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Written by a roster of some of the leading composers of the day, the Genesis Suite was not the first instance of combined authorship. A number of cases of team composition can be found in Western classical musical literature, but few even remotely as lavish or grandiose as the Genesis Suite, and none approaching either its Hollywood grand scale or the degree of its aspirations to mass popular appeal.

Apart from its scale, the Genesis Suite differs from any previous team efforts in a number of important ways, first because it was really not a “team” effort in an artistic sense, but rather a string of independently written pieces by seven distinct composers—some with radically divergent musical-aesthetic views, two of whom barely even spoke to each other. It was bound together more as the brainchild of its commissioner and by its concept, dramatic narration, and occasion. More historically significant, however, was its attempted marriage of “high art” with a perceived Hollywood film music sound—an accommodation between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” orientations. It was a hybrid that might have appeared strange, even unworkable, to many at the time, but it is perhaps far less so today, when the notion of “crossover” has become, for some, nearly a genre of its own.

On November 18, 1945, at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater, Werner Janssen conducted the Janssen Symphony of Los Angeles in a performance of a highly unusual work for narrator, chorus, and orchestra titled the Genesis Suite. This work was written by an impressive group of seven composers—Arnold Schoenberg, Nathaniel Shilkret (who commissioned the project), Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Toch, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Igor Stravinsky—each writing a single movement. It was a project in which the “high art” of European émigré composers converged with the dynamo of American popular culture—art negotiating with kitsch. Why was this work commissioned, and what motivated these composers to participate? What are the stylistic peculiarities that bind the work on the one hand yet make it eclectic in a bizarre way on the other? The answers reveal intriguing connections between the Genesis Suite and the Hollywood film industry, as well as the Los Angeles émigré community.

Money was certainly an incentive that encouraged participation in this collaboration, but there was more than that at stake. The Los Angeles artistic and literary émigré community, despite tremendous friction, remained very tightly knit and, in fact, collaborated actively on several projects. One such project occurred in 1943, when the German émigré writer and philosopher Thomas Mann helped organize a group of writers, including fellow émigrés Franz Werfel and Bruno Frank, to collaborate on a book titled The Ten Commandments, in which each author wrote a short novella based on one of the ten articles of the Sinaitic covenant (erroneously translated and referred to as “commandments”) stated in the Bible (Exodus 20:2–14). The book’s agenda was clearly stated in its foreword: while stressing the Jewish foundations of the Bible, this book would “help to open the eyes of those who still do not recognize what Nazism really is.”

Another manifestation of cooperative ventures occurred in 1944. Several of the same musicians who would take part in the Genesis project participated in a national conference held in Los Angeles called “Music in Contemporary Life.” In addition to those composers, the symposium involved a diverse group that included such figures as jazz musicians Hoagy Carmichael and Artie Shaw, musicologist-historians Donald Grout and Manfred Bukofzer, music critic Theodor Adorno, and Viennese émigré Hanns Eisler. The goal was to “mobilize music and musicians in the struggle to create a free world, and to utilize the positive force that is music in the peace to follow.”

Apart from its musical significance, the Genesis Suite is memorable historically because it brought together, at least in spirit, two powerful 20th-century musical antipodes, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Though they lived only a few miles apart in Los Angeles, there was lingering hostility between the two; and during that time frame they probably met only a few times, at public occasions. They were insulated from each other by opposing camps of ardent supporters. Castelnuovo-Tedesco ascribed the antagonism to Schoenberg’s publication of a satirical choral work in which one movement referred to Stravinsky as “Kleine Modernsky” (though it should be noted that Castelnuovo-Tedesco personally favored the Stravinsky camp in terms of both personality and musical predilections). The dress rehearsals for Genesis Suite had to be organized so that Schoenberg and Stravinsky would not meet, but they ended up being there simultaneously, and they remained on opposite sides of the hall. Schoenberg’s response to a disciple’s request for his reaction to the Stravinsky pieces was, “It didn’t end; it just stopped.”

Nathaniel Shilkret began contemplating a composition based on the Bible early in his career. In the early 1920s he was employed at the Victor Recording Company, where he organized the Victor Salon Orchestra. His goal with that ensemble was to “strike the sympathetic musical pulse of all people—the highbrows, sentimentalists, dreamers and jazzers alike.” He initiated the Genesis project following a Victor Recording public poll that suggested there was considerable interest in a musical representation of the Bible. Alexandre Tansman would later recall that Shilkret clearly conceived of the project “cinemagraphically, as an external synchronization of a text with a musical atmosphere.”

