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by Andrew Lee-Hart



The Studio, 1947


“The Big Man is in,” Pete at the gate told me. He must have been desperate to tell someone, because most days the best I got was a cursory nod, befitting my lowly status.

“Oh; I wonder if he needs somebody to write the score for his next film.”

“You never know bud,” Pete replied, clearly not realising that I was being ironic, or not caring. Anyway, I could dream.


I walked into the office the studio had given me; it was small and smelled of sweat and cigarettes, but it was my own and I liked it. There was a piano, a film projector, a small table, a chair and an ash tray still overflowing from yesterday, and that was all I needed. Trudy, large busted and shy, gave me a smile as she set the film up and then left me to make notes and jot down possible themes on my manuscript paper.


It was a documentary about wheat growth in Nebraska; not exactly exciting or likely to set the world alight, but it would pay the bills for a few weeks and with a wife and a teenage age daughter I could not refuse anything. I knew that I was lucky to have steady work, my friend Oscar, who had persuaded me to come to Hollywood, having kept his promise of keeping me busy.


Just as the film had finished, Trudy popped in with a coffee.

“The Big Man is in the studios,” she told me.

“Yes, Pete on the gate told me.  I doubt he will have anything to do with us.”

She laughed, “ya never know. Lana Turner was just a secretary when he spotted her, and now look at her.”

“I thought she was discovered at a soda fountain.”

“Nah definitely in an office.”

I smiled at her kindly; “would you like to be in the movies?”

“Doesn’t everyone here?”

“Not me. It isn’t what I came to America for.”

She looked at me curiously and seemed ready to question me further, but then someone called her name, and with an apologetic smile she hurried away.


The office had thin walls and a window that wouldn’t shut, and so whilst I played on the piano, trying to work out a melody for the documentary, the sound of cars and shouting continually disturbed me.   I might have been unknown here, but the studio itself was thriving and the excitement was contagious, albeit noisy, and I liked being at the centre of things.


Having watched the film twice over I could have gone back home, and worked things out on my own piano, but then there would be Marta shouting at Dora or nagging at me, and our neighbours gossiping and arguing. I was better here, and hopefully Trudy would pop in again for another chat, and perhaps I might even bump into The Big Man or at least see him from a distance, something to tell Dora who loved to hear any gossip about actors or directors.


Unfortunately, by the time I made my way to the canteen for my lunch, I had very little to show for my morning’s work; just a couple of ideas, half-formed if that. I remembered when I was a student in Berlin, the ideas came so fast that I could not write them all down and some I gave away without a thought, knowing I would not have the time to develop them. Now I had to hold onto any melody that came to me and take all I could from it.


The canteen was noisy, but there was nobody I recognised, so I sat by myself and ate a dry chicken sandwich and drank more black coffee.  Even though I had been working here for almost a year I hardly knew anybody; Oscar of course, who was some kind of executive and rarely ventured into the canteen, otherwise there was just Trudy who would always sit with me if our lunchtimes coincided, even Clark my manager would ignore me outside the office.


As I mused about the wheatfields of Nebraska I noticed a large shadow covering my table, a smell of expensive scent and I realised that a large figure was standing over me.  As I looked up, I discovered that the whole canteen was staring in my direction.

“Mind if I join you?” came a familiar voice, and before I could respond, The Big Man carefully lowered himself down opposite me, whilst someone put a plate of food down in front of him.


Ignoring his food for the moment, he looked at me, through his tiny eyes.

“Good afternoon.”

I nodded nervously.

You are that German composer aren’t you?” His voice was quieter than I expected and there was less trace of his English accent, although he had only come to America during the war, so had been here less time than me.

“Yes, I fled in 1935. My music was banned and I could see the way things were going…”

He tutted; “it was abhorrent what they did to your race.”

I said nothing, just wondered why he was here; a whim, or did he want me for something? And how did he know about me?


“Have you performed much here?”

