Korngold’s “die Kathrin”

E W Korngold

One of Korngold’s more puzzling confections is his opera ‘die Kathrin’. If one looks at the timeline of its composition, it comes exactly ten years after his previous opera ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ – and if ‘Heliane’ sounded like ‘Frau ohne Schatten’ gone to Hollywood – BEFORE Hollywood had even come up with its own musical identity, ‘Die Kathrin’ was closer to being an Austrian ‘la Rondine’. Korngold’s occasional template of Richard Strauss and yielded to his favourite composer, Giacomo Puccini with a pinch of Lehár thrown in. ‘Kathrin’ followed a trail of Korngold operetta arrangements and it keeps its light-music character throughout. It could be argued that it was too big to be an ‘operetta’ but from the late 1920s onwards, operettas, if performed more or less uncut, could take on enormous dimensions. The premiere of Kálmán’s ‘The Duchess of Chicago’ (admittedly, from around the time of Korngold’s ‘Heliane’) lasted five hours! What differentiated ‘Die Kathrin’ from operetta was the fact that much of the music was simply too dramatic for the average Kálmán, Lehár, Benatzky, Stolz performer. Korngold also offers very little in the way of jazz- or gypsy-bands or the perfunctory Viennese waltz of most operettas of the day. There is a night club scene with a number called ‘Monsieur Francois’ with a hint of a Korngoldian jazzy element, but he never resorts to direct stylistic quotes.

Following from his operetta arrangements one can well imagine that Korngold had decided to ditch the idea of one or two extractable numbers, as in ‘Die tote Stadt’ and ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’, and offer a work in which nearly every item is instantly memorable, each offering a degree of ‘hit’ potential. It’s difficult trying to second guess what motivated Korngold. His newly acquired enthusiasm for writing music for movies had perhaps convinced him that it was impossible to be too popular. Like Hanns Eisler, he found the idea of music being ‘elite’ against his nature – much to the dismay of his father, the unforgiving newspaper critic Julius. Korngold knew he could please masses of people and in ‘Die Kathrin’ he invested as much of his melodic and harmonic genius as he could muster. The book on which the opera is based could not have been more inappropriately chosen – only underlining how naïve Korngold was in questions of politics. ‘The Maid of Aachen’ by Edward Jakobs told the story of a German girl having an affair (and a son) by a French speaking soldier. As Aachen was occupied by the allies – predominantly the Belgians following the First World War until 1930, it was not a ‘politically-correct’ story to treat as a light opera at a time of rising German nationalism. Luzi Korngold – Erich’s wife – came up with the ‘solution’ of relocating the entire work to Switzerland. Somehow the frisson of occupying French soldier and local German lass was lost and the plot dissolved into a syrupy puddle of knuckle-whitening nonsense.

If the work was deemed ‘inappropriate’ before the war, afterwards, it was seen as fantastically out of step. Vienna’s State Opera’s agreement to mount ‘Die Kathrin’ in 1938 was finally honoured in 1950. The cast was the best imaginable as can be seen in the accompanying photo: Maria Reining, Otto Edelmann and Karl Friedrich (posing together with Korngold). The historic building that housed Vienna’s opera had been mistaken for a train station by American bombers and lay in ruins – it was one of the first buildings to be reconstructed, a process that was still continuing in 1950. Smaller stagings were mounted in the ‘Theater an der Wien’, and larger ones, such as ‘Die Kathrin’ landed in the ‘Volksoper’. If the public – still bruised from the war — found the story and music escapist, wonderful and hugely enjoyable, the press did not. It was attacked from every conceivable side with anonymous death-threats to Reining finally cancelling the otherwise sold-out run.

It’s in many ways a symbolic work. It was composed before the war (indeed mounted to mixed reviews in Stockholm when Vienna dropped the premiere following the Anschluss in March 1938) but only found its true voice in a post-war performance. It thus straddled two periods of Korngold’s life, and indeed, European life. To some, it was an obvious attempt to recapture his success from ‘Die tote Stadt’ and there are in fact some arias that have more than a distant echo of Marietta’s famous ‘Lute Song’. To others, it was an embarrassing misrepresentation of reality – a process of blatant propaganda that the arts had imposed on obtuse audiences since Wagner. It had deluded and misled the Austro-German public into feeling good about itself – something that two lost wars must surely have debunked. And to far too many of Vienna’s music establishment, Korngold was the rat who had left the sinking ship. That he was a Jew and would have been murdered had he stayed was not a subject that appears to have been raised at the time. Local music administrators discuss ‘Austrian composers (like Korngold) who live abroad (‘exile’ is not a word ever used), and have made so much money that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be Austrian.’ Or as Egon Kornauth put it to Joseph Marx in a letter regarding the awarding of Austria’s post-war State-Prize for Composition: ‘Korngold’s rich enough already!’ Korngold, like Erich Zeisl, like Kurt Weill, like Ernst Toch – suffered a massive post-war heart attack. The frailty of his health is clearly apparent on the accompanying photo.

The years following the war brought a degree of stress to those living in America that seemed unimaginable to those who had remained in Germany and Austria. There was scant sympathy for their so-called lives of luxury while in Nazi occupied Europe, they were ducking allied bombs. I’m old enough to recall having discussions with people who lived in Berlin and Vienna during the final year of the war and frequently heard observations such as: ‘Korngold, Toch, Weill – they got out – they were the lucky ones!’ – To mention that they were in fact THROWN out, or face the death-camps was inevitably met with a shoulder shrug. What difference did it make? It was a classic case of everyone being a victim – and the true victims, the ones who had escaped, found work, security and success out of harm’s way, suffered from the murderous additional stress of ‘survivors’ guilt’. ‘Die Kathrin’ – for all of its absurdity (to restore it to its original Aachen-setting simply can’t be that difficult!) stands as a snapshot of this watershed-moment – and it offers some of Korngold’s loveliest music. It’s a pity that it can’t be restored to its original concept and mounted for what it is. It would be marvellous vehicle for any young soprano today.