The False Myths and True Genius of Erich Wolfgang Korngold
1897 was an eventful year for music in Vienna: Johannes Brahms died and Gustav Mahler took over the Imperial Opera; the Eleven-year-old Ernst Toch decided to become a composer and in Brno, or Brünn as the Moravian capital was known, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born. This virtual exhibition is less about the chronology of his life, and more about his position in the lives of Music lovers. It will attempt to shore up areas where he made important contributions, while challenging myths that have begun to take hold. This virtual exhibition on Korngold is partly based on the exhibition held in Vienna’s Jewish Museum called ‘The Korngolds’ and it dealt as much with Erich Wolfgang’s father Julius, as it did with the composer himself.
Korngold performs the Largo from his Sonata no. 2 – composed at the age of 12
It was hardly possible to separate the two: the father was Julius Korngold, and principal critic of Vienna’s prestigious Neue Freie Presse – the New Free Press. He was thus the most influential of music commentators writing in German. He was intellectually sharper than his predecessor, Richard Wagner’s bête noir, Eduard Hanslick, who was immortalized as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. Yet with music’s departure from tonality in the early 20th century, Julius Korngold’s battle lines were also more clearly drawn than the often abstract Hegelian arguments used against Wagner in order to promote Johannes Brahms and his circle.
By the late 1890s, the common view was held that it was impossible to govern the Austro-Hungarian Empire without the support of Die Neue Freie Presse. It was the progressive voice of 19th century Liberalism which was defined by strident anti-clericalism, meaning it opposed power accorded to church leaders, while promoting both a Mancunian liberation of financial and social capital. This meant it supported ever increasing enfranchisement and the equality of all of the diverse communities and cultures within the Empire. The journalists and writers who were associated with the Neue Freie Presse were a nomenclature of the greatest writers of the day and included the widest possible spectrum from Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist Movement, to Winston Churchill. Music, arts, and social commentary was placed on the bottom of the front page in a section known as the Feuilleton. A Feuilleton could carry on for two, three and sometimes four pages.
One may wonder what’s not to like about a popular and influential paper offering such extensive coverage of the arts. Well, the satirist and notorious commentator on the foibles of all politicians, Karl Kraus, despised the Neue Freie Presse as pernicious, venal, preening and too powerful. In Die Fackel – the Torch, his own satirical publication, he poked savagely at its smug self-confidence and exalted pronouncements. And in truth, the idealistic dreams of 19th century Liberalism with its free markets and unfettered capital had long turned sour. Manchester Liberalism had indeed created a large and powerful middle class that had entered politics and could challenge the entitlements of the aristocracy; but it still left the vast majority of the population as members of an oceanic under-class with negligible access to the benefits a prosperous society should provide. The ‘filter-down’ promises remained unfulfilled and both urban and rural labourers lived as little more than indentured workers at the mercy of whatever kindnesses their bosses may (or may not) have been inclined to provide.
What does this background information have to do with Korngold the composer? The answer to this is relatively simple: one of the prime beneficiaries of Austrian Liberalism was the Empire’s Jewish population. It was, in general, an ambitiously aspirational demographic and out of its communities came an abundance of high-achievers in nearly all professions with the exception of the military and the civil service. In just over 60 years, Jews went from total exclusion and isolation to professional dominance in many sectors. The Austrian census of March 22, 1934 informs us that over 50% of all of Vienna’s doctors; 75% of its bankers; 96% of its marketing agencies and 85% of its lawyers were Jewish. They also dominated subsidiary and often unrelated industries, such as electronic sales (80%); textiles (73%); sweet production (70%); spirits (73%); furniture sales and manufacture (85%) and somewhat unexpectedly, furriers (67%). Nearly all of the journalists working on the Neue Freie Presse, as well as Karl Kraus himself had been formerly part of this Austro-Hungarian Jewish demographic.
Many converted to Christianity, most remained traditional but ‘assimilated’ while many others, such as the Korngolds, were inclined to dismiss confessional adherence to the point of neither leaving, nor converting and simply ignoring what they saw as a personal expression of a redundant religious practice. They joined neither church nor synagogue; nor did they go to the bother of officially resigning from the faith-community to which the highly bureaucratic Austrian civil service had registered them. If official records described them as ‘Israelis’ or ‘Mosaic’, there is equally no record of them belonging to any of the city’s 22 synagogues. Religion was ‘personal’ and it was their personal decision to ignore it altogether and not even to accord it the dignity of being abandoned.
Korngold composed his ‘Passover Psalm’ as a commission for the Rabbi to Los Angeles’s Central European community, Jakob Sondering – with his’ Passover Psalm’ composed in 1941, he joined other emigres with Sonderling commissions such as Erich Zeisl, Ernst Toch and Arnold Schoenberg. This is a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Chailly, The Slovak Choir and soloists Urbanová, Beňačková, Bogachov, Novák
19th century Liberalism was therefore the unwitting midwife of both Marxism and virulent anti-Semitism, with the two standing in an often complex and highly inter-connected relationship. Many prominent Marxists were Jews, as indeed, Marx himself. But much of the newly created ‘Money-Aristocracy’, proprietors of banks and industry, were also freshly emancipated Jews. With Darwinism thrown into the mix, Judaism ceased to be a religious confession and became a ‘race’ that needed to be placed within the evolutionary process. This led to the murderous belief in ‘survival of the fittest’, an idea extrapolated from Darwin by Herbert Spencer, which in turn was understood to mean a dominant race must be the master race over so-called ‘inferior’ races. Thus the aspirations of Jews to do well and succeed became a ‘racial’ attribute, and where ‘races’ stood on the evolutionary trajectory depended on who was conducting the ‘research’. Nothing was empirical, everything was anecdotal and naturally, none of it had anything to do with Darwin. It was the bigoted extrapolations of high-profile ‘amateur’ thinkers such as Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Richard Wagner and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, mixed with heavy dollops of pseudo- and misunderstood science. And it was this world into which Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born.
The Orel Foundation offers a very comprehensive biography of Erich Korngold that allows this page to be more excursive in its treatment. I hope to contextualise the life and music of Korngold, so that a firmer understanding can be reached of what he contributed and why so many 20th century music commentators disregarded him. His creative genius, and the professional decisions he took throughout his life were in response to a combination of psychological abuse from his immediate family, the societies in which he lived and the politics of the day.
There are two very different and very subjective memoirs written by the two individuals who were closest to Erich Wolfgang Korngold during his lifetime. The longer of the two memoirs is by his father Julius, the shorter, but by no means less substantial, by his wife Luise, known as Luzi. They present two pictures of the composer that differ in detail, but agree on certain fundamentals. The credence that can be accorded to them depends on how the conflicting agendas of the two chronicles can be understood. Julius despised his daughter-in-law Luzi, while Luzi expresses a carefully worded distance from Julius. If Julius was jealous of Luzi’s affections, Luzi never expresses less than cautious respect for the father. The truth lies in the personal correspondence between all parties, reflecting a deeply disturbed relationship between father and son during a deeply disturbing chapter of history. In the interest of the narrative, we’ll refer to the father as Julius and despite the view that his son’s proper name was ‘Erich Wolfgang’, his wife refers to him throughout as ‘Erich’, which I shall do for the remainder of this story when differentiating him from Julius.
Erich was Born in Brünn, (now Brno), on May 29th 1897, the second son of Julius Korngold and Josefine née Witrowsky. Already this fact is loaded with complex familial issues. The older brother of Erich was named Hans Robert, with the middle names of both boys intended as homage to two of Julius’s favourite composers: Robert Schumann and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. With the birth of Erich, Hans Robert simply ceased to retain any significance, and the degree to which he is written out of the family’s story is shocking. It raises the question of whether the family’s dysfunction was the root of Erich’s genius, or Erich’s genius the cause of the family’s dysfunction. In all likelihood, it was a mixture of the two. Guy Wagner’s excellent biography of Erich, Musik ist Musik (Matthes & Seitz, 2008), delves deep into the Korngold family tree and offers important and potentially revealing background.
The spirit-trading fathers of both Julius Korngold and Gustav Mahler came from the Czech province of Moravia. Both were Jewish and both belonged to the lower-middle class, though in Jewish society, they belonged to a financially secure sector that allowed their children to fulfil their social and professional aspirations. Being a seller of Schnapps was obviously not the same as being a doctor or a lawyer, but it wasn’t the same as being a cobbler, tinker, or livestock trader. There was sufficient money in the extended families, or their contacts, to pay for university or conservatory education.
In the UK, the most elite schools take ‘scholarship pupils’, bright children from families without the means to pay tuition fees. These children are housed apart, meaning the children from wealthy or aristocratic families can treat ‘scholarship pupils’ as objects of ridicule. It’s dangerous to make generalisations, but one imagines that a similar process took place with the first generation of gifted Jews allowed into the Empire’s elite institutions. No doubt most would consolidate their intellectual gifts and go forward in their chosen fields, while others spent a lifetime wondering if they truly had any entitlement to their social and professional success. There are only vague hints of such insecurities in Mahler’s biography. Julius Korngold, on the other hand, born in the same year, under almost identical circumstances as Mahler, mirrors near textbook degrees of social insecurity, demonstrated by obsessive and destructive over-compensation.
His training and brilliance as a lawyer at Vienna’s University along with his training and brilliance as a musician, (studying with Anton Bruckner), provided him with a voice of thundering authority. With the arrival of a musical genius in the family, Julius’s object of love became neurotically self-obsessed and exclusive. His elder son for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. He was at best a bright boy, but no match for his younger brother and therefore not worthy of notice.
