Erich Wolfgang von Korngold (1897-1957)
Music for Violin and Piano. Joseph Lin, violin. Benjamin Loeb, piano.
Together with Mozart, Mendelssohn, Busoni and Enescu, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a notable prodigy as a composer. Born in Brünn (now Brno) on 29th May 1897, the second son of the music critic Julius Korngold, he impressed Mahler with his music when he was only nine, and consolidated this with the score for the ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann (The Snowman), first given at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. A series of orchestral, chamber and operatic works followed, culminating with the dual première in 1920 in Hamburg and Cologne of his opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) (Naxos 8.660060-61). The work brought him international fame at the age of 23. The success of his next opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) was blighted, however, by the worsening political situation, while Die Kathrin was not heard in Vienna because of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
In 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood at the invitation of Max Reinhardt. There he embarked on a series of film scores over the next decade, including Captain Blood (1935) (Marco Polo 8.223607), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and King’s Row (1941), bringing his music to an audience of millions. After the Second World War Korngold returned to the concert hall, but, apart from a Violin Concerto, championed by Jascha Heifetz, his effulgent late-Romantic style found little favour in post-war Europe, and his death on 19th November 1957 attracted little attention. Recent decades, however, have seen a resurgence of interest in his music, with a number of performances and recordings marking the centenary of his birth in 1997.
A pianist by training, Korngold, like his older contemporary Richard Strauss, clearly identified the violin with the human voice, and the instrument features prominently in his operas and orchestral works. At the prompting of the violinist Carl Flesch and the pianist Artur Schnabel, in 1912 he wrote his Violin Sonata in G major, with the première being given by these musicians in Berlin the following year. The first movement, Ben moderato, ma con passione, opens with a suave melody shared between the instruments. A second theme, following at much the same tempo, is more wistful and inward-looking. An interesting feature of the development is the piano’s taking over the rhythm of the first theme in the left hand, over which the violin has snatches of sul ponticello. The recapitulation is mainly allotted to the second theme, before the movement tapers off in a gentle coda. The lengthy Scherzo, Allegro molto, con fuoco, opens with cavorting passage-work, followed by a capricious subsidiary theme and much wide-ranging motivic transformation. The trio, Moderato cantabile, features an expressive melody taken from the Vier kleinen fröhlichen Walzern for piano. Marked ‘with deepest feeling’, the Adagio initially has a slightly rhetorical feel, the muted second theme and its lapping piano accompaniment providing subtle contrast. A passionate climax is reached, before the music glides to an ethereal close. The Finale, Allegretto quasi Andante, con grazia, is a sequence of variations on an amiable theme taken from the 1911 song Schneeglöckchen (Snowdrops). Reference to earlier movements is made as the finale reaches its expressive apotheosis, and the work ends in quiet understatement.
In 1918, Korngold composed incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at Schönbrunn Castle in May 1920. Realising that the orchestra would be required elsewhere before the run had been completed, the composer collaborated with the violinist Rudolf Kolisch in an arrangement of the score for violin and piano. Four numbers published from this version quickly entered the repertoire of some of the greatest virtuosi of the day. Mädchen im Brautgemach (Maiden in the Bridal Chamber) depicts Hero preparing for her wedding with uncertainty, yet with undeniable emotion. Holzapfel und Schlehwein (Dogberry and Verges) is a humorous march for the two drunken night-watchmen, while the expressive Gartenscene (Garden Scene) underlines the reluctant but growing love of Beatrice for Benedick. Mummenschanz (Masquerade) concludes the incidental music in robust good spirits.
The remaining pieces on this disc are all arrangements made to further the appeal of some of Korngold’s biggest successes, though not all of them enjoyed currency in his lifetime. The Serenade from Der Schneemann is a simply lyrical piece whose bitter-sweet nostalgia made it an ideal salon item. Surprisingly, a similar success was not enjoyed by the Caprice fantastique, Korngold’s scintillating 1932 arrangement for Rózsika Révay of the piece Wichtelmännchen (The Goblins) from his 1910 set of piano miniatures Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures), which remained unheard until recent years.
