One of the legendary occasions in twentieth-century music, at least for those of us who treasure unexpected juxtapositions, is the 1935 meeting between Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of atonality, and Irving Thalberg, the head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Salka Viertel, the émigré screenwriter and salonière, describes the encounter in amusingly rich detail in her memoir, The Kindness of Strangers; Schoenberg mentions it in a letter to Thalberg dated Dec. 6, 1935, which you can read online at the Schoenberg Center. The meeting came about, Viertel says, when Thalberg heard Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht on a New York Philharmonic Sunday-afternoon broadcast and decided that Schoenberg would be just the right man to write music for an adaptation of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. "Last Sunday when I heard the lovely music you have written...," Thalberg began. "I don't write 'lovely' music," Schoenberg snapped. Thalberg's enthusiasm dissipated as the composer proceeded to demand, among other things, that the actors deliver their lines in Sprechstimme.
During a final bout of fact-checking for my book, I decided to make certain that the Philharmonic played Schoenberg as described. It turns out that the orchestra did perform Verklärte Nacht that year, but not until late December 1935, well after the Schoenberg-Thalberg summit. (According to the Philharmonic, performances previously took place under Bruno Walter in 1924, Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1926, and Ossip Gabrilowitsch in 1932 — a slightly surprising lineup of Schoenbergians.) It's possible, of course, that the mogul heard a different broadcast of Schoenberg's piece. But I wonder whether the "lovely music" in question was in fact the Suite in G for Strings, which the Philharmonic played in mid-October 1935. (Both programs were conducted by Otto Klemperer, who led ten weeks of Philharmonic programs that fall.) If events proceeded in the usual way, the Suite would have been broadcast nationally on Oct. 20; the famous meeting seems to have happened in mid-November. Viertel might have transposed these two more-or-less-tonal string-orchestra pieces in her memory. I offer this as a minor footnote to the annals of Schoenbergiana.