Embracing youthful stardom, Nazi censorship and Hollywood success, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s story was truly remarkable, says Jessica Duchen

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Korngold, Erich Wolfgang

Embracing youthful stardom, Nazi censorship and Hollywood success, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s story was truly remarkable, says Jessica Duchen

If Hollywood’s scriptwriters had dreamed up Korngold’s life story, they would probably have scrapped it as implausible. From childhood genius to the Hollywood golden age to the devastation of the post-war era, and then his belated present-day rehabilitation, it still seems nearly too startling to be true.

The sorry truth is that the Nazis’ ban on music by Jewish composers, Korngold included, eradicated their music from much of Europe, and after a decade-long rupture restoration is difficult indeed. In the past few decades, though, Korngold’s works have returned in force. Recent high-profile instances have included John Wilson’s award-winning CD of the Symphony in F sharp, stunning chamber music recordings from the likes of the Jerusalem and Eusebius quartets, and the Bavarian State Opera’s staging of Die tote Stadt. This summer, Die tote Stadt comes to Longborough Festival Opera – its first UK performance since 2009.

When and where was Korngold born?

Born on 29 May 1897 in Brno, Moravia, Korngold was the younger son of Julius Korngold, who soon became the most powerful critic in Vienna, working for the influential Neue freie Presse. The chances of a leading critic having for a son the most gifted child prodigy composer since Mendelssohn would seem one in a billion. When Erich was nine, Julius took him to play to Gustav Mahler. ‘A genius,’ was the great man’s assessment. He recommended that Erich should study with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.

By 13, Erich had written, among other things, several fine piano works – Don Quixote, Märchenbilder and his Piano Sonata No. 1; his Piano Trio, Op.1; and a ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann. After Julius sent samples to the great and good of the music world beyond Vienna, praise poured in from Richard Strauss, Puccini, Humperdinck and more; soon Der Schneemann was performed at the Vienna Hofoper in front of visiting Belgian royalty, with little Erich on stage, taking a bow.

The teenage composer was a good-natured and precociously romantic soul with a quick wit, a sweet tooth and a resounding belief in inspiration. Although his father kept him away from the excessively modern influences (as Julius saw them) of Schoenberg and Berg, Erich embraced with gusto the myriad possibilities of his own personal language.

As a prodigy, he was subject to jibing. Rumours flew about that a musician could only earn the father’s praise by playing the son’s music. Julius, horrified at being thought biased, responded by overcompensating. As Erich grew up, the resulting intrigues rebounded against him. For instance, his father was shredding Richard Strauss in print – but Strauss was joint intendant at the opera house and Erich’s burgeoning career depended on his good opinion.

At 15, Korngold wrote his first one-act opera, Der Ring des Polykrates, and two years later a second, Violanta, making a double bill. Next came his first full-length opera, Die tote Stadt, which he began while serving in the First World War as musical director of his regiment. Based on the novella Bruges-la-Morte by the Belgian Symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach, the opera, with its sense of loss, lengthy dreamscape and ultimate catharsis, is at heart about coming to terms with grief. It became immensely and internationally popular in the interwar years.

Who did Korngold marry?

Korngold, meanwhile, was in love with Luzi von Sonnenthal, a young actress from a well-known theatrical family. Julius’s opposition to this marriage – indeed, any marriage that would take away his precious prodigy – was virulent enough to separate the pair for a long while. From this time sprang Korngold’s incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing, the exquisite Abschiedslieder (Songs of Farewell) and the Piano Quintet, its slow movement a set of variations on one of the aforementioned songs, which included Korngold’s ‘Luzi’ motif. The lovers finally married in 1924.

His next and most ambitious opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, was dedicated to Luzi. It is crammed with music of staggering beauty and complexity. While its dystopian setting is influenced by Expressionist cinema – premiered in 1927, it was contemporaneous with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – it is ultimately a gigantic celebration of conjugal love.

By the time Heliane was ready to perform, the Nazis were in the ascendant, diatribes were being written against ‘degenerate’ arts, and the arts were thumbing their noses by becoming as ‘degenerate’ as they possibly could. A rival opera appeared at the same time as Heliane: Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf – modernist, angular, down to earth, it could scarcely have been more different. Julius, fearing that Erich’s opera would be overshadowed, was so determined to bad-mouth Krenek’s work that he, a Jewish music critic, enlisted the help of a Nazi broadsheet to denounce it. He succeeded only in sparking a backlash – against Heliane. Noisy protests from Nazis in the theatre were more threatening still.

Now Korngold had a young family to support, and he needed to break away from his insupportable father. He took a post arranging and conducting operetta at the Theater an der Wien, and here met the theatre director Max Reinhardt, who became a colleague and close friend.

What happened when the Nazis came to power?

