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On the Fringe: Erich Korngold

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

In a recent article I wrote about four European composers who had later careers in the United States as composers of film music. In the case of one of them - Erich Korngold - I had the sense right from the start that I was committing an injustice by not spending more time on this remarkable man.


So here is an entire post dedicated to the life and work of Erich Korngold. He's a composer who is most definitely "on the fringe", a sidelining which is most definitely undeserved.


Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born on 29 May, 1897, in Brno, a city then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in the Czech Republic, about 200 km south east of Prague. His father, Julius Korngold, was an eminent music critic, and young Erich grew up in a cultured and artistically vibrant household.


There are a few composers in the history of music who stand out as true child prodigies; Mozart and Mendelssohn are the best-known. But to these must be added the name of Erich Korngold, whose prodigious talents as a composer manifested themselves very early. In 1906 - at the age of 9 - he played his cantata Gold to Gustav Mahler, no less. Mahler pronounced the boy a genius, and other famous musicians made similar claims about the boy.


Vienna 1900: the newly-completed Ringstrasse and Parliament

Sadly, Gold is now lost; it would have been fascinating to hear the work which gave Mahler that impression about Korngold. Mahler said that the young composer needed no formal conservatory training but that he should go directly to Alexander Zemlinsky as a composition student. Zemlinsky, one of the major figures of Viennese music in the first decade of the 20th century [I wrote about him here], encouraged Korngold to develop within the boundaries of tonality and Romanticism, avoiding then-current trends towards atonality. By the time the young genius was 11 he had written some substantial works under Zemlinsky's teaching, but even at this stage Zemlinsky was amazed at what Korngold was producing and confessed to often wondering who was teaching whom.


This music, written in 1908, is part of Korngold's piano suite based on Cervantes' Don Quixote. It was written when the boy was 11. A more substantial piece was written the same year, his first piano sonata. Both Zemlinsky and Mahler had some suggestions to make on the final shape of the work, but both acknowledged Korngold's innate genius in being able to create such a serious and imposing work at such an early age. It also, incidentally, reflects Korngold's superb skills as a pianist at such an early age as well. This is the first movement. [listen]


Erich Korngold (c. 1912)

A second piano sonata was composed the following year [listen] and published as Korngold's opus 2. He also wrote more piano music (the Märchenbilder, which he soon orchestrated) and a piano trio [listen], but a far bigger work brought the young genius to public attention. Aged only 13, the young man's public career was launched spectacularly by the success of his ballet The Snowman, which was performed at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. The work was orchestrated by Zemlinsky but this didn't detract from the success it brought the young composer, who devised the scenario himself and was intimately involved in the work's production. A few years later Korngold revised his teacher's orchestration and the work is glorious testament to the boy's incredible melodic and intellectual gifts. [listen]


The second piano sonata was championed by Artur Schnabel and performed all over Europe. Of this work he said, "This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!" Great musical figures such as Puccini, Sibelius, Walter, Nikisch, Humperdinck, Goldmark and others were similarly stunned.


In 1911 Korngold produced his first published orchestral work, the Schauspiel Overture (or "Overture to a Drama"), Op 14. It seems that he wrote the work directly onto the orchestral score, without so much as a preliminary piano score sketch. Artur Nikisch (the work's dedicatee) conducted the first performance with the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in December 1911. [listen]


A year later Korngold produced an even bigger orchestral work, the Sinfonietta. The title might suggest a small-scale symphony, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Sinfonietta is a major work in four movements lasting three quarters of an hour, scored for large orchestra and written on a full symphonic scale. No less an orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic gave the premiere in November 1913, this time under the baton of Felix Weingartner, to whom the work is dedicated. Yet again we are staggered that a boy in his early teens could produce something as magnificent and as assured as this. [listen]


As the 16 year old Korngold took his bows after the premiere of the Sinfonietta his future as a leading light in Austrian music must have seemed assured. The first violin sonata [listen] was written the same year as the Sinfonietta, but the young genius was thinking on an even bigger scale, planning not one but two operas.