Even if Hans Robert made it into one of the liberal professions, he would never provide the Korngolds with the stamp of entitlement promised by Erich’s brilliance. Guy Wagner has gone through the correspondence of Hans Robert, and I too have read many of the letters addressed to Erich and held at the Library of Congress or at Vienna’s National Library. He was bright, articulate and scrupulous in his grammar, writing with startling insight and perception. That such a young man was simply thrown onto the family trash heap so that more room could accommodate Erich, shows the complexity of Erich’s domestic life.
Indeed, there were other notable Korngolds, such as Julius Korngold’s younger half-brother, a successful actor who appeared under the name of Eduard Kornau (1863-1939).
The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema or is it l’art pour l’art – a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely ‘disposable’? Julius Korngold entered the scene just as the tensions between the German ‘New School’ of Liszt and Wagner and the ‘Old School’ of Mendelssohn and Brahms were settling down into peaceful co-existence. As a result, music for this generation became a synthesis of the two ideals: it represented the purity of beauty for its own sake (Old School) while embracing the redemptive metaphysics of the New School. To Julius’s generation in Habsburg Vienna, music was the most important cultural aspect of existence and not to be toyed with. Paradoxically, one finds an identical viewpoint expressed by Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. The lines had been drawn.
The greatest question mark in Erich’s biography is the manner in which he started to compose. This appears to remain inexplicable and unique in the study of precociously gifted children. Mozart and Mendelssohn were able to inject their youthful brilliance into the ambient music of the day. Korngold appears to have inhabited his own harmonic environment from his earliest years. According to Julius, his first works did not display the influence of the music he would have been exposed to at home. Yet Julius tells us that as a critic, he thumped out on the piano works he was meant to review for the paper. And according to Julius, the most ‘progressive’ of these that young Erich might have heard would have been by Eugen D’Albert. In a pre-gramophone and pre-broadcast age, it’s very difficult to know what could have generated the musical ideas in the youngster’s brain.
His father was a great admirer of Mahler and it seems unlikely that Julius did not frequently play through the scores publishers would have provided. Nor was it out of the question for Julius to have played through Elektra or Salome. Indeed, years later, Luzi tells us that Erich had heard the music of Richard Strauss since ‘suckling at his mother’s breast’ and was able to play Elektra from beginning to end on the piano from memory. There must also have been performances of Zemlinsky’s Es War Einmal, and any number of Wagner operas. The expanded harmonies, wild structures and crashing dissonances would therefore have been familiar to young Erich. The question of what Korngold’s infant ear latched on to is perhaps more easily addressed than Julius, and posterity would have us believe. Julius, as Vienna’s leading music journalist was too good a musician and too conscientious a critic not to have played through all the scores publishers sent, while Julius being Julius most likely dismissed the lot. It wouldn’t have stopped his precocious son keeping a very open ear. Julius exposed Erich to far more music than he realised or was prepared to admit. He was too self-absorbed to understand that his personal preference for one composer over another would have no influence on what Erich was taking on board.
The myth was launched when Julius had several works published privately and sent to notable conductors and composers throughout Germany, Austria and Hungary but not resident in Vienna. In his memoirs, he claims that he sent them without identifying the composer and offering no information beyond the fact that he was a young boy. We now know this claim is untrue as the name of the composer is clearly printed on the scores and the correspondence refers to Julius’s son. Inevitably their reaction was one of dismay. How could a youngster compose works in a harmonic language that he ordinarily could not have heard? Uniquely, Erich as Julius’s son, was familiar with everything that was happening in contemporary music. How calculating Julius was in sending out his private publications can never be known, but the inevitable happened and it was leaked to the press via an article in Budapest’s Pester Lloyd and eventually led to Felix Weingartner organising Erich’s first public Performance, which took place as the Emperor’s Name-Day Gala at the Imperial Opera, though Guy Wagner informs us that Franz Joseph did not show up until the second half of the programme, thus missing Erich’s pantomime Der Schneemann.
Prelude and Serenade from Korngold‘s ‘Schneemann’ Max Schonherr conducts Austria’s Radio Orchestra
That Mahler was impressed when he heard the boy’s cantata Gold in 1906 is also well documented by Julius, Luzi and indeed Alma Mahler. Mahler, however, would have been more aware than most of the musical influences circulating in the Korngold household.
He made the sensible observation that Erich was indeed uniquely gifted, but needed to work with Zemlinsky rather than the dry-as-bones theoretician Robert Fuchs at Vienna’s Conservatory, who was Mahler’s own teacher. This recommendation by Mahler must have come as something of a shock to Julius who had never passed on an opportunity to trash Zemlinsky whenever offered the chance. He was not only the brother-in-law of Schoenberg, the maddest of all Viennese composers in Julius’s view, but he was too inclined, according to Julius, to sacrifice ‘old-fashioned melody’ on the diffusive French altar of Impressionism.
Korngold performs his ‘Epilogue’ from Märchenbilder – Fairytale Pictures
Both Erich and Zemlinsky would later write about the years 1907 to 1911. It was a period when Erich would compose a good deal of piano music, including two sonatas, two suites with one based on fairy tales and the other on Don Quixote along with a fourhanded arrangement of his pantomime Der Schneemann and his ambitious Op. 1 Piano Trio. Their separate accounts of working together are fascinating, as both men attempt to address the myths that had started to distort Korngold and the reception of his music. Zemlinsky writes that Erich admired Puccini to a point of near obsession while Korngold gives us a sober narrative of Zemlinsky directing his musical gifts along a non-disciplinarian route, and improving his piano technique.
The true phenomenon of the young Erich Korngold, often lost in the breathless dazzle of youthful precociousness, was his ability to develop a unique musical language despite the attempts of Julius ‘protecting’ him against the encroaching evils of modernism. It was this blindness on the part of Julius that was the cause of his ‘disturbed concern’ at the harmonic advancement of Erich’s earliest compositions. When colleagues outside Vienna expressed similar surprise, Julius simply accepted that the genius of Erich transcended all previous prodigies, while at the same time secretly acknowledging his own unwitting role in the shaping of his son’s Musical biotope.
This brings us to the other myth surrounding the complexities of the relationship between Julius and Erich. The idea that Julius used his position and influence to advance Erich’s career is far off the mark. There are indeed documented cases of Julius politicking behind the scenes, and musicians who for one reason or another did not promote Erich, being savaged by Julius in the press. But was it coincidence as Julius always protested? Some of the lawsuits were dismissed while others were settled out of court. The truth, however, is that Julius’s musical agenda was far more political than merely promoting his son. If the boy Erich was ‘obsessed’ by Puccini, Julius was ‘obsessed’ by Mahler, and Mahler was by far the most divisive figure in Vienna.
Entire battalions of journalists ranged against him, with Julius heading up the equally strong coterie of journalistic supporters. Again, the true genius of Erich was ignored or lost in the scuffle. To Julius, nobody could possibly come after Mahler following his departure in 1907. He lost no opportunity to denigrate his successor at the opera, Felix Weingartner. The fact that Weingartner was one of the first important musicians to take up the music of Erich was of no consequence to Julius. Indeed, he saw it as a plot by Weingartner to curry favour and attacked him with added determination. The fourteen-year-old Erich, watching events unfold at home and in public, in the teeth of his father’s opposition, dedicated his Sinfonietta to Weingartner, who premiered the work in Vienna on November 30th, 1913.
Julius’s blind devotion to Mahler was a disruptive influence in the life and development of Erich. Obviously only the very finest musicians could possibly be considered to fill positions previously occupied by Mahler. The calamity of his departure from Vienna in 1907 was bad enough, but with Mahler’s death in 1911, it transformed Julius into a merciless avenging angel. The tragedy for Erich was that musicians who came after Mahler were the same who took up his music, only to find themselves attacked in the press by Julius. Weingartner was the first, but Richard Strauss suffered an identical fate. Both were hounded from Vienna’s opera following relentless attacks by Julius. It was all Erich could do to remain loyal to his father while expressing appreciation for the support he was receiving from some of the greatest musicians of the age.
The only conductor Julius was prepared to countenance was Bruno Walter, a Mahler protégé and a neighbour in their Theobaldgasse apartment block. Walter would perform Korngold’s Op.1 Piano Trio and remained a devoted, though not always uncritical supporter. In later years, he distanced himself from his Berlin run of Erich’s opera Das Wunder der Heliane, and later in America, he claimed he was too old and frail to take on Erich’s Symphony in F-Sharp, joining a raft of other musicians and conductors who distanced themselves from any association they previously enjoyed with Korngold.
The years 1910 to 1913 saw Erich composing some of his most progressive and inventive music. Arthur Nikisch performed his Op. 4 Schauspiel Ouvertüre in Berlin; Weingartner conducted his Sinfonietta in Vienna; Artur Schnabel performed his massive second Piano Sonata in Berlin and was joined later by Carl Flesch for Korngold’s Violin Sonata Op.6. Yet in many ways, the most telling of performances was the Viennese premiere of Erich’s Op. 1 Piano Trio with Arnold Rosé, Friedrich Buxbaum and Bruno Walter on the piano. Rosé was Mahler’s brother-in-law, (and leader of the Vienna Philharmonic), Walter was Mahler’s protégé and the performance took place as a subscription event under the auspices of Der Merker, a journal edited by Mahler devotee Richard Specht. The attacks directed at the performance had less to do with the qualities of the work, (it had already been performed and well received in Munich and New York) and more to do with the perception of Mahler groupies gathering to plot against his recently enforced removal from the opera. It was to become a frequent event in Erich’s youth: his qualities as composer or conductor would be judged in light of the individual writer’s relationship to Julius. This was almost always negative. Julius was not a team player and post-Mahler, avoided all contact with fellow journalists. He would suffer for it, and crucially, so would Erich.