The aria. Ich ging zu ihm (I went to him) is one of the high-points in Korngold’s fourth opera Das Wunder der Heliane. Here the heroine vainly protests her innocence with regard to the young Stranger, who has brought hope to a dictatorship where all manifestations of love have been banned.
Of the two transcriptions from Die tote Stadt, Pierrots Tanzlied finds a member of Marietta’s dance troupe singing of his unrequited love for the dancer, and became a favourite of Fritz Kreisler. Little known in this arrangement, Mariettas Lied is an enchanting aria of self-expression, and helped to keep Korngold’s name alive in the unfavourable cultural climate of the years either side of his death.
Korngold, Erich Wolfgang
(b Brno, 29 May 1897; d Hollywood, CA, 29 Nov 1957). Austrian composer active in the USA. The second son of the eminent music critic Julius Korngold (1860–1945), he was a remarkable child prodigy composer. In 1906 he played his cantata Gold to Gustav Mahler, who pronounced him a genius and recommended that he be sent to Zemlinsky for tuition. At the age of 11 he composed the ballet Der Schneemann, a sensation when it was first performed at the Vienna Court Opera (1910); he followed this with a Piano Trio and a remarkable Piano Sonata in E that so impressed Artur Schnabel that he championed the work all over Europe. Richard Strauss remarked: ‘One’s first reaction that these compositions are by a child are those of awe and concern that so precocious a genius should follow its normal development …. This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!’. Giacomo Puccini, Jean Sibelius, Bruno Walter, Arthur Nikisch, Engelbert Humperdinck, Karl Goldmark and many others were similarly impressed.
Korngold was 14 when he wrote his first orchestral work, the Schauspiel Ouvertüre; his Sinfonietta appeared the following year. His first operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, were completed in 1914. With the appearance of the opera Die tote Stadt, completed when he was 23 and acclaimed internationally after its dual première in Hamburg and Cologne (1920), his early fame reached its height. After completing the first Left Hand Piano Concerto, commissioned by Wittgenstein in 1923, he began his fourth and arguably greatest opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), and started arranging and conducting classic operettas by Johann Strauss and others. He also began teaching opera and composition at the Vienna Staatsakademie and was awarded the title professor honoris causa by the president of Austria.
Max Reinhardt, with whom Korngold had collaborated on versions of Die Fledermaus and La belle Hélène, invited him to Hollywood in 1934 to work on his celebrated film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over the next four years, Korngold pioneered a new art form, the symphonic film score, in such classics as Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper and Anthony Adverse (for which he won the first of two Academy Awards). The Anschluss prevented him from staging his fifth opera, Die Kathrin, and he remained in Hollywood composing some of the finest music written for the cinema. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, winner of his second Academy Award), The Sea Hawk (1940) and Kings Row (1941) are his greatest works in the genre. Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) he created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.
After the war Korngold returned to absolute music, composing, among other works, a Violin Concerto (1937, rev. 1945) first performed by Heifetz, a Cello Concerto (1946), a Symphonic Serenade for string orchestra (1947) given its première by Furtwängler, and the Symphony in F (1947–52). His late Romantic style, however, was completely out of step with the postwar era and when he died at the age of 60, he believed himself forgotten. After decades of neglect, a gradual reawakening of interest in his music occurred. At the time of his centenary (1997) his works were becoming increasingly popular, appearing on major recordings and concert programmes around the world.
KdG (S. Rode-Breymann)
E. Newman: ‘The Problem of Erich Korngold’, The Nation (24 Aug 1912)
R.S. Hoffmann: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Vienna, 1922)
E.W. Korngold: ‘Some Experiences in Film Music’, Music and Dance in California, ed. J. Rodríguez (Hollywood, 1940), 137–9
R. Behlmer: ‘Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Established Some of the Film Music Basics Film Composers Now Ignore’, Films in Review, no.182 (1967), 86–100
L. Korngold: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Vienna, 1967)
J. Korngold: Die Korngolds in Wien (Zürich, 1991)
S. Blickensdorfer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Opern und Filmmusik (diss., U. of Vienna, 1993)
R. van der Lek, trans. M. Swithinbank: ‘Concert Music as Reused Film Music’, AcM, lxvi (1994), 8–112
B.G. Carroll: The Last Prodigy (Portland, OR, 1997)