When Gershwin and Schoenberg Played Tennis Together

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Schoenberg pictured with his family on the tennis court. (Schoenberg family)

The U.S. Open tennis tournament wraps up this weekend in Queens and that has us thinking about the story of two famous composers who struck up a surprising friendship on the court.

In Hollywood in 1936, George Gershwin moved into a Spanish-style mansion with a swimming pool and, more importantly, a tennis court. Not far away lived 62-year-old Arnold Schoenberg, who had recently moved to America to escape Nazi Germany.

At the time Schoenberg had a great teaching job and Gershwin was busy writing the score to Shall We Dance. Even though their music is completely different, Gershwin admired Schoenberg. He even considered studying music theory with him, but his overture to Schoenberg was decidedly non-musical: he challenged him to a friendly game of tennis.

One match became two, two became three, and tennis quickly turned into a weekly ritual for the composers. Schoenberg often brought a small entourage of string players and conductors. Gershwin invited his songwriter friends like Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

The composers’ techniques on the court were as different as their music: Gershwin’s was linear, direct, while Schoenberg was more, well ... Schoenberg. Gershwin’s game was described as nonchalant, relentless and chivalrous. Schoenberg’s as overly eager and choppy.

But they enjoyed playing together so much that they never missed a match. Schoenberg even showed up to play the day his son Ronald was born.

Their friendship was deep, but unfortunately very brief. Gershwin died less than a year after they met at 37. The next day, Schoenberg honored him in a memorial broadcast during which he said, "In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me."

Watch rare footage that Gershwin shot of Schoenberg at his home, followed by the interview of Schoenberg talking about Gershwin shortly after his friend's death.

Like music, tennis is full of passion. The players are expressive, the fans enthusiastic and in Gershwin and Schoenberg’s case, every match was full of love.

Produced by:

Michael Shobe

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Comments [7]

Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Oh enough with this on your features page.

Sep. 14 2016 03:15 PM
Susan from Upper West Side

I loved this delightful story, & would also like to commend John Schafer's (I think it was he) narration.
It's still sad to think how much music we lost with Gershwin. Then again, wonderfully like Mozart he started early & was prolific.

Sep. 09 2016 12:19 PM
Fred from New York

When Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, he was two months short of his 39th birthday.

Sep. 09 2016 09:24 AM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

@Ellen, but if I lighten up, life will have no meaning for me. I thought it was civil.
Best wishes

Sep. 08 2016 09:05 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I, for one, am grateful for this article as well as the link to Gershwin's home movie and also hearing Schoenberg's valediction to Gershwin. For others of like mind, I recommend Oscar Levant's book "A Smattering of Ignorance" (Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc. New York: 1940) not only for his brutal honesty and incomparable wit about all things musical, (including a chapter on Harpo Marx), but for an eye-witness account of Gershwin (whom he knew intimately) and Scho"nberg (with whom he studied). I'd like to quote a section and I hope it's within fair use: (pp. 188 and 189). "I'd like to write a quartet one day," said George. "But it will be something simple, like Mozart." "Scho"nberg mistakenly interpreted Gershwin's typically irrelevant reflection as a comment on his work and answered, somewhat nettled, "I'm not a simple man---and, anyway, Mozart was considered far from simple in his day."

Sep. 08 2016 08:29 AM
Ellen from West Chester, PA

Well, Vespasian, at least you fulfilled two of QXR's email requirements; brief it was and on topic. Civil it certainly was not. Some of us enjoy an article that sheds some light on composers as human beings. Might I make a brief suggestion? Lighten up!

Sep. 08 2016 07:30 AM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

WHO CARES? XQR had nothing else to post?

Sep. 08 2016 06:59 AM

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