Close family friend Bruno Walter, went on in 1916 to conduct the premiere in Munich of Erich’s two one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, followed by repeat performances in Vienna shortly afterwards with the singers Selma Kurz, Alfred Piccaver and Maria Jeritza. It was the best the house could offer and indicates the degree of support and interest in the young composer, though Julius of course was convinced that preferential treatment of his son was only a ruse in order to win over the powerful father. Even if the success could not be denied, Julius’s paranoia and deep suspicions would continue to poison Erich’s support by important artists. Indeed, in Julius’s fevered imagination, he saw Erich’s genius as a useful means of thwarting calculating attempts by his enemies to destroy his position within Vienna’s music and journalist establishment.
Overture to ‘Violanta’ conducted by Jascha Horenstein
Attempts to have Erich exempted from military duty came to nothing, despite string pulling from the father. Only the later manipulation of a recruitment doctor saved him from the Front. No mention is made of any interest or attempts to keep Hans Robert safe. Erich ended up composing, conducting and arranging music for his regiment and was kept out of harm’s way, allowing him to compose his sextet, his music to the Burgtheater’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Above all, he began work on his opera Die tote Stadt.
The teenage Erich had already noticed the lovely Luzi Sonnenthal, and though Julius writes that Erich had been so protected that he did not leave the house by himself until he was nineteen, it’s quite clear from Luzi’s memoirs that this is pure fabrication by Julius. At this point, two different pictures of Erich start to emerge. We have the dutiful and ever-faithful son Erich, always careful to obey the wisdom of his father, and we have the infatuated Erich who connives to spend as much time out of the house as possible.
Korngold’s private recording from Los Angeles of himself and the violinist Toscha Seidel performing the Intermezzo from ‘Much Ado about Nothing’
If Julius’s generation continued to feel the restrictions of Viennese society, Erich’s was far more liberated and carefree, circulating in wealthy, talented Jewish circles that created a parallel social universe to haut bourgeois non-Jewish Vienna. The writer Hilde Spiel reveals a Jewish apartheid that dominated wealthy Viennese society. Even converted Jews remained excluded from non-Jewish, circles of debutantes and university fraternities.
Families such as the Gallias, the Wittgensteins and others who had been practicing Christians for several generations generally ended up marrying converted or non-converted Jews. In her memoirs, Spiel, whose family converted, and who later married Peter de Mendelssohn, describes similar social scenes as Luzi Sonnenthal.
Evenings at the spacious Duschnitz Villa demonstrated total indifference to any perception of social exclusion. Indeed, they were quite convinced that their circle of friends was wittier, brighter and more capable than any presumed social superiors. They showed no desire or inclination to spend evenings with debutantes or drinking with fraternity students. Cross-fertilisation was rare and the city was still raising eyebrows at the marriage of Alma Schindler and Gustav Mahler. Alma, the daughter of artist Emil Schindler, was an example of an independent spirited, talented woman who moved easily in Jewish circles. She felt more at home in the salon of socialite Berta Zuckerkandl, where she and Mahler met, than in the stuffy homes of Vienna’s non-Jewish bourgeoisie.
But apartheid worked in both directions, and Julius, despite his utter disdain of religion, vents his fury at Richard Strauss for suggesting he was only interested in promoting ‘fellow Israelites’, as Jews were euphemistically called. It was certainly true that Mahler, Schnabel, Selma Kurz, Richard Tauber and Bruno Walter suffered only the rarest and mildest of occasional journalistic rebukes from Julius though he would have defended himself by mentioning the many non-Jewish musicians he appreciated or the high-profile Jewish musicians he clearly loathed. These would have included Arnold Schoenberg, Egon Wellesz, Franz Schreker or the pianist Moritz Rosenthal, who thanks to reviews by Julius, brought charges of defamation against Die Neue Freie Presse. It didn’t matter. To Weingartner, Strauss and their various supporters, it appeared that Julius had an agenda ‘based on race’. Anti-Semitism was too ingrained in Catholic bourgeois Vienna to welcome without qualification the Jewish talent making positive contributions in every sector of local life.
Luzi, Erich’s wife, was born into thespian aristocracy. Her grandfather was Adolf von Sonnenthal, Vienna’s most popular classical actor, dandy, salon-tiger and social trend-setter. He was also one of the first Jews to be ennobled by the Emperor Franz Joseph following the emancipation constitution of December 1867.
Luzi’s sister Helene was a member of Max Reinhardt’s ensemble, and Luzi herself had acted in one or two films that in today’s jargon would probably be called ‘X-rated’, though she never went as far as fellow Jewish Viennese actress Hedy Kiessler, soon to be re-named Hedy Lamarr, in the film Ecstasy, offering full frontal nudity. Like Lamarr’s future husband, Friedrich Mandl, the Korngolds did what they could to suppress the film The Venetian Courtesan, also called Venetian Love Revenge. By today’s standards, the film is harmless, but at the time it caused Julius such concern that he goes out of his way not to mention it in his memoirs. Revealingly, neither does Luzi. Julius does concede that Luzi was a very gifted pianist. Tapes in the private recording archive of Erich Korngold, still held by his grandson, reveal Chopin playing of a remarkably high order with fluid, clearly articulated technique, rhythmic discipline and rapid, even passage playing. Later, she would rehearse singers in many of Erich’s works, often playing from memory. Like Alma Mahler, she was the thwarted, talented professional who gave up all to support a composing husband. Unlike Alma, she seemed less resentful, and Erich was inclined to accept her support whenever necessary.
Liebesbriefchen – billet-doux, from ‘Einfache Lieder’ op. 9: Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, Bruckner Orchester Linz, cond. Caspar Richter
The same could not be said of Julius who resented Luzi’s presence from the first moment. He remarks darkly that it was she who brought Erich to cinema, as if anyone of Erich’s generation could have avoided it. Her beauty and talent were so natural and unselfconscious that it seemed simultaneously to draw out the best in Erich and the worst in Julius. It seems incredible that Erich’s parents would be against the match and it’s difficult to imagine whom they might have thought more suitable. But Luzi’s memoirs also inform us that there were also doubts on her side of the family, and it was agreed that there would be a year’s separation before making further commitments. It seems bizarre today that such strict etiquette was demanded in personal relationships, while nobody seemed to object to Luzi’s appearance in what, in its day, passed for a fairly racy film.
Die tote Stadt would be the work that ‘made’ Erich Korngold. Erich and Julius cobbled a libretto together working under the name of Paul Schott – a combination of the name of the principal male lead and Erich’s publishers. The pseudonym was in order to counter claims that Julius was the actual composer of Erich’s first works. It was based on the popular novel Bruges-la-Morte, by Georges Rodenbach. Presumably Julius welcomed the thought of double royalties being due. Early negotiations with Schott und Söhne in Mainz reveal Julius to have driven the hardest of bargains. The demands he made were utterly unrealistic but Schott was at the point of a generational hand-over and the younger brothers, Ludwig and Willy Strecker, wanted to make a mark. With Korngold, they saw an opportunity, and closed their eyes to the expense. It was a wise, if initially reckless decision. Within only a few years, Die tote Stadt would dominate opera stages as no other new work since Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang or Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. Following its double premiere on December 4, 1920 in Hamburg conducted by Egon Pollack, and in Cologne conducted by Otto Klemperer, it went on to become the star vehicle for Maria Jeritza at Vienna’s State Opera, eventually crossing the Atlantic to become the first new German opera to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan since the outbreak of the First World War.
Maria Jeritza sings a very individual rendition of Glück, das mir verblieb also known as Marietta’s Lute Song from Die tote Stadt
If the influence of Puccini is immediately apparent, it has to be recognised that Die tote Stadt is Puccini seen through a lens of fin de siècle Vienna. It seems equally impossible to imagine the work without the shimmering harmonic curtains produced by Schreker, Zemlinsky, Strauss and indeed, Schoenberg. These would all have been influences that Julius would have dismissed, and with the exception of Zemlinsky and Strauss, he regularly tore into the others whenever the occasion permitted. Indeed, had Zemlinsky not been so central to his son’s development, he would have attempted the destruction of Zemlinsky with the same zeal he wielded against Schreker. There can be no doubt that in Schreker, he saw genuine danger, despite being a full generation older than Erich. Yet Schreker’s sound world in such operas as Der Ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgräber would offer the aural pallet that would influence at least to some degree, Korngold’s own ‘sound’. Julius dismissed Schreker’s unique harmonic effects as mere ‘chord-bending’ and raged against perceived French influences, which at the same time, provided the ‘sheen’ so idiomatic of Vienna’s fin de siècle sound world. If Puccini inspired the flowering of Korngold’s melodic inventiveness, the others provided its harmonic bedding.