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Reinhardt left for the US. Korngold, from a secular, assimilated Jewish family, did not immediately anticipate that the danger would extend to Vienna. He began a fifth opera, Die Kathrin, not recognising that its story would be political dynamite: a German girl falls in love with a French soldier. Eventually a rewrite made Kathrin Swiss instead. That, however, scuppered the dramatic tension. Full of melodic tenderness, the opera deserves an overhaul and a better fate.

When did Korngold move to Hollywood?

An invitation from Reinhardt arrived in the nick of time. Filming his Hollywood Bowl production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Warner Brothers in 1933-34, he asked Korngold to join him to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for the movie. There, head of the studio Jack Warner persuaded Korngold to try writing original scores. Soon he was commuting between Vienna and Hollywood.

His first full-length film score was for the swashbuckler Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; he also wrote a musical, Give Us This Night, for Jan Kiepura, the dynamic Polish tenor who had sung the male lead in Das Wunder der Heliane. In the Errol Flynn film Another Dawn, he found a home for an ecstatic melody representing the freedom of flight and of love, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex contains an idea he later recycled in the devastating slow movement of his Symphony in F sharp.

The Adventures Of Robin Hood, poster, poster, from left: Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, 1938. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

In March 1938, he was in Hollywood scoring The Adventures of Robin Hood when the Nazis marched into Vienna. His parents and elder son, Ernst, managed to escape to California. The Viennese premiere of Die Kathrin was scheduled for that same month, but was cancelled – along with all Korngold’s works thereafter.

Korngold saw his films as ‘operas without singing’ and drew no distinction between writing in this genre and any other. He brought the techniques of Wagner, Strauss and Puccini into the cinema and, along with his fellow emigrés in Hollywood such as Max Steiner and Franz Waxman, helped to turn film music into an art in its own right. He was rewarded with two Oscars.

The downside, however, was that when a film left public view, so did his music. Then, in time, the quality of the movies he was asked to score deteriorated. When, in 1946, he gave up film scores, a journalist asked him why. ‘When I first came to Hollywood, I could not understand the dialogue,’ Korngold quipped. ‘Now I can.’

After Julius died in 1945, Korngold had felt stricken, aware that his father had not lived to see him return to serious composition. Julius had browbeaten him continually, ranting in lengthy letters about his supposed betrayal of his art. According to Ernst Korngold, Erich had vowed not to compose again for the concert hall until Hitler had been defeated.

In hospital after a heart attack, still in his forties, he began to dream up his Symphonic Serenade for strings; and he was slowly working on a violin concerto for Bronisław Huberman. The violinist died before it was finished, and only when Jascha Heifetz expressed interest did Korngold complete it. Its opening melody is the flight/love theme from Another Dawn – which Korngold had envisaged as a concerto theme years before the film.

The public loved the concerto. The critics didn’t. ‘This is a Hollywood concerto,’ spluttered one review after Heifetz premiered it in 1947. The attacks on Korngold quickly became as cruel as they were short-sighted. He was damned for writing Romantic music in a modernist age, and Hollywood was perceived to taint his art with commercial concerns – a real insult when much of his income went towards supporting fellow refugees.

When did Korngold die?

The Korngolds attempted to return to Vienna in 1950 but here, too, his music was dogged with ill fortune, and it seems sadly likely that some positions of power in the musical establishment were still held by ex-Nazis. Korngold himself blamed, among other things, the dominant vogue for music in which calculated intellect trumped inspiration. After retreating to Hollywood, he died of a brain hemorrhage on 29 November 1957, aged only 60.

Bitterness is tangible in his last major work, his Symphony in F sharp – neither major nor minor. The tragic slow movement was often assumed to be a lament for the Holocaust and the fate of Europe. He denied this, but it is difficult to hear it without remembering that context. Today it also stands as an emblem for the losses suffered as World War II, and the chilly zeitgeist that followed it, obliterated the work of so many gifted composers. Now it is up to us to find them again.

Korngold’s style

Generous spirit: Korngold’s all-embracing melodies, rich textures, harmonic sophistication and long-sustained dramatic intensity hold an instantly recognisable personality, influenced by Puccini, Strauss and the early ballets of Stravinsky (above). His orchestration is likewise full-blooded, glistening with percussion and keyboard instruments.

‘Motif of the Cheerful Heart’: Korngold’s signature motif, invented in his teens, is two interlocked rising fourths and a rising fifth: optimistic and, yes, cheerful. He used it in most of his works in one form or another, but the Violin Concerto’s opening theme transforms it, breaking its heart on the top note.

Landscapes and dreamscapes: Korngold was adept at creating atmosphere, building tension in film scores and operas alike. He can absorb the listener in the heady, claustrophobic quality of the Venetian setting in Violanta, or Bruges in the dream sequence of Die tote Stadt, replete with shadowy corners, church bells and a religious procession.

Technical wizardry: With Vienna’s finest performers at his disposal, Korngold became accustomed to writing for virtuosos. His Violin Sonata was intended for Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel, his operatic leading roles were conceived for singers such as Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Jan Kiepura and Richard Tauber.

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