This type of project was attractive to the Jewish sensibilities of Castelnuovo-Tedesco. As early as 1940 he mentioned in a lecture, entitled “The Jewish Chapter of My Autobiography,” that he hoped to write a set of “symphonic illustrations to the Bible.” In his final autobiography he explained that Shilkret, who had been a colleague at MGM studios, came up with the idea of Genesis to illustrate, as in a series of “musical frescoes,” the main episodes of the biblical story. Shilkret himself had begun with the Creation, but then, feeling incapable of completing the difficult undertaking in its entirety by himself, he asked Castelnuovo-Tedesco to help and assigned him the Flood story. He later decided to extend the project by inviting other well-known composers to contribute. Castelnuovo-Tedesco thus gave the last part of the Noah story—The Rainbow—to Toch, and put Shilkret in touch with Tansman, who did Earthly Paradise (later retitled Adam and Eve). Tansman in turn contacted Milhaud, who wrote Cain and Abel, and then contacted Stravinsky, who chose Babel. Finally, Shilkret himself asked Schoenberg, who agreed to give the suite a Prelude that would describe the primordeal chaos at the opening of Genesis. Bartók, Hindemith, and Prokofiev were also asked to participate, but their contributions were never received.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s account helps explain the how of this commission, but not the who, particularly with regard to the participation of both Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Leonard Stein, a Schoenberg disciple and scholar, was convinced that money was a deciding motivation, at least from Schoenberg’s perspective. Each contributor was paid $300, with the exception of Stravinsky, who was clandestinely paid $1,000. In the concert program notes, Shilkret proclaimed, “My colleagues have approached their tasks in a spirit of the most profound reverence. Their devotion is apparent in the music they have created.”

Whatever their devotion, it is clear that this work was a collaboration only in the loosest sense of the word. The program notes also reported that “the separate movements have been composed in complete independence, the composers each proceeding with his individual portion without further references to, or knowledge of, each other’s work.” The unifying thread was the story from Genesis, which was provided by the narrator, Edward Arnold, in the 1945 performance. The concert program notes further describe the complete work as a “partly descriptive, partly psychological” illustration of biblical text.

I. Prelude
Arnold Schoenberg

In the concert program, Richard Saunders wrote simply that “the movement deals instrumentally with the opening words of the Bible, impressively establishing a devotional mood.” Schoenberg’s pre-Creation world is not the murky chaos one might expect. From the beginning, order is defined by the 12-tone row. The piece opens with the row divided into two phrases, using tuba and violins. The movement is “prebiblical” and does not employ the narrator; nor does it utilize the chorus until the very conclusion. It is both intriguing and ironic that Schoenberg’s ordered atonality ultimately resolves to the tonal C major. In the final three bars, the chorus enters and establishes this pitch clearly yet quietly, as everyone drops out except for a single soloist.

II. Creation
Nathaniel Shilkret
Text: Genesis 1:1–12, 14–31; 2:1–3

Shilkret does not resume where Schoenberg left off. Rather, he backtracks and creates his own pre-Creation atonal chaos. Instead of a tone row, he relies on clusters that slide in parallel motion to avoid any sense of tonal center. He then divides the Creation story into two distinct sections. The first portion includes the events of the first three days, ending when God pauses to observe that “it was good.” The second section begins with the words “Let there be light,” and the Creation continues with the music weaving a fabric under the narrator.

III. Adam and Eve
Alexandre Tansman
Text: Genesis 2:5–10, 15–25; 3:1–19

Tansman begins the first of the tales of exile. On the score, he subtitled the movement The Fall of Man. Surrounding the narrative with an instrumental introduction, several interludes, and a coda, he constructs a series of eight musical episodes, which at that time were described as “more atmospheric than descriptive.” The final section, the most musically complex, is God’s proclamation of exile. Tansman articulates rhythmically the voice of God, as though to emphasize the severity of the sentence.

IV. Cain and Abel
Darius Milhaud
Text: Genesis 4:1–16

The concert program notes described this movement simply as “the story of discord and violence deftly underlined in music.” Here Milhaud presents the story of exile from family and community. Again we have an episodic construction of six sections interwoven with instrumental commentary. Also, in a fashion similar to Tansman, Milhaud notates the speaker’s rhythm for the most significant section—in this case for the words “and slew him” and “fugitive and a vagabond.”

V. Noah's Ark
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Text, Part I: Genesis 6:5–20; 7:1–4, Part II: Genesis 7:11, 18–19, 21–24; 8:1–13

In a structure similar to Shilkret’s, Castelnuovo-Tedesco divides his destruction story into two sections. The first illustrates events leading to the Flood, and the second deals with the cataclysm of the Flood itself.