The first world war broke out in the year Korngold completed two one act operas, The Ring of Polycrates and Violanta, but the war seems to have had little impact on the young composer's career trajectory. The two operas were premiered together in Munich on 28 March, 1916, with Bruno Walter conducting. It is apparent right from the outset that Korngold's talents would find their most fulfilling outlet when linked to drama. This is not to say the absolute music - the orchestral works, chamber music, sonatas - were not good or interesting. It's just that here, in the first two of his five operas, we see the seeds of his later fame as a musical dramatist.


The Ring of Polycrates is a domestic drama where the past challenges the present and is dealt with light-heartedly and honestly. [listen]


Between finishing the two one act operas in 1914 and their premiere two years later, Korngold wrote his string sextet opus 10, a luxurious work which is a direct descendant of Brahms's two string sextets. Korngold's sextet became popular right from the start and was often performed alongside Schoenberg's early masterpiece for the same combination of instruments, Verklärte Nacht. [listen]


In the years following the first world war, Korngold reached the peak of his early fame. The orchestral overture Sursum corda appeared in 1919, and the early 20s saw the production of the Songs of Farewell, the piano quintet and first string quartet. But the major sensation of this period was his third opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). The opera is a full-scale work in three acts, and such was Korngold's fame that there was fierce competition among opera houses as to which company would stage the premiere. It was eventually premiered simultaneously in two cities - Hamburg and Cologne - on 4 December 1920. The Cologne performance was conducted by Otto Klemperer, whose wife Johanna sang the leading soprano role of Marietta. Korngold was still only 23 but the work's success was immediate and international. Die tote Stadt deals with grief and loss and resonated strongly with a world which had just passed through the horrors of the first world war.


complete opera [listen]

extract [listen]


Another work from the early 20s, almost totally forgotten today, is Korngold's piano concerto for the left hand, written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the war. This was the same pianist for whom Ravel would write his own left hand concerto nearly a decade later. [listen] (I devoted an earlier post to Wittgenstein and some of the music composed for him.)


Erich Korngold (1925)

In 1924 Korngold began another opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane). By the time it was finished in 1927 Korngold was claiming it would be his masterpiece. Indeed, many scholars today believe it to be not only his greatest opera but also his magnum opus overall. Yet its premiere in Hamburg in October 1927 was a failure, with a subsequent season opening in Berlin the following year (under Bruno Walter) faring no better. After the heady success of Die tote Stadt, many critics and audiences felt that Korngold - now aged 30 - was already old-fashioned and not moving with the times. A recording made in 1992, and recent concert and staged performances of the work, have allowed it to be reassessed, although whether Das Wunder der Heliane will topple Die tote Stadt from the top of the Korngold popularity stakes remains to be seen. [listen]


In addition to his composing, Korngold taught opera and composition at the Vienna State Academy. He was also awarded the title of Professor Honoris Causa by the Austrian President.


Korngold married Luzi von Sonnenthal in 1924. She was an actress, singer and pianist, and the couple eventually had two sons, Ernst and Georg.


Korngold, who was Jewish, continued to work in Vienna in the early 1930s. A piano suite for Paul Wittgenstein and the third piano sonata were written in 1931, and the second string quartet [listen] appeared in 1933. But an unusual job offer came from America in 1934. A former colleague, Max Reinhardt, was now working in Hollywood and he invited Korngold to adapt Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream for Reinhardt's film version of the play.


Over the next four years Korngold rapidly developed into a brilliant and innovative composer of film music, then a very new form of composition. But beyond just writing music to accompany film scenes, Korngold approached film music with the same sort of integrity as he had chamber music, symphonic works or operas; he invented the concept of the "symphonic film score" and showed the power of well-written music as a tool for heightening the dramatic power of film.


Between 1934 and 1938 he wrote some of the most famous film scores ever written, now regarded as absolute classics: Captain Blood [listen], The Prince and the Pauper [listen], Anthony Adverse [listen] and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Anthony Adverse won an Academy Award, although at the time the award was given to the head of the movie company's sound department and not the composer. The music for The Adventures of Robin Hood also won an Academy Award, and this time it was awarded to Korngold personally, the first such award given to the actual composer of a film score.