“When I first came to New York a couple of my pieces were played…” I shrugged, “but not many people came, nobody was interested; I was too experimental for some and not experimental enough for others…so I travelled to Hollywood to write music for films.”

“Oh yes, I heard your score for “The Man in the Moon” I liked it; best thing about that film.”

I laughed; in fact it had been one of the better films I had worked on and I had hoped it would lead to better things but so far no… but if The Big Man had seen it….


He was eating sausages and beans; quite plebian for such a rich man, although he ate daintily and carefully, whilst all around him everyone continued to stare, most without any attempt to hide their interest.

“Would you like to go back to having your music performed?” he asked, giving me all his attention.

“Yes, I enjoy film work and it is how I am making my living, but when I was in Germany I was beginning to make a name for myself; unfortunately in America I am nobody.”

“Yes we Europeans appreciate culture more than our dear hosts” the Big Man said quietly, as if he did not want to offend anyone in the vicinity, although I doubted that we were the only ones in the canteen who had been born across the ocean.

“Well in some ways” I said, thinking of Germany and what I had escaped from, “in some ways.”


“Hey, did the Big Man find you?” asked Trudy.

“Er yes, he sat with me in the canteen.”

“What did he want?”

I looked at her puzzled, “was he looking for me?”

“Sure, he came here just after you had gone for lunch; very polite he was. Asked for you by name; even pronounced it correctly; I told him that you were probably having a bite to eat. You didn’t mind did you?”

“No of course not.”

She smiled; “he even talked to me and asked my name,” she told me in fond reminiscence, “if anything happens you will mention me won’t you?”


I came home late but happy.  The Big Man’s visit had inspired me and by the time I finished for the evening I had a provisional score for the Nebraskan film, all ready to show Clark tomorrow, and it was good, the best thing that I had written for awhile. And if The Big Man had deliberately searched me out, perhaps my break would happen; our lives transformed, with a big house and more interesting films to work on. 


Marta looked harried.

“Why are you so late? I have been so busy.”

“The Big Man came to the studios today and he asked to see me.”

She did not look particularly thrilled, as if “so what….”, although she forgot to pretend she didn’t know who he was, which made a change.

“He might be looking for someone to write music for his next film…. why else would he seek me out?  He talked to me in the canteen; asked all about my past, and he has seen some of the films that I wrote the music for.”

“Is this all we came to America for; to write music for movies? I thought you were more ambitious.”

I shrugged, “well it is what pays for our apartment and our food.”

She looked at me; “I told you we should have stayed in New York, at least you were getting concerts…. now look at you, just writing music for thrillers, like any two-bit composer.”

I sighed, my happiness swiftly draining away, even my daughter’s hug failing to stem the flow.



The Concert, 1935


They did not look as if they had come to listen to music; their uniforms and thuggish faces were quite different from our usual crowd, and when I caught the eye of one of them he stared at me, as if he knew exactly who I was and found me absolutely hilarious.


Franz had also noticed them and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“I know,” what else could I say? More and more concerts were being disrupted; we fought back as best we could, and sometimes our assailants fled but we always ended up bruised, with instruments destroyed, and it was becoming more and more disheartening and there was the real possibility that somebody would get seriously hurt or killed as they had been elsewhere.

“Shall we cancel?” he asked.

“Definitely not; this is my masterpiece; I am not letting a few thugs disrupt my chance. Clara heard that Wengel might be here and who knows who else.”

“Okay”, he muttered but he looked worried, and I did not blame him.


In fact it was a disappointingly small audience, and seemed to be comprised solely of our friends, who were the only ones brave enough to support us in these troubled times. There was no sign of any distinguished music critics or anyone else well-known in our world. It was a pity; I had felt so inspired by my music, and during rehearsals I had almost swooned at the beauty of what we were creating.


The first piece was some dances which I had orchestrated; nothing too profound and in fact quite patriotic, but they would ease the audience gently in. And they did seem to go well and when I turned to face the audience at the end, I noticed that even a couple of the Black Shirts, sitting at the back and talking amongst themselves, seemed to have enjoyed it. They may not have been interested in the music but so far they did not seem to be interfering, and I dared hope that they come just to observe or just to sit for an hour or two, as a break from beating up Jews and communists.


