Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution
Transformed the American Performing Arts
New York: HarperCollins. 2008.
Summary for the Busy Executive: An ambitious program, sloppily carried out.
Books on this subject have been needed for a long time. We have gotten
books on individual figures, like Toscanini and Stravinsky, but not a
history of the diaspora in which they took part. The interwar years saw
the greatest migration of scientific and artistic talent probably in all
of history, as writers, physicists, mathematicians, composers, and movie
and theater people fled both the Russian Revolution and the rise of the
Third Reich. Arguably, Europe and Russia have still not yet recovered,
while the United States has been living off the intellectual capital
created by these men and women since. George Balanchine created a new
American ballet. Koussevitzky energized the best American composers by
giving them a consistent and strong platform from which to present their
work. John von Neumann thought up the first modern computer, whose
conceptual design hasn't changed in seventy years. Kurt Weill helped
extend the artistic possibilities of the Broadway musical, while Billy
Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch forced the movies to grow up.
Horowitz announces his grand design early on in the book: to show how
these figures changed America and how America changed them. As I say,
this book needed to be written. However, so many factual errors plague
it that one wonders whether anybody bothered to proof it at all. Also,
there are many important figures Horowitz leaves out, and with rare
exceptions, we still get little more than a couple of lines on most of
those he mentions. Horowitz seems uncomfortably stuck between the
archetypes he needs to make the case and a wish to be comprehensive.
The still-huge cast of supporting characters tends to overpower the
points he wants to make. Often, he will go through a career only to
leave, at the end, the reader wondering why.
More important, however, the book often relies to a distressing degree
on What Everybody Knows. As far as I can tell, there's very little
original analysis. Stravinsky in particular is reduced to his Russian
and early Paris works, while his American and late French music is viewed
as somehow less. According to Horowitz, these weaker pieces include,
by the way, his Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C, The Rake's
Progress, Threni, and the Requiem Canticles. Robert Craft appears in
the familiar role of the Svengali who led the Master astray, rather than
as the man who facilitated the composer's last great harvest. Szell is
the petty dictator who turned the Cleveland Orchestra into an automaton,
and so on. You might be able to guess without reading the book what he
says about Stokowski.
The problem with all of this is not really the viewpoint itself. After
all, Horowitz is entitled to his opinion. But it doesn't often seem
like he gives his own opinion. He neither argues nor fights for his
opinion. Instead, he seems to continually dip into the sack of received
opinion. The problem with that comes down to the fact that conventional
wisdom tends to stay stuck while perspectives change due to a few brilliant
minds, that art and history demand fresh encounters if they are to be
anything but dead. A notable exception to this reliance on received
wisdom is Horowitz's nuanced portrait of Kurt Weill. While I don't agree
with Horowitz's conclusions down to the final particular, at least he's
not merely recycling other sources.
Perhaps Horowitz originally wrote a much longer book which his editors
eviscerated. If so, they did him no favors.
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