The Korngold family on board ship (1936)

Korngold didn't spend this whole period in America; he returned to continue his regular work in Vienna as he was able. He composed a violin concerto in 1937, based on some of his film music, but it was put aside and not performed at the time. In 1938, while conducting opera back in Austria, he received the offer to compose the music for The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.


He returned to America to work on the film, and shortly after arriving in Hollywood the Anschluss took place. With the Nazis now in power in Austria, and with the situation confronting Jews increasingly dangerous, Korngold remained in America. He later claimed that the score of Robin Hood saved his life. As for the politics of the situation he said, "We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish". [listen]


Meanwhile, Korngold had written a fifth opera, which would prove to be his last. Die Kathrin was completed in 1937 but the planned 1938 premiere in Vienna was cancelled by the Nazis. The premiere eventually took place in Stockholm in October 1939 under the baton of Fritz Busch, but the reviews were hostile and infused with anti-Semitism. It was given a season of eight performances in Vienna in 1950 but like his previous opera, Die Kathrin also encountered resistance; Korngold's late Romantic idiom was seen to be old fashioned and out of step with contemporary taste. It has not been staged since. [listen]


Korngold made America his home for the rest of his life and, after his Robin Hood music, continued to compose for Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1946 he wrote about a dozen more film scores, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Sea Hawk, Kings Row, and Of Human Bondage. In his biography of Korngold, Brendan G. Carroll writes: "Treating each film as an 'opera without singing'...[Korngold] 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".


This is part of the music from Elizabeth and Essex. [listen]


Korngold during a break in a recording session (May 1939)

Erich Korngold became an American citizen in 1943 but wrote no more film scores after Deception in 1946. He was involved in arranging music by Wagner for a film biography of the composer in 1955. Called Magic Fire, he even made an uncredited appearance in the film as the conductor Hans Richter, directing the premiere of The Ring of the Nibelung. The scene in question is here.


In his later years Korngold returned to writing concert works. In 1945 he took up the violin concerto again which had lain dormant since 1937, revising it before it was premiered - in 1947 - by Jascha Heifetz. The fact that it is based on themes from some of his film scores led to many critics unleashing enormous amounts of snob-laden invective in their reviews; one notoriously said that it contained more corn than gold. But in recent years the Korngold violin concerto has become a standard work in the repertoire, performed by violinists the world over. [listen]


Korngold's last major works were written shortly after the revision of the violin concerto. A cello concerto appeared in 1946 [listen], while Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the premiere of the Symphonic Serenade for strings which was composed in 1947 [listen]. Between 1947 and 1952, Korngold undertook the composition of his only symphony, a worthy and magnificent successor to his early Sinfonietta. It's a big piece, lasting nearly an hour in performance and requiring a large orchestra. It too suffered neglect after its premiere performance on Austrian Radio, but since the 1970s it has been revived and become part of the Korngold renaissance of the past few decades. [listen]


By the time he was in his mid-50s, Korngold believed he'd largely been forgotten by the artistic world. He'd held on to the richness of the late Romantic, tonal idiom even longer than Richard Strauss (who'd died in 1949), and his works failed to arouse much interest. He died in Hollywood on 29 November, 1957, after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 60. Luzi Korngold died in 1962 and her biography of her husband was published in 1967. The two are interred together in Hollywood.


Since the revival of Die tote Stadt in the 1970s, and the increased frequency of performances of the violin concerto, the musical world has started to reassess the work of this extraordinary composer. The piano works, orchestral works, film music, songs and chamber music are nearly all recorded now, and all five operas have been recorded at least once. I hope this leads to more live performances of Korngold's music, because it is first rate and demands our attention. It's also very beautiful, and beauty is something we can all have a little more of in our lives.


I'll finish with part of Korngold's last published work, a delightfully straightforward Theme and Variations composed in 1953 for an American student orchestra. It seems to encapsulate the simple beauty of Korngold's gift for melody, one of his most appealing traits. [listen]


Korngold's last photo (1957)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2013.

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