We got our applause and the orchestra in front of me looked relieved. It had not been as good a performance as our last rehearsal; there was too much fear and tension for that, but they had not played badly. They organised themselves for my next piece, and I gave my friend Clara an encouraging smile, she was our cellist, and her instrument was vital to the next item; this was based on the Kol Nidre prayer, from Yom Kippur, and was thus defiantly Jewish; with tunes and rhythms from my childhood, a childhood that was being destroyed by the likes of those sat at the back of the hall and who were starting to pay attention.


The music began slowly and quietly, almost unnoticeably building up into a crescendo, with Clara’s cello at the forefront, underpinning everything else. I felt that I was at one with the orchestra, and soon forgot where I was and my fears; the music was all-important and overwhelming. The audience seemed as transfixed as I was; no sound at all coming from behind me. 


And then I heard a shout and a rushing of feet, and before I could even turn around, I was given a sharp push and went headfirst into the orchestra, hitting my head on a music stand. As I lay there stunned, I heard shouts of “Juden” and “Hitler,” and I was kicked and trodden upon several times. By the time that I had managed to get to my feet, the audience had fled along with half the orchestra and their instruments.  There was weeping and I saw Clara looking at her smashed cello in despair, her face bloody and her dress torn.


I felt something dripping down the back of my neck and realised that I was bleeding and in pain. As I tried to reach the blood with my handkerchief, Franz came up to me, “I cannot do this anymore” he told me, “too many people hurt and look at the hall. I am sorry; perhaps when things are easier. You should keep a low profile; stick to dance music or patriotic themes; forget that you are Jewish for awhile.”

I looked at him in despair and then headed home; I was hooted at by thugs as I walked along but reached home without being attacked.


“I heard,.” Marta told me as I stumbled through the door, and then she stripped me and washed my wounds, whilst Dora cried from the other room.

“I need to leave Germany” I told her as she cleaned the wound in my neck.

“How can you make us leave?” she asked, “leave all our friends behind, and our families?”

“My friends are leaving too” I told her, “or have been killed by the fascists. And what family do I have? I was hoping that we could start afresh in a new country where they don’t hate Jews, and where I can perform my music without being attacked.”

“I am not Jewish, and neither are my parents…. I cannot leave them behind. Things will get better; it is just a temporary madness.” And then she dried me gently before seeing to Dora. It was not the first time that we had had this conversation, but it seemed to be more urgent now as things continued to get worse and the Nazis consolidated their power, effortlessly sweeping the liberals and communists out of their way, seemingly unstoppable.


“I have got tickets on the Blucher, she sails for America in three days” I told her a week later, “you and Dora can come with me if you want to. But it is not safe for me anymore; synagogues are being destroyed and it is not going away. Oscar is going; his parents’ shop was destroyed and they were badly hurt. I don’t have a choice.”

“You want me to leave my parents?”

“It is up to you, but I need to leave, it isn’t safe for me and it won’t be for Dora and probably not for you. It is your decision though.”


Perhaps it was her decision, but we both knew that she would not let me go on my own. Thus a few days later all three of us were on board the large ship full of Jews and other undesirables, desperate to escape. Dora was standing between us; full of excitement, waving at all the people below who had come to see us off.  Marta’s parents were not among them; they had refused to watch us go, even angrier with me than usual and furious with their daughter for following her Jewish husband to America. They had begged her to stay but she had proven to be loyal and told them she would be back when things were normal again, although she was beginning to realise that this would probably never happen. And in fact a few years later they were dead, killed by English bombing; something for which Marta never forgave me.


But as we stood there, the wind blowing through us, Marta kissed me, “I love you” she murmured, “more than anything and more than anyone; wherever you go I will be by your side.” The three of us watched as our country disappeared, and as it did so I could smell the smoke and ashes of my people, as hatred took hold of Germany, and it came to that I had always been an alien there, even Marta’s parents had known that I was not German, not really. Hopefully I would find peace in a country comprised of immigrants and the desolate.