VI. The Covenant
Ernst Toch
Text: Genesis 9:1–17

Toch’s score is actually titled The Rainbow, and the concert program notes described it as “the story of Noah’s debarking, and of the covenant that no further flood should occur.” The sanctity of that promise seems to be underscored by the severity of the opening fugue.

VII. Babel
Igor Stravinsky
Text: Genesis 11:1–9

Clearly Stravinsky was considered the most esteemed participant in this event. In his book on Stravinsky, Tansman—who was present during the initial discussions between Shilkret and Stravinsky—explained Stravinsky’s approach to this movement in the context of his views on faith and its relation to music. Tansman emphasized that Stravinsky was intent on avoiding any suggestion of human voices imitating the Divine voice. Thus the narrator is left to relate the episode while the chorus sings the Divine words as a quotation. In the composer’s view, the Divinity should in no way be illustrated, musically or otherwise. He also wanted everything regarding the tower’s construction and destruction to remain on a purely musical plane, without descriptive evocation. For him, the religious mystery—the original source of the creation—imposed both a restriction and a challenge: “to avoid the profanation that would consist of visualizing what must remain a mystery and is accepted as dogma.” Although that sensibility might have collided with Shilkret’s overall conception and almost cinematographic orientation, he refrained—out of respect—from imposing his inclinations on Stravinsky for this piece. But Tansman also reminds us of the practical value that Stravinsky’s name lent to the program, something Shilkret would not have wanted to forgo.

Stravinsky was the only composer given a voice in the program notes. He remarked that those more familiar with his name than with his music might find Babel a “casual, isolated work” that had little relation to his previous compositions and characteristics as a composer. But those truly acquainted with some of his major works would understand his “bent toward musical forms cultivated by the best musical brains of all times.” Therefore, the inclusion of his piece in the company of the other composers was, for him, a welcome opportunity. Robert Craft described the structure of Babel as “a passacaglia in which a fugue serves as one of the variations.”

By all accounts, the Los Angeles concert could not be described as a success. However, it was not necessarily the “fault of the music,” which more than one participating musician described as “something extraordinary.” Shilkret’s and Werner Janssen’s financial generosity notwithstanding (the former for the commissions and the latter for the performance), funding was inadequate, and more rehearsal time had been needed.

Both audience and critics were bewildered. Typical of the critical response, Lawrence Morton’s review attacked the very notion of the project: “Certainly Genesis was, from the very birth of the idea, doomed to be a hopelessly insoluble mixture of styles, techniques and attitudes.” He felt that it must have been an “act of faith” on Shilkret’s part to commission a single work from so heterogeneous a group of composers, the more so since there was no provision for them to have reference to one another’s work. He thought Schoenberg’s Prelude was the most successful piece, partly because it was free of competition with an amplified narration. He found references in Babel to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which for him had far greater nobility and propulsion.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco himself was disappointed in the lack of stylistic unity, which for him made it more like “cinematic music,” in a sense “an aria of Hollywood.” Stravinsky’s biographer, André Boucourechliev, dismissed the work as “a most Hollywoodish commission.” Indeed, hearing it for the first time, images of a Hollywood spectacle do come immediately to mind. Listening to Babel, for example, it is easy to envision the film for which this music could have been written.

Now, however, so many decades removed from the politics of that musical scene, diversity is less problematic. One can understand that a polar juxtaposition of Schoenberg and Stravinsky would have been considered startling in the 1945 concert hall, but in truth, a much closer stylistic connection exists in the Genesis Suite than the two opposing Stravinsky/Schoenberg camps would have admitted. Out of chaos and a “primeval murk,” Schoenberg moved from darkness into light, building to a double fugue, which he said suggested the “technical” difficulties of creation. Nearly fifty minutes later, Stravinsky builds the Tower of Babel out of fugal counterpoint and then musically destroys it, bringing us back, of course, to chaos.

The more profound confrontation in the Genesis Suite was between the “sound of high art” and the “sound of Hollywood.” Between Schoenberg and Stravinsky there seems to be little more than a hairbreadth of difference. Arnold Schoenberg and Nathaniel Shilkret, however, are worlds apart—and nowhere more apparently so than in the move from the end of Schoenberg’s Prelude directly into Shilkret’s Creation, from textless octaves in Schoenberg’s chorus to the mysterious “sound track” that opens the Shilkret piece. At the very least, Shilkret’s score conveys the indelible imprint of 1950s science fiction.

Orchestration, however, is only one of the features that suggest Hollywood. Firsthand recollections also cite the sense of stately spectacle (exaggerated by Janssen’s slower-than-indicated tempi) and the amplified, somewhat pompous voice of the narrator as contributing to an overall “Hollywood” sound. Castelnuovo-Tedesco actually listed his movement with his cinemagraphic compositions.