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland, Groot Omroekoor; Salemkour; Schwanewilms, John Horton Murray, etc. perform an extract of the second act of Schreker’s opera from 1912, ‘Der ferne Klang’ with its kaleidoscopic mix of perspectives and rhythms
Luzi and Erich married in April 1924. Julius’s plans had blown up in his face. His constant domination of Erich and determination to keep the two lovers apart only focused Erich’s mind on financial and emotional independence. His father had poisoned a number of important wells, including conducting opportunities at the State Opera. Richard Straus, then director of the Opera, was a loyal supporter of Erich’s and welcomed his input when he engaged Erich to join the conducting staff, but even he had to submit to the inevitable pressure from Julius and release him from his contract. If there was any hope of an independent life along with the freedom to marry Luzi, he needed to exit Julius’s world of serious music. In the early 1920s, this meant entering the world of popular operetta; once he was financially on his own feet, he could always return to the music of the opera house and concert hall.
In 1923, Hubert Marischka was not only the leading pre-Richard Tauber tenor, he was also the head of Vienna’s prestigious Theater-an-der-Wien. An offer from Marischka to Korngold to update several less successful Strauss operettas such as A Night in Venice and Cagliostro in Vienna led to expectations of a long-term contract that would guarantee the independence necessary to free himself from Julius.
Potpourri of numbers from ‘A Night in Venice’ (‘eine Nacht in Venedig’)
Erich’s success was greater than expected. Richard Tauber’s involvement and ensuing popularity resulted in a string of hits, and by 1931 Korngold had cobbled together a selection of Strauss works to form a pastiche operetta specifically for Tauber, called Das Lied der Liebe. Added to the Strauss adaptations were one forgotten and one unfinished operetta by Leo Fall, and yet another pastiche of Strauss works called Walzer aus Wien, becoming an international hit and known as The Great Waltz. Erich had more than fulfilled his ambitions to free himself from the tyranny of Julius.
Frag mich oft – from Walzer aus Wien – or The Great Waltz sung by Julius Patzak
Die eine Frau – from ‚Das Lied der Liebe‘ a Tauber/Strauss extravaganza arranged by Korngld sung by Richard Tauber
An association with Max Reinhardt in 1929 resulted in new versions of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Offenbach’s La belle Hélène. By this time, Korngold was an extremely wealthy man and in the eyes of the world, an expert in the ‘Golden Age’ of operetta. Incredibly, while churning out one operetta arrangement after another, he still managed to finish two song cycles (Op. 18 and Op. 22) a couple of piano compositions, a chamber music commission for Paul Wittgenstein and his mammoth opera Das Wunder der Heliane.
That Erich had turned to operetta arrangements in order to marry Luzi only increased the gulf between Julius and his daughter-in-law. By this time Erich could do what he pleased and with the birth of two boys named Ernst and Georg known as Schurli, he purchased a villa in one of Vienna’s leafiest suburbs and a large, yet rustic estate complete with a roomy hunting lodge called Höselberg Schlößerl, (Little Höselberg Palace) in the Alps. Julius and Josefine still demanded their grandparental rights and would continue as an integral part of the household – even while being kept at arms’ length.
Erich had throughout the 1920s continued to compose ‘serious’ music and was accepted as a fellow new music composer by avant-garde colleagues within the International Society for Contemporary Music. Indeed, they featured his Op. 16 quartet in their Venice Festival of 1925. His 1923 left-hand concerto for Paul Wittgenstein was considered ‘progressive’, though not atonal. Schoenberg had only just started to teach his twelve-tone technique, so open forms with untethered tonal centres and unresolved dissonance were both Korngoldian and ‘modernist’.
The Chilingirian Quartet play the opening movement of Korngold’s op. 16 String Quartet
Where Korngold was not headed, was the ‘New-Objectivity’ direction of Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Ernst Krenek, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch and others. Nor was his music loaded with political or social messages, and though he was undoubtedly delighted if people were moved to perform his works, he did not feel compelled to write community projects or didactic stage works that demanded the input of amateurs. It was perfectly laudable if people from Berlin’s working-class districts marched about singing in unison about ‘building a city’ (as per Hindemith), or ‘taking political measures’ (as per Eisler), but this was not his world.
Tu ab mein Schmerz – Ease up, my Pain – from the songs Op. 18 offers an interesting presentation of Korngoldian dissonance and voluptuousness compressed into under two minutes
Music was something to entertain and stimulate. It was not a teaching device, or worse, a means of conveying disruptive propaganda. As his opera Die Tote Stadt demonstrated, the annihilation of the First World War demanded escape, not a sobering confrontation with reality or ‘political instruction’. In fact, Die tote stadt, was the last time he would take on the Zeitgeist and come away victorious.
Viennese tenor Karl Friedrich (1905-1981) sings the final scene of ‘Die tote Stadt’ with its lengthy recap of Marietta’s Lute song
Korngold was fully aware that the new world emerging from the defeat of war demanded an edgier sound and consequentially, his output became more angular with works such as his piano concerto, piano quintet and Sursum Corda. Such works, however, often left his devoted followers bewildered. They expected something else. Sursum Corda, composed immediately after the war, would remain his problem child and an unloved work by the public; if the audience was not happy, Korngold was not happy though it remained a work he felt the public would eventually come to appreciate.
What set Korngold apart from his contemporaries was his ability to compose serious music that was popular, while popularising the light music of other composers. Where Korngold differed from his contemporaries was his lack of interest in developing a synthesis between popular and serious music. In addition, serious music itself had polarised: on one side was a largely incomprehensible avant-garde of atonal or twelve-tone works, while on the other, there were composers who felt serious music needed ‘to dumb down’ in order to educate, instruct and communicate. This aim to synthesise serious with popular music was most convincingly pulled off by various French composers and George Gershwin who successfully fused elements of jazz into concert works. When the young Franz Schreker pupil Ernst Krenek attempted the same with a full-length opera called Jonny spielt auf!, (loosely translating as Jonny Strikes up the Band!) it became a global sensation and the phenomenon of the ‘contemporary opera’ or ‘Zeitoper’ was born.
In fact, operas such as La Traviata, Der ferne Klang or indeed Die tote Stadt could have been set in the time and place in which they were composed, and thus be considered ‘contemporary’. In contrast, Zeitoperas (or in German, Zeitopern) elicited enthusiastic reactions from audiences as their settings seemed even more ‘real’ and contemporary. There was no pretence of achieving timelessness, and they reacted against the historic or mythical storylines hitherto favoured by established composers. Where Ernst Krenek’s Jonny differed from other ‘contemporary’ operas, was its inclusion of modern sounds, such as klaxons, sirens, flappers and radios, along with its unapologetic inclusion of jazz elements. Jonny was followed by numerous imitators making the phenomenon of the ‘Zeitoper’ like a tsunami, sweeping away virtually all conventional operas composed between 1927 and 1931. The novelty was short-lived and by the early 1930s had nearly disappeared entirely.
There were to be two operatic ‘Helens’ that would fall victim to the Zeitoper, and Korngold was in good company: His massive The Miracle of Heliane, or Das Wunder der Heliane, (nearly an hour longer than Die tote Stadt), would share a similar fate to Richard Strauss’s Egyptian Helen, or Ägyptische Helena. Both operas would be well-received but soon fall into oblivion, even becoming objects of ridicule. Strangely, of the two works premiered just over a year apart, Strauss was more accurate in assessing changing tastes than his younger colleague. His Helena, though mythical, was projected as a more modern and accessible personality, whereas Korngold’s Heliane, remained mythical and otherworldly. Paradoxically, both operas were written with Maria Jeritza in mind, though for various reasons, she premiered neither.
Unlike Strauss, Korngold had other issues that were not in his favour. The first of these was undoubtedly his father Julius who loathed Zeitoper with unmatched journalistic aggression. He hated jazz and above all, he hated the message of Krenek’s Jonny, in which an African-American jazz musician steals the violin of a European classical concert artist, and in the end, comes away victorious. It was a clear message that the New World offered a culture so appealing to younger generations, that all the ideals of the Old World would simply be flushed down the toilet, without thought or regret. In fact, this was the message of all subsequent Zeitoperas, but Krenek’s peeved particularly because it was the first, and because of its unexpected success. Following its Leipzig premiere, it enjoyed more performances than all newly premiered operas put together. In its first year, it nearly clocked up as many performances as all of the combined operas by Puccini and more than the combined operas of Richard Strauss. The effect was a galvanising jolt to the serious music business, and publishing houses fell over themselves to commission follow-up sensations.
With Erich’s Heliane’s run of performances in Vienna dovetailing with Krenek’s Jonny, the contrast could not have been starker. Everyone jumped onto the bandwagon: cigarettes called Jonny and Heliane were launched, with Helianes being perfumed and gold-tipped and Jonny (still sold today in Austria), filterless, rough and ready. Julius also found himself making common-cause with Austria’s growing proto-Nazi movement, which hated Jonny because of the appealing portrayal of its African-American anti-hero. Their ‘hatred’ of jazz was based on racial, rather than musical reasons and in their somewhat warped thinking, saw a Jewish cabal behind its run at Vienna’s prestigious State Opera. It was an irony of history that Krenek was not remotely Jewish while Korngold was.
Intoxicating moment from Das Wunder der Heliane
Du Lumpenkerl (You rat!) from Krenek’s ‘Jonny spielt auf!‘ with its jazz elements and Swanee whistle
Like Ägyptische Helene, the premiere of Korngold’s Heliane was deemed a success and there were respectable runs in many respectable opera houses. Nothing, however, could disguise the seeming irrelevance of the work. With its run in clangourous, banging and booming Berlin, even Bruno Walter and the cast were distancing themselves.
