into a witty song cycle with titles like "An Explanation of the Grasshopper", "The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly", and "A Dirge for a Righteous Kitten"; The Creation, to a Negro semon by James Weldon Johnson and scored for baritone and eight instruments and dedicated "to the memory of my beloved master and friend Ferruccio Busoni"; Jazzettes for violin and piano; the piano pieces Jazzberrries, Jazz Masks, and Six Jazz Epigrams; and two orchestral works, Moods for Orchestra, eight short movements first played by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Jazz-Suite which moved Stokowski to send Gruenberg an enthusiastic congratulatory wire in anticipation of a performance. (He never did perform it, though. It was premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Cincinnati Symphony and had many subsequent performances under a number of conductors, including Serge Koussevitzky.)

By the twenties, it was also clear that Gruenberg's habit of committing his thoughts and feelings to paper was here to stay. He was a captivating correspondent, a soul-searching journal keeper, and a frequent contributor to a variety of periodicals. In one of these, Modern Music, he wrote: "In an effort to appraise music today in Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna, it becomes my firm conviction that the American composer can only achieve individual expression by developing his own resources, instead either of submitting to the prevailing tendencies of various countries, however vociferous they may be in their appeal and in their success, or of blindly following the traditions of classical form." He talks of jazz, Negro spirituals, and Indian themes as "veins" and concludes that "music in Europe today is suffering from over-sophistication and perhaps America's trouble is under-sophistication."

Gruenberg's creative generator was in high gear. His name and music were constantly before the public. In addition to the jazz, folk, and other ethnically derived works, he produced one award-winning concert work after another. The Enchanted Isle (1927) won the Juilliard Foundation Award and 2nd American prize in the International Schubert Centennial Contest, sponsored by the Columbia Phonograph Company. Another record firm, the Victor Talking Machine Company, put up the staggering amount of $25,000 for a prize-winning symphonic work and Gruenberg shared the wealth with three other recipients for his First Symphony. (The others were Robert Russell Bennett, Ernest Bloch, and Aaron Copland.) His second Juilliard Foundation Award came in 1930 for his children's opera in three acts, Jack and the Beanstalk, with a libretto by John Erskine. After its Juilliard premiere, it received some 80 tour performances and had a short off-Broadway run.

By far the widest-reaching triumph, however, marked the culmination of Gruenberg's involvement with native themes. The Emperor Jones, based on the celebrated play by Eugene O'Neill, gave its composer a réclame and international stature enjoyed by few American composers. He showed the finished vocal score to Erich Kleiber who was so taken with it that he wanted to produce it in Berlin. (As it turned out, an American opera by a Jew about a black was not what Dr. Goebbels was looking for.) Olin Downes recommended it to the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, Gatti-Casazza, and it was accepted for production during the 1932-33 season. While the publicity given the premiere was dazzling — Time Magazine showed Lawrence Tibbett on its cover! — the opera also harvested the first outburst of negative response to Gruenberg for a puzzling spectrum of reasons. A segment of the black community regarded it as insensitive and patronizing. The critic A. Walter Kramer wondered "why all the time and trouble was expended on preparing so difficult, so unsatisfactory and so unsympathetic a score." Arthur Mendel felt that Gruenberg had missed the point of O'Neill's play. (O'Neill, incidentally, never saw a performance, saying that he made it a principle never to go to the opera.) And yet, the opera had its vociferous champions, as witnessed by Randall Thompson's assessment: "The play itself is a virtuoso description of the very formlessness of fear, and Gruenberg has fully matched the virtuosity of O'Neill. As might have been expected, it is now proved that we have the technic to create American opera."

In the 46 years between the Met premiere on January 7, 1933, and the revival of Jones by the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1979, the world has seen drastic changes, musically, culturally, and socially. Andrew Porter questions whether either the play or the opera are performable in today's world, but observes that "The Emperor Jones has a place in operatic history." In his elegant, objective, and insightful New Yorker article, he confesses that the score puzzles him, and yet finds that "something is holding one's attention — propelling, shaping, and articulating the drama, and making it vivid in a way that a plain spoken performance would not be."

The Emperor Jones marked the pinnacle of Gruenberg's public acceptance. In view of the fact that it was written over thirty years before his death — years, moreover, during which he wrote over forty works including two full-length operas — it is reasonable to inquire why the measure of his success did not continue upwards but seems to have taken a reverse course. While this article would not presume to provide answers or even to indulge in speculation, it would not seem improper to scan the circumstances within the context of so rapidly changing a world: the rise of Nazism and its cultural and sociological ramifications; the inevitability of specialization, driving its irrevocable wedge between the artist and his society; the gradual acquisition of power by aggregate clusters of academicians and critics who persuaded themselves that art was too serious to serve as entertainment to the uninitiated. Certain it is that, whatever the reason behind the diminishing public and professional endorsement of his work, it did not escape Gruenberg's awareness but brought about his increasing disillusionment, rancor, and finally a stoicism approaching nobility.