The Cinema, 1949


At first I did not even realise who the director of the film was, I had come to see, I had just seen the title of the film “Hollywood”; and as I had an afternoon to myself I thought why not, and bought a ticket and sat down in the half-empty auditorium. It was only when the titles started that I realised that it was The Big Man’s latest; not one of his best so I had heard, a relative failure. And then I remembered that time almost two years ago, when I had sat in the canteen telling my life story to the most famous film director in the world.


Alas it had come to nothing; I heard that he had made a couple of further enquiries about me and had even talked to Oscar about me.  For awhile I had lived in expectation, but I never heard from him again.  I saw him on the lot a few months later but he walked past me, as if I was not there. I knew that in Hollywood; there are lots of promises most of which are unfilled, so I dusted myself down and got on with my life.


At first it seemed that meeting The Big Man was the beginning of the end, because soon afterwards Marta left me. She had met a writer at somebody’s house, a “true artist” with more integrity than her husband apparently. And now she was back in New York, part of the Bohemian elite; I hoped that she was happy. Fortunately Dora had chosen to stay here with me and was old enough to do what she wanted.


I had thought of going back to New York myself; try again to become a serious composer; after all Schoenberg (who I had known slightly in Germany) was beginning to make a name for himself so why not me? But then – and to my complete surprise - my score for film “Fields of Nebraska” began to attract attention and won several awards and suddenly I was in demand; I could pick and choose the films that I worked on, and I started to make some serious money.


Gradually I realised that I was happy; that my work was being heard and I liked the challenge of fitting music to pictures, perhaps that was all I had ever been destined for, after all I had never seen what was wrong with writing music that people might enjoy, unlike many of my contemporaries. And at least I was making money and my music was being heard all over America and Europe as well.


Dora was also happy; she had a job in the same studio I worked for and showed no interest in going back to her mother who I suspected she missed as little as I did.  She would find her place here so that she too could be happy and safe and fulfil her dreams.


I stretched in contentment as much as I could in my rather hard and battered seat, and then turned my attention to the screen. The film was only meant to be a distraction to fill a couple of hours, but then I became engrossed in it; the poor musician, in Germany full of hope and ambition who was forced to leave with his wife and daughter and ending up writing music for the cinema whilst his ambition and talent died amongst poverty and the demands of tyrannical directors.


It was me of course, and eventually I realised why The Big Man had been so interested in my life; it wasn’t my music, but my story he wanted, or the way my story might have turned out.  Even the actor looked and dressed like me, although a slightly more glamorous version, and there was Marta played by the Big Man’s latest discovery, not Trudy alas who continued to work in the studio; but someone younger and more ethereal, and a more passive figure than the reality.


The sub-Wagnerian music filled the cinema as the hero walked the streets of Hollywood, weeping, a bottle of cheap wine in his hand.  And then defiantly he started to conduct the imaginary orchestra, leaving the audience with some hope that he might begin again and write the music that he was destined to, after all this was Hollywood and the audience couldn’t be left with a completely bleak ending.


Smiling to myself I got to my feet and headed out and back to my flat, where Trudy would be waiting for me; we would go out later and have a meal with Dora, and I would tell them about the film that was all about me, but without the happy ending, and how I would like to tell The Big Man, how wrong he was and that my life was going well, for the first time in a long time.


He could at least have used my music, I thought as I walked along, at least a melody or two, but then like the actor in the film I too began to conduct an invisible orchestra, not some Wagnerian crap, but something happier, and full of life and hope. Who cared if it was kitsch and sentimental; it was the future and I was glad to be a part of it.


I had left the old world behind me; it had its culture and its history, but that had not stopped its intellectuals and artists turning aside whilst my people were slaughtered in their millions.  Now I was in America where all outcasts were welcome, and where I was safe under the Californian sun.



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