The Nazi threat was still five or six years down the road, so the premonitions of a ‘dark kingdom without joy’ were simply too remote to be understood. Korngold’s Hamburg Heliane was Maria Hussa who would go on to sing the role of Anita in Krenek’s Jonny. Wikipedia states that critics and public considered Heliane ‘a flop’ following its Hamburg premiere. This is quite wrong: it went on to enjoy eighteen further performances in Hamburg alone, more than a respectable number for a new work and a match for subsequent performances following a Richard Strauss premiere in the 1920s. It even enjoyed full Viennese and Berlin runs, though the press had by now concluded that the work, though popular with the public, was pointless, emotionally juvenile and hopelessly out of touch with the real world. A more practical issue was the fact that the tenors engaged to sing the role of ‘The Stranger’ were demanding cuts and even cancelling subsequent performances. The music was undeniably intoxicating, but what use was that if the singer had not been born who could actually pull it off?
There were two further chronological paradoxes concerning Korngold’s Heliane: one was the day before its Hamburg premiere, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer opened the way for sound and cinema. At the time, nobody could have guessed the musical implications of such a development. The other, was Maria Jeritza having to decline the role of Heliane for its Vienna run as she was singing Korngold’s Violanta at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The stand-in was Lotte Lehmann who would go on to make the central aria very much her own and for decades, provide the opera with a tenuous life-line.
Ich ging zu ihm – I Went to Him – the central aria of Heliane as sung by Lotte Lehmann
Heliane thus became another watershed in Korngold’s careers. It proved that Julius’s instincts were wrong and that the public was heading in a totally different direction. It focused Erich’s energies all the more as arranger of popular operettas and at least for the time being, kept him largely clear of serious composition. Between the premiere of Heliane and the rise of Adolf Hitler, whose government would ban his music in Germany, Korngold composed a string quartet, a piano sonata, a chamber work for Paul Wittgenstein, and something called Baby-Serenade, which (depending on whose account one believes), was either written following the birth of first-born Ernst, (as reported by Luzi in her memoirs), or as Georg informed Korngold’s biographer Brendan Carroll, following his own birth. This incident hints that the Korngold familial dysfunction carried into the following generation, with attention and concern lavished on the younger, musically talented but sickly Schurli, while Ernst was largely left to forge his own way.
Yo-Yo Ma, Jaime Laredo, Leon Fleisher & Joseph Silverstein perform the IV mov. from Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand, Op. 23: Lied. Schlicht und innig. Nicht zu langsam
From the rise of Hitler until Korngold’s final departure to America, only his next opera, Die Kathrin would occupy him. It too was a miscalculation, arriving long after public interest in such things had peaked. His synthesis of serious opera and operetta with an accompanying dollop of jazz was seriously passé by the time he completed it in 1937 and rapidly falling out of fashion in 1932, when he first came up with the idea. In addition, political realities made such escapism seem wilfully blind. It underlined another Korngold frailty: though he was always capable of writing appealing music that everyone could love, in the expensive business of composing operas, he was hopeless at reading the pulse of the age.
He struck gold as a fin de siècle teenager with Polykrates, Violanta and Die tote Stadt. His subsequent two operas, however, were miscalculations that were built on models that had captured the public imagination nearly a decade earlier. Heliane was clearly Korngold’s reaction to Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten from 1919, while Die Kathrin lay somewhere between Jaromír Weinberger’s 1927 hit Schwanda the Bagpiper, and the flood of Zeitoperas that followed Jonny spielt auf! By the time of Kathrin’s premiere in Stockholm in 1939, it too was ten years out of date.
Korngold performs his ‘The Letter Scene’ from his opera ‘Die Kathrin’
Korngold’s musical genius was always long term and the beauty of the music from Die Kathrin remains timeless, but with the outbreak of history’s bloodiest war, it was not just naïve, it reflected the same irresponsible blindness to world events that nearly stranded his eldest son Ernst in Austria, unable to escape, following Hitler’s annexation of Austria.
Korngold’s association with Max Reinhardt starting in 1929 would open the final chapter in Erich’s pre-war career. Reinhardt was already the most famous director working in Germany and Austria and referred to as either ‘the magician’ or the ‘circus ring master’. Everything he touched was embraced by the public and every initiative he undertook turned to gold. He transformed Vienna’s Josefstadt Theatre, and would launch any number of theatrical spectacles in Berlin, even employing the acting talents of Luzi’s sister, Helene. His enormous wealth meant he was able to purchase and lavishly restore the opulent Leopoldskron Palace and surrounding park near Salzburg (used as the setting for the von Trapp home in the film The Sound of Music). In 1935, he married the actress Helene Thimig, daughter of the actor Hugo Thimig and sister to fellow actors Hermann and Hans Thimig. She was also a childhood friend of Luzi’s.
Reinhardt first approached Korngold in 1926 to supply music for Schiller’s play Turandot, but with the premiere of Puccini’s posthumous working of the same material also in 1926, Korngold declined. He had formed a close friendship with Puccini over the years and his death in 1924 had come as a blow. Reinhardt then approached Korngold to collaborate on Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne, which again Korngold declined as he thought the work too weak musically to resurrect. After an evening of negotiation, it was decided that they would create a new version of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. For Korngold, it was an opportunity to update one of Strauss’s strongest works. Reinhardt already had plans to rejig the opera into a hybrid between musical and straight theatre. The subsequent success of Fledermaus meant that Reinhardt could persuade Korngold to agree to an Offenbach collaboration, resulting in a reworking of La Belle Hélène. Both collaborations would enjoy success far beyond the borders of Germany and Austria.
Anneliese Rothenberger and Rudolf Schock sing ‘es ist ein Traum‘ from ‘Die Schöne Helene’
More important than the actual musical partnership was Reinhardt’s paternal encouragement, which Julius was unable or unwilling to offer. As Luzi makes clear in her memoirs, the relationship with Erich’s parents was kept tightly controlled with access granted only during holidays at their Höselberg estate. Julius continued to see his son as the natural successor to Gustav Mahler and was appalled that neither Erich nor the rest of the world appeared to agree with him. He found it profoundly disturbing that Erich spent so much of his creative energy on lightweight populist music, while only coming for advice when in need of a literary reference or contact. With Reinhardt now in the picture, even these modest paternal contributions were no longer necessary.
Korngold performs his own potpourri of Strauss waltzes
Erich on the other hand disappointed Julius with his conviction that the operas and operettas of Offenbach, Strauss and Leo Fall were masterpieces, fully worthy of the serious music canon. As a result, Erich saw his arrangements as a ‘privilege’ and an important means of keeping earlier classics relevant to contemporary audiences. With the relationship between Helene Thimig and Luzi long established, the Korngold and Reinhardt households were clearly more than business associations, though Luzi points out that Reinhardt only called childhood friends by the informal ‘du’ and addressed Erich as either ‘Herr Professor’, or simply as ‘Korngold’.
The anti-Semitic policies of the NSDAP seemed not to have registered appreciable danger with Korngold. A letter from his publishers, engaged in a delicate balancing act, informs him that he’s a bit far away from the reality of ‘the new Germany’, but ‘thankfully’, he has yet to land on the ‘black list’ of composers to be banned. Korngold’s adaptation of Leo Fall’s The Divorced Woman, (Die geschiedene Frau) ran in Berlin just as Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor. The run was short, but accounts vary as to why it would be one of Korngold’s very few failures. Logic would indicate that it was the work of a Jewish composer (Leo Fall) adapted by another Jewish composer. Yet an article in Die Neue Freie Presse, on June 14, 1935 (two years after the event) gives a totally different account in which production companies were apparently tricked into opening in the smaller and therefore inadequate Nollendorf Theatre. There is no mention of Hitler, or Nazi policy. Documented is the fact that the lead tenor, Harold von Oppenheimer was a member of the Oppenheimer banking family and thus managed to finance the limited run of three weeks out of his own pocket.
Korngold appears to have been philosophical about losing opportunities in Nazi Germany and saw it as invitation to concentrate on Die Kathrin. His publisher Schott was unable to take it on as a work by a Jewish composer and Erich turned to the Mahler publishing house Weinberger. Die Kathrin was yet another indication of Korngold’s unfailing insensitivities to political realities. Enchanted by Heinrich Eduard Jakob’s novella The Maid of Aachen, Korngold approached a colleague of Julius’s from Die Neue Freie Presse, Dr Ernst Décsey, to turn it into an opera libretto. The story concerned a German girl falling in love and having the child of a French soldier in the occupied Saarland. The Treaty of Versailles allowed the French to occupy the Saarland following Germany’s defeat in 1918. Its return to ‘The Reich’ was Hitler’s top priority and a referendum in 1935 ended the occupation without bloodshed, resulting in its reintegration into Germany in 1936.
Given that Korngold had decided as early as 1932 to adapt Jakob’s novella into material for an opera, one starts to sense either pathological political insensitivity or the naïve belief that his opera would calm the murderous resentments boiling over on both sides. In fact, Schott turned down the project even before Hitler’s appointment, due to the political sensibilities of the day. Rejection of the proposed treatment left Korngold resentful at what he felt was irrelevant political interference. Luzi’s eventual solution of relocating the story to Switzerland would have unforeseen consequences: It certainly assuaged any potential controversy threatened by the original treatment, but at the same time removed the coherence of the narrative, and fatally trivialised the political tensions fundamental to Jakob’s original.