In 1934, Gruenberg accepted Rudolf Ganz's invitation to become head of the composition department at the Chicago Musical College. He found himself both unaccustomed and unsuited to the teacher's role. Classroom demands were considerably greater than he had anticipated, and his temperament was such that he found it almost impossible to compartmentalize his life sufficiently to teach and simultaneously compose and grow. He felt that he had long since committed himself to composition and wished to support himself only in that métier. In 1937, he left Chicago and moved to California, hoping to apply his craft to films. Between 1939 and 1950, he wrote eleven film scores, including the music for the Pare Lorentz documentary, The Fight for Life. Concomitantly he continued to write concert works such as the Piano Quintet which won the Lake Placid Club Prize and the String Quartet commissioned for the 1938 Berkshire Festival by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. (The other commissionees that year were Ernst Toch, Frederick Jacobi, Frank Bridge, and Anton von Webern.) About the String Quartet, Elliott Carter wrote: "The Quartet shows what interesting and serious music Gruenberg has in him and how skillfully he can use all brilliant effects of string quartet writing. This is a well-formed and convincing work."

Louis Gruenberg and Jascha Heifetz, 1944

Few solo vehicles have enjoyed more auspicious launchings that did the Violin Concerto, commissioned by Jascha Heifetz, who specifically requested an American concerto, and first performed by him with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy on December 1, 1944. RCA Victor recorded the great Heifetz performance of the virtuoso 40-minute concerto with its mixture of jazz elements, spirituals, and fireworks. Although it was compared to Gershwin, Respighi and Ravel, it has all but disappeared from the repertory along with the less celebrated Gruenberg works. In what seems to have been the last official establishment nod in Gruenberg's direction, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1947 in the same group as Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1948, Gruenberg finished the first draft of Volpone, a three-act opera after Ben Johnson's play, the libretto for which he fashioned himself. According to his journal, he finished the first version on July 5, 1950 and then did a revision which was completed in February, 1953. It has not been produced, and few have ever even seen a score. The same applies to Antony and Cleopatra, his final full-length opera, the first draft of which was completed on August 15, 1956, more than ten years before the world premiere of Samuel Barber's opera on the same theme. Between the two stage works, Gruenberg wrote, among other works, a huge "spiritual rhapsody" entitled A Song of Faith. The 15-movement composition for speaker, soli, chorus, dance group, and orchestra is a setting of texts culled by the composer from the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita, passages of Negro spirituals and a mountain song of the Navajo Indians. Gruenberg wrote, "The theme is the underlying unity of all religions and the goal, the unification of men of all faiths." It is dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, and plans are now in progress for its first performance.

Nothing can be so agonizing to the artist as the indifference of people to his vision and energy. While Gruenberg's sorrow over his solitude is clearly detectable in his journal, so is his humility and his unextinguishable love of music. He writes on Thanksgiving Day 1962: "In spite of the benumbing, lethal, demoralizing fact that there is not one single professional musician in this world, whether he or she be conductor, pianist, singer, cellist or triangle player, who is interested in me or my music, still this is a day of thanksgiving for me. I am profoundly grateful for having music as my profession, which to me is the greatest of all arts." Did he find consolation in the knowledge that his was not the only artistic isolation? In the same journal, he writes: "I remember asking Schoenberg just before his death whether he had written anything lately, and he answered, 'Why should I? No one is interested.' "

Louis Gruenberg died in Beverly Hills on June 9, 1964, two months before his eightieth birthday. Inescapable is the irony of his last completed work, Pages from Rabelais for a singing actor and piano. His journal contains a letter to the 16th-century author: "Great Master of Laughter: For the last month or so, I have been attempting to match your unexcelled exuberance with my music and have of course not succeeded. However, the attempt has brought me so much joy and excitement, that no matter what others may think of my lack of decorum and dignity, I am happy to have attempted the task, and wish to thank you with a full heart for giving me the opportunity. Your grateful admirer, L.G." Of equal interest are the opening and closing lines of the chosen Rabelais text: "Noble and illustrious drinkers! What follows teaches little except how to laugh, since all the rest is irony!" . . . The narrator, who has been watching the pianist with interest and amusement roars with laughter and yells at the top of his voice, "Ring down the curtain, the comedy is ended!"

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