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Music

How European exile composers created the sounds of Hollywood

World-renowned violinist Daniel Hope uncovered dusty letters and compositions scribbled on scraps of paper for "The Sounds of Hollywood," a book and a CD on Jewish immigrant composers who fled to Hollywood in the 1930s.

Born in South Africa in 1973, Daniel Hope was raised in England. Yet the violinist has long been curious about his Jewish family, which traces its roots back to Berlin. Fifteen years ago, Hope began to dig more deeply into the biographies of Jewish musicians, especially composers of German and Austrian heritage who migrated to Hollywood. The list was long: Friedrich Hollaender, Erich Korngold, Franz Wachsmann, Max Steiner, Werner Richard Heymann.

His original aim was to uncover music pieces for a new CD recording but it quickly became clear that he'd hit upon an entirely new project. Much as a cultural archaeologist might do, Hope delved into the biographies, archives and personal estates of the artists. Curious, he followed the trail of the immigrants through Hollywood, interviewing their children, grandchildren and surviving relatives. Extensive archives at Paramount Studios in Hollywood turned up an unbelievable treasury filled with hand-written correspondence, scored notes, letters.

Daniel Hope (l) at the 2016 Literature festival lit.Cologne with pianist Jacques Ammon, Copyright: DW/H. Mund

Daniel Hope (l) at the 2016 Literature festival lit.Cologne at a soundcheck with pianist Jacques Ammon

"I have read a lot about this period. But it's quite different to go into these archives and open old, dusty boxes," Hope said of his time spent with the composers' history. "Suddenly, you're sitting there with Erich Korngold's notes scribbled on a napkin, composing a Viennese Waltz, crossing it out and then recomposing it. You get the feeling at that moment that you've really stepped back in time."

In researching his latest book, "Sounds of Hollywood" (available in German only for now) and the CD of the same name, Hope took an important trip back in time. With the knowledge of each composer's unique destiny in mind, Hope could make the emotional connection to the music, he told DW in an interview. "There's quite a bit of melancholy in the music of these emigrants, and a lot of nostalgia."

The talkie boom

There was a substantial need for film composers in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, as the film industry was booming thanks to the advent of the talkie. Some film productions could be likened to an assembly line and studio heads traveled frequently to Europe to acquire the talents - the best of the best.

"They put out their antenna and found Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and all of the other great composers who already had an audience and had seen success in Europe," said Hope.

"These emigrants brought with them the musical offerings by composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner. They delivered exactly what the studio bosses in Hollywood wanted them to bring: the great, the epic, the symphonic," he said. The opulent orchestral sounds that we still hear in big Hollywood films today can be traced back to this time.

In his research, Daniel Hope has found parallels to the refugee crisis currently happening in Europe. "It's not as if Hollywood was standing there with open arms, waiting to receive the migrants and refugees from Europe," Hope said, alluding to the intense competition within the film industry. "Many of these very talented composers weren't even named in the credits. They sat together as a group of eight or nine working on a film and delivered every so often a phrase."

Only the rare immigrant had already made a name for himself that he could use to gain work in the booming film industry. Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky got generous offers from the West Coast. "But they both turned down the chance to work in the film industry or were themselves turned down because they had completely different ideas about music than the American film producers had," according to Hope.

Composer Arnold Schönberg, Copyright: picture-alliance /dpa

Famous composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) didn't think much of film soundtracks

Hollywood's information exchange

Schönberg, who developed dodecaphonic music, found the world of film soundtracks fascinating, highly appealing. But he had trouble with the American studio philosophy, which degraded composers as it positioned them as mere service providers, Hope uncovered. "Schönberg wasn't ready to give up complete creative control, control over his music was used in the direction. As a result, he realized very quickly that it wasn't something for him."

The exchange between those who created culture and the European immigrants was lively. Meetings over a Wiener schnitzel or a round of Berlin-style meatballs wasn't unheard of as the men tried to carry on the coffeehouse traditions of Vienna and Berlin in Hollywood. And in doing so, lots of information was exchanged, from mere gossip to important news about the immigration authorities and current job offers.

The infamous Villa Aurora, where novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Martha lived, became something of a meeting point, a reception center for those newly emigrated. "He considered himself as something like a godfather to these 'artists in exile'," said Hope. In addition to the immigrants, a number of famous actors and personalities, including Charlie Chaplin, came to the villa to meet.

Los Angeles Hollywood Hills Logo, Copyright: David McNew/Getty Images

Exile in Hollywood: For some it was paradise, for other immigrants, hell

A struggle to survive

The majority of the European immigrants who arrived in Hollywood never came into contact with the glamorous side of the film industry. Many struggled to even scrape by, and worried about a lack of money to even cover their basic needs like clothing, rent and food. Most of them had to leave Nazi Germany virtually overnight after Hitler came to power in 1933, leaving everything behind. Daniel Hope stumbled upon moving stories that took place behind Hollywood's glitzy façade.

Success as a film composer in the US had other downsides as well and could completely destroy an ambitious composer with dreams of recognition. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was much celebrated in Europe as a musical wunderkind, never felt accepted or at home in the USA - despite his greatest successes. Korngold won two Oscars for his film soundtracks.

"He was no longer recognized as a serious composer in the classical world and was no longer accepted there," says Hope. Korngold was accused of having sold his soul. Thomas Mann, himself an immigrant, spoke of so-called "Movie riff-raff." Film music was considered second- or third-class.

"That's a bitter pill to swallow," says Daniel Hope. "These were men who had enormous talent and unbelievable composition skills, who had to struggle to find a way during an emergency situation. Yet they were persecuted for their work in film. That's a real tragedy."

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