Reinhardt, on the other hand, was far more pro-active in attempting to counter the loss of earnings in Germany and had accepted an invitation to stage Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. Traditional ‘straight’ theatre was not a speciality of Hollywood, and Max Reinhardt’s ability to create magic was instantly understood as potentially cinematic. Moguls had been in unofficial competition to film a Shakespeare play, and this looked the perfect opportunity. Warner Bros. offered Reinhardt a contract who insisted that Korngold be engaged to arrange the traditionally used Mendelssohn score. The three years following Midsummer Night’s Dream kept Korngold commuting between Hollywood and Vienna as he worked on various follow-up projects. Reinhardt, in a tragic twist of events, would never make another movie.
The trailer for ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was itself something that was dreamt up in order not to frighten the American public away from Reinhardt’s classically delivered Shakespearian English. No spoken dialogue from the film is permitted to intrude into the panic-stricken advertising hype of the studio promotions’ Team.
It would be the Korngolds’ good fortune that those around them had the foresight to follow and understand what was going on politically. Erich had sent a postcard from his honeymoon in which he wrote that he and Luzi were ‘playing at being married – a game that Luzi nearly always wins’. Remaining childlike and oblivious to events around them could have cost them dearly had they not been surrounded by responsible adults such as Reinhardt and indeed, Julius.
‘Sweet Melody of Night’ from the Paramount Film ‘Give Us This Night’ with the tenor who sang The Stranger in Korngold’s ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’, Jan Kiepura
The story of Korngold’s arrival in Hollywood is well-known and for the purposes of this exposition on Korngold’s life and work, the years as cinema composer will be dealt with in general terms and in the context of his total output. If this seems unfair, it’s worth pointing out that in Luzi Korngold’s memoirs, Errol Flynn and Bette Davis are mentioned only once. Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are not mentioned at all. In fact, Luzi compresses Korngold’s film-work into a mere few pages. The only film she writes about with any degree of sympathy or detail is The Green Pastures, a movie that used an exclusively African-American cast, none of whom was allowed in the dining room reserved for executives and cast. Korngold obviously felt great empathy at the sickening sense of exclusion. If anyone understood the wickedness of racism, it was Korngold, and he took pleasure in taking his meals with the cast in the stagehands’ canteen, the only facility the studios were prepared to make available to the African-American cast. In fact, Korngold’s contributions to the project were modest and he refused payment, yet intriguingly, it is precisely this film that Luzi bothers to write about. It is needless to point out that Julius is even more silent on Erich’s film work.
Trailer for the film ‘Green Pastures’
The reasons for the silence are obvious: Julius never approved of Erich ‘wasting’ his talent on something as ephemeral as popular culture, whereas Luzi wrote her memoirs following Erich’s death and desperate to see him restored to his earlier reputation as ‘great’ composer. It never occurred to either of them that Erich was in the forefront of a new industry and his contribution to cinema would make it possible for any number of ‘great’ composers to write film scores with full confidence in their artistry and integrity.
Music from the film ‘The Sea Hawk’
There is much that speaks for Korngold being hailed as ‘the father of the Hollywood Sound’ – but there is also a good deal of hyperbole connected with this observation. Fellow Viennese Max Steiner was certainly the progenitor of the dedicated Hollywood score, and other composers – both immigrant and American-born, developed ideas that resulted in the cumulative ‘Sound’ that defined the sweep of Hollywood films from the 1930s onwards. Korngold’s contribution is perhaps symbolic as much as anything. Until his arrival, no serious composer had shown an interest in American cinema.
Official Warner Bros. trailer for the film ‘Kings Row’
Music accompanying silent films had been a pastiche of classics mixed with pre-composed generic works for romantic or action moments. There was never any reason to assume that things would change with the advent of the ‘the talkie’. Steiner’s score of King Kong in 1933 was therefore revolutionary, though it would not be until Korngold’s arrival that American cinema realised that its music department had captured a very big beast which was capable of significantly lifting Hollywood profitability and credibility.
Trailer for ‘Anthony Adverse’ the first Korngold film to win an Oscar
Hollywood’s studios were perhaps the richest producer of films, but by no means were they a monopoly. Soviet, German, French and even Italian and Spanish cinema had developed in Tandem. The American movie industry suffered from insecurities that stemmed from enormous commercial success at the expense of a perceived lack of depth and sophistication. With the wave of European talent arriving post-1933, this would change, and Korngold’s entry onto the Warner Bros. Sound Stage catapulted the prestige of the studio beyond its rivals.
With the unexpected influx of European talent, Hollywood could no longer be thought of as the repository for those unable to make it in straight theatre or classical music. Max Steiner, composer of Gone with Wind, Casa Blanca, Now Voyager and of course, the afore-mentioned King Kong, had come to America after Gustav Mahler had told him that he was ‘without talent’. Now, the composer Mahler had declared enormously talented was also in town. This was indeed a watershed in Hollywood fortunes.
Trailer for ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ 1938
But what is revealing about Korngold, is the fact that he alone among the ‘classical’ composers seems to have enjoyed the greatest success. There were, contrary to popular perception, a number of serious composers who landed in Hollywood: Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, Hanns Eisler and Erich Zeisl. Few enjoyed the success of Korngold, or the many composers who arrived from different corners of the entertainment industry: Franz Waxman/Wachsmann, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Hermann, Miklós Rózsa or Dimitri Tiomkin, all of whom came from performance, conducting, arranging, jazz or vaudeville.
Orchestrators normally provided ‘the Hollywood Sound’, though Korngold surprised everyone by orchestrating himself, apart from help offered by Hugo Friedhofer when pressed by deadlines. The film composer was required to come up with specific themes, though Korngold went further and mapped out movies as he would operas, using leitmotifs. For example, Korngold expert Brendan Carroll has counted over 40 different motifs in Anthony Adverse. Korngold kept the musical narrative linked to the dramatic superstructure, though even he could not always influence what was edited out or covered by sound effects.
Korngold scored only some eighteen or so movies. His music has outlasted nearly all of the actual films and continues to live on as concert adaptations. This is one of the ultimate paradoxes concerning Korngold: none of his scores is attached to one of Hollywood’s 100 greatest films, yet his influence continues to be felt through composers such as John Williams and the recently deceased James Horner. Waxman came up with more varied styles and could change genre from ‘Classic’ film score to ‘Horror’ to ‘Sleaze’ with consummate virtuosity. Alfred Newman was the most successful in terms of awards and industry recognition while the music of Max Steiner remains inseparable from his most successful films, many of which do rank in the top 100. Tara’s Theme may sound like the interlude between acts two and three of any Franz Lehár operetta, but it’s impossible to imagine Gone with the Wind without Steiner’s score, even if much of it is pastiche using folk-song and battle hymn arrangements. The same applies for Casa Blanca and Now Voyager – all brilliant at interweaving originality with the familiar.
The London Philharmonic perform Max Steiner’s ‘Tara’s Theme’ from ‘Gone With the Wind’: Viennese nostalgia meets the American Confederacy
Trailer for ‘Juarez’
Nor was Korngold immune to other developments taking place at the same time. Hanns Eisler had brought many creative ideas from Soviet cinema to Hollywood and his use of music was very different form Korngold’s. Yet it is specifically in one of Korngold’s best films, Juarez, that one suspects Eisler’s ideas are not totally ignored. Music is utilitarian and often diegetic. Korngold eschews the lavish or intoxicating knock-out scoring of Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood or Captain Blood with music more contained within the dramatic narrative.
The score for ‘The Sea Wolf’ one of Korngold’s least typical ‘Hollywood’ scores
Indeed, it’s worth noting that Korngold never achieved the emotional sweep in cinema of his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, a work that was composed before any thought of original film scoring had occurred to anyone. His models were the aforementioned Frau ohne Schatten, but undervalued is the cinematic layering of events and perspectives found in the operas of Franz Schreker or the symphonies of Gustav Mahler – all anticipating dramatic devices that would culminate in Cinema. Heliane supplied Korngold with a toolkit for Hollywood, but it was not itself superseded by cinema. Korngold not only employs multi-perspectives in Heliane, but achieves greater impact by controlling the narrative build-up, allowing space for ideas to expand and modulate to degrees impossible in film. The actual ‘Miracle’ of Heliane is illustrated by explosive glissandi on harps and piano achieving an effect that is as evocative as it is cinematic. The emotional pull of the final duet of Heliane also results in musical opulence impossible within the narrative shorthand of cinema.
(The final 16 minutes of ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ starting with her ‘Wunder’, or ‘miracle’ to the end)
This is not to dismiss Korngold’s contribution to Hollywood, or his practical employment of music in moving pictures, but to point out that it is limiting Korngold’s significance to reduce his overall contribution to that of ‘Hollywood Sound’ paternity. His contribution was without question enormous, and he clearly influenced the work of those around him, but it was as much in establishing credibility as the actual music he composed that was game-changing. Ultimately, however, it simply cannot be ignored that he himself ceased to view film music as being of equal significance, and resented its draining of creative resources. There are of course quotes that would appear to confirm his belief in film-music being the next phase of music-drama and the natural development beyond opera. These observations came from his early Hollywood days before his inability to return to Austria. Even with the unique conditions he agreed with Warner Bros. that meant he never scored more than two films a year, could choose the films he worked on and had control over material for later exploitation, he felt himself soon chained to the conveyor belt of film production and being required to write music on demand.
Motif from ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ in Korngold’s cue ‘Judgement Day’ from the film ‘Between Two Worlds’
No wonder the keen eared listener can suddenly hear snippets of Das Wunder der Heliane in the film Between Two Worlds. When Schoenberg was asked to write a Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl, he simply rescored music from Gurrelieder. Korngold would never have been quite so utilitarian and the bits of earlier works that one hears are never more than motifs or the reworking of themes. He felt much of his music was lost forever and saw in film scores, a partial opportunity of prolonging a work’s existence. Nevertheless, self-belief and belief in the ultimate strength of his best works, meant he never recycled his greatest themes: there are no echoes of Marietta or Pierrot to be heard in any of his film scores.