This is not to suggest that the Genesis Suite was inconsequential to its composers. For all of them this commission had important resonances. They were all fully aware of the underlying themes of exile and holocaust. For many émigré artists in America, it was difficult to recover from losses and dislocation. For example, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in his autobiography, makes the symbolic connection between the Holocaust and the story of Noah and the Flood.

The Genesis Suite project has been described as “unusual,” “grandiose,” and even “bizarre.” For its audience in 1945, the anticipated masterpiece amounted to an odd assemblage of musical idioms. But in retrospect the work does have a surprising historical cohesion. It can be seen as a representation of mid-century sensibilities—the buoyant optimism of America just at the end of the Second World War and before the advent of the cold war. It was an artistic and historical moment that was ripe for unusual confluences: for a brief time it seemed as if anything was possible. It was a time when even Schoenberg and Stravinsky could rub musical elbows. It was also a time when kitsch could dance, albeit tentatively, with high art.

Performance and Recording History

Since its premiere in 1945, the Genesis Suite has not been heard by any concert audience, a fact attributable in no small part to the disappearance more than forty years ago of the scores and parts for five of the seven movements. Despite the absence of public performances, the Genesis Suite has stayed alive in memory, at least among musicologists and music detectives, thanks to a privately funded recording that was made at RCA in Hollywood on December 11, 1945, just weeks after the performance. This recording, issued on five 78-rpm discs in a strictly limited edition, features the performers of the premiere: Werner Janssen conducting the Janssen Symphony Orchestra, with Edward Arnold as narrator. Five years later a new sound track of the narration only was recorded, and this was combined with the original 1945 orchestral recording for a reissue of the Genesis Suite as a 33-rpm LP album. This Capital Records reissue was also apparently done as a limited pressing, since few copies of the LP have survived. Curiously, the narration, recorded in December 1950 by a local pastor named Ted Osborne, was not credited on the LP album. According to the liner notes for the 1951 LP, the narrator “asked to remain nameless, in reverent tribute to the word of God which he has spoken.” When, in 2001, Angel Records reissued on CD the 1945/1951 composite recording of the Genesis Suite, the packaging erroneously identified the narrator as Edward Arnold. The actual narrator on the CD reissue is Pastor Osborne. (A further error in the Angel CD reissue is the placement of the Toch movement after, rather than before the Stravinsky movement, which is intended to end the suite.)

Notwithstanding the mysterious resurfacings of the 1945 recording, the prospect of any new recording or performance of the Genesis Suite remained an elusive dream for decades. Catastrophically, the complete performance scores and orchestral parts were destroyed in a fire at the Shilkret residence in the 1960s. The full orchestral scores for only the Schoenberg and Stravinsky movements existed in duplicate, and these were eventually published, but the remaining five movements were presumed lost. Years later, an archival search finally located the full orchestral scores (in manuscript) for the Milhaud and Castelnuovo-Tedesco movements. However, reconstruction of the remaining three movements—Shilkret, Toch, and Tansman—proved much more difficult. They were thought to be permanently lost until painstaking research revealed that each movement had been copyrighted by Shilkret, as the commissioner. A search of the Copyright Office indexes and catalogues confirmed that in fact each movement, not merely the work as a whole, was registered under Shilkret’s name. Fortunately, in the 1940s a deposit of each work was required to accompany every application for copyright registration. Those deposits were, however, not complete scores, but condensed ones, following the procedure typical for Hollywood film scores. These handwritten condensed scores sometimes consisted of only one or two musical lines, with partial indications of the instrumentation. The full orchestra scores of movements by Shilkret, Tansman, and Toch were finally reconstructed in 2000 by Patrick Russ for the present Milken Archive recording, relying on the evidence contained in the condensed scores, the original 1945 recording, and the specific instrumentation information provided by the ASCAP Symphonic Catalogue.

A Note on the Narration for the Milken Archive Recording by Paul W. Schwendener:

The spoken narration for the present recording has been assigned to four speakers rather than to a single narrator. The reasons for this adaptation are both musically and dramatically founded: from a musical standpoint, seven composers have chosen to set the narrative voice within widely divergent orchestrations, and the character and details of many orchestrations are best appreciated by assigning “lighter” or “heavier” narrative speakers as the musical situation demands. From the dramatic angle, the concept of a “cast” of narrative speakers fits the cinematographic style and structure of much of the music. Thus, in this recording, two female and two male voices alternate in declaiming the text, interacting occasionally with each other but above all with the music.

By: James Wetsby