27 December 2014

Waiting for Thalberg's reply

The film adaptation of Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth" (1937) was producer Irving Thalberg's final achievement. For the music score of the film Thalberg initially wanted to hire Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg after hearing his "Verklärte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night") on the radio. Impressed with Schönberg's music, Thalberg arranged for a meeting with the composer at the MGM studios in November 1935. 

Screenwriter Salka Viertel who was also present at the memorable meeting described it in her memoir "The Kindness of Strangers" (1969): "Thalberg [....] was explaining why he wanted a great composer for the scoring of the Good Earth. When he came to: "Last Sunday when I heard the lovely music you have written...", Schoenberg interrupted sharply: "I don't write 'lovely' music" [.....] He had read the Good Earth and would not undertake the assignment unless he was given complete control over the sound, including the spoken words. "What do you mean by complete control?" asked Thalberg incredulously. "I mean that I have to work with the actors," answered Schoenberg. "They would have to speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in. It would be similar to Pierrot lunaire but, of course, less difficult." [source

While Thalberg felt his enthusiasm slowly vanish, he still wanted to work with Schönberg. In the end, it was not a creative issue but money that killed the deal. During a second meeting, Schönberg demanded a fee of $50,000 whereupon Thalberg lost interest completely. The assignment was eventually given to composers Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward. 

Irving Thalberg died before production of "The Good Earth" was completed, he was only 37 years old.
After the second meeting between Thalberg and Schönberg, three weeks passed by without Schönberg hearing from the MGM producer. Upset and offended to be treated with so little respect, Schönberg wrote Thalberg this letter on 6 December 1935:

Source: the rest is noise


Mr Thalberg, Producer
Metro Goldwin [sic] Mayer Studio
Thalberg Bungalow
10202 Washington Boulevard
Culver City

December,6, 1935

Dear Mr Thalberg,

when I left you, about three weeks ago, you told me you would answer in a few days. Having got no answer untill [sic] today, I can not believe this is your intention: to give me no answer at all. Maybe you are disappointed about the price I asked. But you will agree, it is not my fault, you did not ask me before and only so late, that I had already spent so much time, coming twice to you, reading the book, trying out how I could compose it and making sketches. I should be very, very sorry if I had to realize, that you do not only not pay attention to the respectfull [sic] way in which I am accostumed [sic] do [sic] be treated as a person of international reputation, but even not for the time I have spent on this occasion. And I should be very sorry if you should write me, it were only a mistake of an officer, that I got not an answer in time, because I came personally to you and have the right to expect, that you personally examine whether I have been answered so as it is fitting to my rank.
As before said, I cannot believe it is your intention not to give me an answer at all. But even in case you are still considering to make me a proposition, I wanted to ask you to give me your decision or at least to write me a letter.
Looking forward to such a letter with many regards I am,
yours very truly

Note: Despite his letter, Schönberg never heard from Thalberg or anyone else at MGM.

Arnold Schönberg and a poster of the film for which he would not compose the music. 

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