With the end of the war, it comes as no surprise that Korngold completed the projects he was already working on and projects for which he had already signed a contract. As soon as his desk was cleared, he intended to leave the studios and return to Austria as soon as feasible. This was easier said than done. Europe was war-torn, millions were dead, his own health was poor and his sons were happy and felt at home in America. Ernst married Helen, a bright young woman with movie star looks and settled down as a teacher. In due course, it would become clear that America was destined to remain ‘home’ as post-war attempts to return would prove.
Korngold shared a common fate with other former Hollywood composers. A seamless ‘return’ to where he had been professionally before the rise of Hitler was out of the question. In the eyes of his fellow Austrians, he had conveniently side-stepped the monstrosities of the Nazi regime by growing rich and famous in Hollywood. Yet the commercial success he enjoyed before the war was simply not comparable with his fairly modest circumstances in Hollywood, where any money he earned went towards affidavits and supporting family and friends. His pre-war mansion in Vienna’s prestigious, and ironically named ‘Cottage-Quarter’ along with the family’s Alpine estate complete with ‘mini-palace’ were not equalled by the unassuming bungalow on Toluca Lake in Los Angeles.
Korngold, however, had a more difficult challenge than other Hollywood composers trying to regain pre-war significance. His lifetime of success and fame was now held against him. Neither Julius nor Max Reinhardt, were alive to protect him and the cumulative jealousy of colleagues offered an opportunity of dishing up the coldest possible revenge. In post-war Germany, it was thought that in order to escape Hitler’s cultural legacy, it was important to catapult music into distant, progressive fields. To do this, one needed to be icily forward-looking and dispassionately avant-garde, characteristics that rarely, if ever entered Korngold’s creative process. In the tormented years following the Nazi defeat, being damned as lightweight and shallow was the ultimate death sentence. Korngold’s successes were dismissed by his Euroepan critics and rivals as trivial and appealing to the lowest common denominator with an arrogance that suggested his works shared the same cultural values as the III Reich.
Erich could no doubt hear Julius muttering dryly ‘I told you so’ from the beyond. A quick recap of his situation highlights the dilemmas and opportunities that confronted him. Born into a highly ambitious household, his father was merciless in exploiting his son’s talent in order to consolidate his own insecure status and through whom he could realise his own ambitions. The only escape was to renounce the field of serious music that meant so much to Julius and gain independence by becoming as commercial as possible. His commercial success was itself a guarantor of musical reaction when he returned to composing operas and concert works. Das Wunder der Heliane attempted to blindside listeners with music so intoxicating, that all debates regarding the direction of new music were simply expected to be shut down, while his years of operetta adaptations are clearly heard in Die Kathrin. Such counter-revolutionary crimes could not go unpunished. The easiest option for Korngold after the war would have been to stay with Warner Bros. Why he didn’t is the core of the final tragic chapter in Korngold’s life.
It is enormously important to return to Korngold’s arrival in Hollywood and examine the expectations he and others harboured. Hitler had cut off their prime source of income and the welcome accorded to Europe’s finest promised both greater exposure and popularity, while expanding resources to exploit maximum creativity.
They were subsequently overwhelmed by two realities: one was the careful monitoring of the bottom line, unknown in European creativity where either local aristocracy or the state stumped up whatever funding was necessary. The other reality was Hitler’s expansion into Austria, Czechoslovakia and the inevitable war that followed his invasion of Poland.
Korngold plays at a cocktail party given by Ray Heindorf – he plays his Pierrot’s waltz from ‘Die tote Stadt’ something unfamiliar to anyone in attendance. They egg him on to keep playing but rather than play further works from his European years, he plays themes from his various movies
The bottom line had already resulted in the dry-docking of Max Reinhardt. His filming of Midsummer Night’s Dream had turned into a financial nightmare for the ever-cautious producers at Warner Bros. They promised a follow-up prestige project but ditched it as soon as Reinhardt was out of earshot. By the time he realised he had been misled, he was unable to return to Europe. Warner Bros. bought out the three film contract they had with Reinhardt, and the money was used to found his acting school. He lived out the rest of his days running his acting school for whatever attractive youngster was picked up at the soda fountain and in need of thespian instruction. ‘Send them to Max’ became the standard response when appealing youngsters, loved by the camera, turned up without acting experience. In retrospect, Reinhardt’s attempt to re-enter the movie business by mounting a production of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters with his young hopefuls was nearly comical. All of the invited moguls simply fell asleep during the opening act.
In the end, however, it was Reinhardt’s foresight in obtaining an offer to work in California that ultimately saved Korngold and his family. It was equally Julius’s foresight in placing Ernst’s valid American visa into his own passport that allowed Erich’s parents and eldest son to escape Vienna via Switzerland the day after Hitler’s march into Austria. Schurli had already joined Erich and Luzi in California as the doctor in Vienna advised that Californian air would be good for his lungs. Ernst still had his final exams to complete and remained with Luzi’s sister. Luzi is disarming in her honest assessment of their misreading the political situation and the subsequent horrors that potentially could have ensued. Success had meant that the Korngolds felt themselves invulnerable to the mere ups and downs of local politics. Dismissing Hitler as an ‘up or down’ was a deadly miscalculation, and it was thanks to Reinhardt and Julius that they undertook the necessary precautions to save the Korngold family from disaster: Reinhardt, by making the connection with Korngold and Warner Bros., and Julius because he had always sensed that Austria would inevitably fall.
Nazis had broken into the Korngold villa in Vienna and were instructed to burn manuscripts, including Die Kathrin. Fast thinking, following panic stricken telegrams resulted in employees from the publishers Weinberger breaking into the house and removing as much of the score as remained. Another score was already in their London office. Parts were rescued from the State Opera, already in preparation for its October premiere, and the lot was shipped back to Korngold hidden in volumes of good ‘German’ composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. To Nazi customs’ officials, music was music and they couldn’t tell the difference.
Korngold thus found himself mugged by both realities – commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time. He, Luzi and Schurli had travelled to Hollywood in January 1938 to look at the rushes for The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Having come the distance, he flatly refused to write the music, saying that he was incapable of composing ‘action music’. They remained in rented accommodation for the rest of the winter of 1938 for the benefit of Schurli’s health.
If Reinhardt’s naivety seemed comical in his attempts to impress movie moguls with Goldoni, Korngold’s inability to understand the political climate verges on criminal negligence. His refusal to work on Robin Hood would result in him having to eat a good deal of humble pie. Luzi spins the story that he had never truly intended to refuse the project, and had spent his days of inactivity in the Californian sun jotting down musical ideas. In reality, he had already read the script on the crossing and started to write down various musical ideas, including material from his Sursum Corda, as suggested by the ever resourceful Julius. This was fortunate, as supplying the music to Robin Hood quickly and efficiently was what ultimately would provide Korngold with an income during the next seven years and consolidate his reputation as film composer.
It therefore became apparent that the expectations of achieving artistically rewarding results in Hollywood were dashed. The combination of Hitler and Warner Bros.’ pursuit of the bottom line left Korngold feeling trapped. Until this point and while still based in Austria, he had been very much in charge of his own destiny and let his Hollywood clients know that he would only agree to a project if it interested him. With the arrival of Hitler, ‘clients’ became ‘bosses’ and he suddenly found himself having to guarantee affidavits for countless relatives, while supporting them once they arrived. This sense of no escape would gradually diminish the value Korngold placed on his work and made him yearn for a return to pure concert music and opera. It was the common experience of all immigrant composers with the possible exception of Hanns Eisler, who was forward looking enough to see film music as equal to every other genre.
John Mauceri – Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin perform the opening movement of the Symphonic Serenade for Strings op. 39
A heart attack in September of 1947 prevented an early return to Vienna and the city that finally greeted him 1949 was very different from the home he had left in 1938. A bothersome battle to have their villa returned only left a single habitable floor with the Korngolds having to pick up an expensive restoration bill. The estate in the Alps was sold to the local mayor for a peppercorn. It had been turned into a camp for displaced persons, and with 12,000,000 German speakers being relocated from Eastern Europe, it did not appear likely that they would be able to return in the near future.
Again Korngold found himself on the wrong side of the divide. Those who would have welcomed returning former exiles would not have welcomed Korngold’s music, which did not sufficiently represent the post-war need for cultural change. On the other hand, those who might have found something positive to appreciate in Korngold’s music were themselves likely to have been supporters of the Nazi regime and didn’t welcome Jewish musicians returning to Austria. The mutual suspicion was unbearable: not only the suspicion that every hindrance and hardship was caused by lingering and undefeated anti-Semitism, but the suspicions of suspicions being held by those who stayed and those who returned made honest discourse impossible. It was equally frustrating for those who had genuinely not supported the regime and genuinely welcomed the return of Korngold. But how could anyone know who was telling the truth about their past and their possible involvement? How could one know that the person one was dealing with was in fact not an unreformed anti-Semite and simply saying whatever was necessary in order to conform to the new order and keep food on the table?
