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
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.
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.
in an office.
I smiled at her
kindly; would you like to be in the movies?
Not me. It
isnt 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 wouldnt 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.
the time I made my way to the canteen for my lunch, I had very little to show
for my mornings 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
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.
You are that German
composer arent 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
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?
performed much here?
When I first
came to New York a couple of my pieces were played
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
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
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
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
Well in some
ways I said, thinking of Germany and what I had escaped from, in
Hey, did the
Big Man find you? asked Trudy.
Er yes, he sat
with me in the canteen.
What did he
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 didnt mind did you?
No of course
She smiled; he
even talked to me and asked my name, she told me in fond reminiscence,
if anything happens you will mention me wont you?
I came home late but
happy. The Big Mans 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.
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 didnt 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
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
. now look at you, just writing music for thrillers, like any
I sighed, my
happiness swiftly draining away, even my daughters hug failing to stem
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
Franz had also
noticed them and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
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.
cancel? he asked.
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.
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
Claras 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
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.
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
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 dont hate Jews, and where I can perform my music without being
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 dont have a choice.
You want me to
leave my parents?
It is up to
you, but I need to leave, it isnt safe for me and it wont 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.
Martas 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
Martas parents had known that I was not German, not really. Hopefully I
would find peace in a country comprised of immigrants and the desolate.
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 Mans 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
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 somebodys 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
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
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
It was me of course,
and eventually I realised why The Big Man had been so interested in my life; it
wasnt 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
Mans latest discovery, not Trudy alas who continued to work in the
studio; but someone younger and more ethereal, and a more passive figure than
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 couldnt be left with a completely bleak
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.