True pioneers deserve better

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What’s in a name? In California, about $5 million

IN the Pacific sprawl of Los Angeles, amid the dream factories with their rainbow-billowing smokestacks, there is an academy of higher learning, known as UCLA. Among its amenities is a concert hall – the Arnold Schoenberg Hall, after the great composer who taught on the campus from 1936 to 1944. The hall is regularly used for public concerts, thus perpetuating Schoenberg’s name among movieland’s micro-minority of lovers of serious music.

Last month, the college renamed the hall. The new dedicatee was Mo Ostin, a UCLA economics alumnus who rose to towering heights in the record industry, running the Warner Bros empire before joining Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks. UCLA’s reason for switching names was not, as one might imagine, Mr Ostin’s superior contribution to musical culture. It was, rather, Mr Ostin’s superior contribution to the University of California: a cheque for $5 million.

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When the renaming was challenged in the local press, administrators argued that the auditorium had never been named for Schoenberg, only the exterior of the building. Even when these excuses were refuted by documentation from the Schoenberg archives (repatriated two years ago to Vienna), UCLA insisted that the decision had gone through a “formal and exhaustive review process” and could not be reversed.

The composer’s son, Lawrence, and two grandsons rushed to see the UCLA dean and vice-chancellor of external affairs, but failed to get beneath their mortar-boards. “A gift came in, and there was a request for a naming,” was UCLA’s justification for dishonouring a 20th-century trail-blazer and supplanting him with a disc-changer. Signs bearing Schoenberg’s name were taken down, as was a bust of the composer by Anna Mahler. A brand-new plaque and road signs lit the way to Ostin Hall.

And that should have been the end of the matter. But what UCLA failed to reckon with was the force of modem communications. The story hit the web and inflamed the chat sites; emails by the virtual sackload went winging to UCLA. In scholarly exchanges, the college’s name became mud – without, I suspect, any donation being received from the Mud family.

Last weekend, greed gave way to contrition. Chancellor Albert Carnesale wrote to the Schoenbergs, assuring them of UCLA’s “great pride” in its “pioneer educators” and pledging “to honour our commitment to Professor Schoenberg’s memory by restoring his name to the auditorium”. No decision has yet been made where to put the Ostin plaques, though the chat sites are not short on suggestions.

So that’s all right, then? Not quite. A university, in my understanding, is a place where ideas can be analysed quietly and rationally, immured from political and public pressures. To see a seat of learning routed by an internet intifada gives me no cause for contentment, nor do the factual errors that studded the letter of apology. A chancellor who praises Schoenberg’s “beautiful legacy of music” has presumably never heard a note or read a word written by the atonal frontiersman – but then California, a traditionless state, was never much troubled by the past.

The Schoenberg renaming is not the first of its kind. I am told that the cinema at UCLA’s film school was de-plaqued, dumping a pioneering faculty member for a recent donor. Evidence from other US campuses suggests that the practice is widespread. Not since Stalin revised the great Soviet encyclopedia have famous persons been erased with such zeal.

There is no guarantee that the stone you erect on a parent’s grave will stand for ever, or that a building endowed will not change its faade. But there must be a principle involved when a public figure is honoured, alive or dead, if the whole honours system is not to be discredited.

The point in perpetuating a person’s memory is that he or she might otherwise be forgotten. Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, is right to proclaim the obsolescence of two Trafalgar Square empire-builders, but the fact that their fame has faded merely reinforces the need to keep their statues.

The question is not whether Arnold Schoenberg needs to be honoured, or whether, in fact, he bestows more honour than he receives. The critical issue is whether a university’s word can be trusted – and on current evidence it cannot.


About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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