An interesting encounter that illustrates this distrust is the first post-war meeting, as described by Luzi, of Korngold with Ludwig and Willy Strecker, his former publishers at Schott. The Strecker brothers were joint owners of Schott and were severely compromised by their roles during the Hitler years. They had steered a dangerous and complex course with many of their most important composers on the NSDAP black-list. Meanwhile, it was assumed that Ludwig had joined the Nazi Party while Willy believed, as he wrote in a letter to Stravinsky, that ‘a long over-due clean-up was now underway’. Added to this damning evidence was the fact that Ludwig Strecker had written triumphalist Nazi inspired libretti under the name of Ludwig Andersen.
Luzi describes the meeting as chilly, while mentioning that Erich took to them as if the previous years had simply not existed. He accepted without question their protestations that the world had now changed and they were no longer in a position to continue their former support of his music. When Luzi at least raises an eyebrow at perceived duplicity, Erich is quick to dismiss her doubts. He simply could not imagine that the brothers, whom he had known since childhood, would ever mislead him. Yet what was truly behind this exchange? Who was telling the truth? Could there ever be any trust again after such a terrible event and every appearance of betrayal? Erich was prepared to dismiss all doubts in the belief that harbouring any suspicions at all would be counter-productive. At a well-received performance of Die tote Stadt in Munich, Luzi recounts how she bumped into a visibly moved Ludwig Strecker. Given the uncertainties, how could anyone know what lay behind the tears streaming down his face?
It was clear by 1951 that there was no point in remaining in Vienna following a disappointing critical reception to his opera Die Kathrin. As always, the public was enthusiastic, but the press was vicious and death threats allegedly sent to the lead meant the show was cancelled after only a few performances. A promised run of Die tote Stadt was thwarted by internal mischief-making and only confirmed Korngold’s feeling that he was unwelcome. Vienna and Austria were no longer home, and the family returned to Los Angeles.
The ‘Letter Scene’ from ‘Die Kathrin’ as performed by Austrian State Radio Orchestra, Gottfried Kassowitz (cond), Ilona Steinburger
Korngold announces and plays on the piano the Adagio from his Symphony in F#
Like many displaced Austro-German composers, Erich decided to write a symphony, despite having shown scant interest in the idea before. A Symphony was something quintessentially, classically Viennese. If he could no longer live in the city of his youth, he could at least recall its timeless musical heritage by composing a ‘Symphony’. It would be followed by a short song with the title Sonett für Wien or Sonnet for Vienna and based on a poem by Hans Kaltneker who had written the play that would become Das Wunder der Heliane. This was followed by his Theme and Variations, Op. 42 – his very last work, composed in 1953.
(Sonett für Wien – Sonnet for Vienna)
Korngold was persuaded to return to Europe in 1954 to collaborate on a ‘bio-pic’ of Richard Wagner. He agreed on the condition that only music by Wagner be used and that it not be altered in any way. In addition, it allowed his son George to work on a film in such a way that he could obtain a Film Workers’ Union card and continue developing as a film editor upon his return to the States.
Korngold even makes an appearance in the film as the conductor Hans Richter. In the end, Korngold’s confidence in Hollywood would not be restored. His reason for leaving the movies was quoted as “When I arrived in Hollywood, I didn’t understand the dialogue. . . . now I do!”
Magic Fire was severely cut and the music of Wagner hacked apart as demanded by the distributors despite the agreement between Korngold and the producer William Dieterle. The Korngolds nevertheless decided to remain in Europe for a dismal performance of his Symphony given by the Vienna Symphony conducted by Harold Byrns and a superb performance of his opera Die tote Stadt in Munich. The press notices for the symphony were at least encouraging, while Die tote Stadt was savaged. Korngold knew how poor the results of the Symphony were and requested that the broadcast tapes be wiped.
His most successful American work was his Violin Concerto, commissioned by Bronislav Huberman but ultimately performed and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Today, it counts as one of Schott’s most lucrative works, but following its New York performance, it was dismissed with the same high-handed arrogance Korngold had come to expect from European critics. The world had moved on and the Late-Romantic nostalgia evoked by Korngold was spurned as ‘corny’.
There can be nothing crueller for an artist than to be ignored or shunned as irrelevant. What killed Korngold? Photos show a robust, overweight man, but Luzi tells us he walked to work and we know he didn’t smoke or drink to excess. His father Julius lived until the age of 85, his mother even longer. Heart attacks shortly after the war were common to a number of exile composers. Some survived to fight another day such as Erich Korngold and Ernst Toch, while others such as Erich Zeisl and Kurt Weill were inexplicably felled. Lys Symonette, a friend of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya told me that it was Weill’s deep sense of loss of German identity that killed him.
The American addiction to success must have added to the pressure, along with the lack of social and familial support, a macho culture that adjured asking for help and the sickening feeling that so many friends and relatives had been murdered. The last date accorded to a Korngold work is 1953 which meant he spent the three years until his stroke in 1956 without completing a single work. He intended to write another symphony and toyed with an opera based on Grillparzer, but nothing came of either project. With only 42 opus numbers to his name, one senses the intrusion he believed film music may have caused. Julius would have huffed that wasting time on arranging operettas was just as bad. By comparison, fellow Californian exile, former operatic rival and non-film music composer, Ernst Krenek finished some 240 works with opus listings and though he lived into his 90s, he had already reached Op. 42 by the mid-1920s.
Upon leaving the world of American cinema, Korngold composed a piece of musical theatre forbodingly entitled The Silent Serenade, a work considerably more light-weight than any of his film scores, and redolent of pre-war Viennese cinema-kitsch. Irrepressible nostalgia can be the only explanation and it’s telling that it was composed before his return to Vienna in 1949.
Korngold plays and sings wordlessly to ‘Die schönste Nacht’ from his ‘Die stumme Serenade’
The Silent Serende – or Die Stumme Serenade is all the more baffling as his third quartet in D major, composed as the war was coming to an end, led Luzi to believe it was confirmation he was leaving movie music for good. The quartet is certainly one of Korngold’s most serious and occasionally disturbing works.
Chilingirian Quartet perform the third movement from Korngold’s Third String Quartet ‘Like a Folksong’ – a work that is both dark and unsettling
Korngold suffered a stroke that left him largely incapacitated and dependent on his wife and children. He slowly learned to speak again and to write with his other hand, though he lost interest in composing. Luzi tells us that though he no longer found he could read, he continued to ask for scores which he pored over without difficulty. He was docile and childlike and his recovery was slow and only partial.
Hitler’s forgotten victims are the many thousands – perhaps millions – who committed suicide in distant and forgotten corners of the world, unable to cope with new languages, reduced circumstances and in many cases, a hopeless feeling of irrelevance. It was undoubtedly Korngold’s sense that he too was irrelevant that brought on the stress that would kill him at the age of 60. He died believing he was the child prodigy who never grew up.
No longer valued as a composer of the concert hall or the opera house, he was equally unwilling to return to the film studios where he would have been welcomed with open arms. His community of fellow exiles psychologically barred this particular path by convincing him that work as a film composer was unworthy of his talent. At the same time, no orchestra, conductor, pianist or opera house was prepared to commission a new work. For the music critic, he was the easiest of all targets and represented everything serious music was no longer allowed to be. No university or conservatory in either America or Europe bothered to consider him for a teaching position and not even America’s most provincial orchestras thought to invite him as conductor. Korngold was killed by the stress of irrelevance. The movie fan-mail never abated, but the general public, who had meant so much to him in the past, were no longer the arbiters of serious music. Post-war critics felt they had a responsibility to distrust the public and instinctively turned on anything and anyone the public appreciated.
To some degree, he died because of the weight of the myths that had grown around him. One of the most deadly, even if true, was the belief that he was ‘the greatest’ of all prodigies, since he composed masterpieces from the moment he could hold a pencil. His genius was to synthesise the world around him into an individual and progressive musical language that was distinctive and unlike any dominant figure of the day. The presumption of metaphysical provenance of such talent weighed heavily on Korngold and influenced those around him into believing that he was wasting his gifts on ephemera that was forgotten by the following year. Yet his genius quite specifically elevated film music to the degree that it could never be forgotten. These conflicts, caused by a European cultural entitlement blind to the possibilities of new media, actually thwarted his gifts and created the inner stresses and strains that eventually brought him down. He was considered the ‘father of the Hollywood Sound’- and there is a certain symmetry in his two myths being related to him as ‘child’ and ‘father’. Yet he was most certainly not the father of the Hollywood Sound – there were many different fathers – but he was the composer who made film music serious music. You could come from the opera house or the Musikverein and write a score for Errol Flynn without feeling you had gone to the dogs. Sadly, he died believing another myth that we now know was patently untrue – that by writing film music, he had indeed ‘gone to the dogs’.
Rare recording not used in the film of ‘The Constant Nymph’ of soprano Sally Sweetland, violinist Louis Kaufman and cellist Eleanor Aller Slatkin along with pianist Erich Wolfgang Korngold performing ‘Tomorrow’
Korngold died a child of a forgotten age when the realities of living in an unforgiving time dawned on him. To him, it seemed unfathomable that people would listen to music they couldn’t understand or made them feel bad or think negative thoughts. Music was meant to engage, inspire, excite and intoxicate and demonstrate to the listener that a better world was possible. Why would music need to remind the listener that the world was awful and getting worse? In a letter to Joseph Marx written shortly before his stroke, he puns about living in ‘an atomic age’, but spells ‘atomic’ in such a way that it blends into the word ‘atonal’: to Korngold, they both represented the same degree of baffling man-made self-destruction.
Max Schonherr conducts the Austrian Radio Orchestra in his Theme and Variations Op. 42 – his last work completed in 1953