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Erich Wolfgang Korngold was, twice over and in two separate areas, one of the most renowned musical figures of the 20th century. Beginning at age seven, he was a celebrated performing prodigy, with a level of technical development and an understanding of music that awed such giants of the musical world as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who delighted in his prodigious talent. Greeted in such circles as a new Mozart, from his teens until his thirties Korngold was the author of a series of compositions — orchestral works, operas (most notably Die Tote Stadt), and chamber works — that were uniquely popular and among the most critically acclaimed of their era. And from 1935 until long past his retirement from the field in 1946, he was also one of Hollywood's most celebrated film composers, responsible for the music to such films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Anthony Adverse, Kings Row, Between Two Worlds, The Sea Wolf, Escape Me Never, and The Constant Nymph.
Korngold was the son of Julius Korngold, one of the most powerful music critics in Vienna during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A prodigious musical talent from the first years of his life, when he was five years old, the younger Korngold — whose middle name was his father's tribute to Mozart — was proficient at the piano, and was playing duets with his father at age seven. He'd already begun improvising music at the piano for scenes from imaginary stories, and when he was ten, Korngold played an excerpt from an original cantata entitled Gold for Gustav Mahler, then the most important conductor in Vienna. Mahler recognized that it was pointless to send the boy to an ordinary music conservatory — he already had a deeper understanding of music than most of the teachers he would encounter — and instead arranged for Korngold to study with the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, who later orchestrated Korngold's ballet The Snowman. When Korngold was 13 years old, this work received a command performance before the Emperor Franz Josef at the Vienna Court Opera. The Snowman was an immediate success, and was performed on the stages of 40 different opera houses over the next several years.
Korngold's fame was assured, and over the next few years Mahler's testimony to Korngold's prodigious talent was followed by others. Richard Strauss, pondering the early works of Korngold, was heard to remark, "One shudders with awe to realize these compositions were written by a boy." Giacomo Puccini, after attending performances of two Korngold operas, commented, "The boy has so much talent he could easily give us some and still have enough left for himself."
Even early in his career, however, Korngold's work displayed characteristics that anticipated the problems that he would encounter later in life. His music was unabashedly Romantic, filled with achingly lyrical melodies that were easy to remember and almost invited humming, repetition, and imitation. Even at this point in his career, Korngold seemed a throwback to a late 19th century sensibility that — in the eyes of many in the musical world — was dying along with the empires of that century. His music was defiantly tonal and melodic, while figures such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern were leading the charge into the new century by specifically rejecting tonality, and melody along with it. Korngold's work, with their big tunes, bold melodic statements, and outsized orchestrations that were not only easy on the ear but self-consciously beautiful, all of these attributes an affront to the supporters of the modernists.
Korngold was oblivious to the criticisms, and went on writing music his own way, supported by such renowned musicians as Bruno Walter, Arthur Nikisch, Felix Weingartner, and Arthur Schnabel, who eagerly performed his music. In 1920, Korngold achieved his greatest success on the operatic stage with Die Tote Stadt ("The Dead City"), which was an instant critical and popular success in Germany, and became the first German opera to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York following the end of World War I.
Korngold was — not surprisingly — a big fan of the music of Johann Strauss, and during the '20s he set about revising the text and score of Strauss' failed operetta, A Night in Venice, a notorious disaster in its time as a result of Strauss' poor choice of a libretto. Korngold's edition revived the work, and gave it a new life in the 20th century. His is the version that has been handed down to us, and that is performed today. Additionally, Korngold assembled a series of lesser-known Strauss pieces in collaboration with producer Max Reinhardt into a program entitled Waltzes in Vienna, which was widely performed in Europe and eventually came to America under the title The Great Waltz, the name under which it was filmed at MGM in 1938.
Korngold first came to Hollywood in collaboration with Reinhardt, to supervise the scoring of the latter's film adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934) at Warner Bros. The studio's first attempt at a big-budget "art" film was a financial failure (as was all filmed Shakespeare until Olivier's Henry V ), but Korngold's adaptation of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music was well received by audiences and executives at Warner Bros.
Korngold seemed a "natural" for movie work. His own music was steeped in the late-19th century Romantic era, expressing the lyricism of Johann Strauss, the depth of Mahler, and the eloquence of Richard Strauss, all attributes that the Hollywood studios were looking for. Indeed, Hollywood had been "stealing" from these men and the world they came from for several years in its movie scores, and Korngold was the real article, a Viennese who wrote like someone out of the previous century, and who could quickly and effectively adapt and orchestrate others' music as well. Further, Korngold was so well-known and popular at the time, especially in Europe and among the musically sophisticated in America, that his name would add immeasurably to the prestige of the studio that got him. Warner Bros. approached him with an offer of a contract, but he had obligations in Vienna, including the premiere of a new opera, and he turned the studio down.
Central Europe in the mid-'30s, however, was not a comfortable place for many people, especially those of Jewish descent. Because of Korngold's Austrian nationality, Hitler's rise to power in Germany was not an immediate threat, and he merely confined his work to his homeland from 1933 onward. He returned to Hollywood to take advantage of several offers made to him by the studios, and in 1935 he returned to Warner Bros., where his first score was for the 1935 costume action film Captain Blood.
This film, which marked the launch to stardom of a young Tasmanian-born actor named Errol Flynn, became one of the studio's biggest successes of the decade and single-handedly revived the swashbuckler genre for the first time since the days of the silents. Anyone watching it recognized that Korngold's rich, evocative score had more than a little to do with the movie's success, and offers of more work from Warner Bros. followed. He continued to divide his work between Europe and Hollywood, signing a contract with Warner Bros. that gave him the right to refuse any assignment, and to reuse any music he composed for the studio in his own concert pieces, and also to score as few as three films every two years (five a year was more typical at the time for most studio-contracted composers), and working on such films as Anthony Adverse (for which he won an Oscar) and The Prince and the Pauper.
All of this work eventually began to crowd in upon Korngold's serious compositions, and in 1937 he did set about returning to this idiom with his Violin Concerto in D Major. An abortive run-through of the piece with a violinist friend, however, left the composer so dispirited that he abandoned the concerto until 1946, when, at his wife's insistence, he resumed work on it. Curiously, the resulting piece is often cited for its use of thematic material that is already familiar from such movies as The Prince and the Pauper, but as Brendan G. Carroll has suggested in his essay on the concerto, it is just as easy to speculate that the themes originated in the concerto and Korngold salvaged them for use in his film scores once he abandoned the concert piece in 1937.
Korngold was offered The Adventures of Robin Hood but initially turned it down, intending to return to Vienna in the spring of 1938. Just as he was about to do so, however, he received word from his father that Germany had forcibly annexed Austria, and that it was too dangerous for him to return or for the rest of his family to remain there. Korngold agreed to score Robin Hood, and secured the studio's assistance in getting his family out of Vienna and into the United States. He spent the next eight years in Hollywood, writing the music for swashbucklers (Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), dramas (Kings Row, Escape Me Never), fantasy films (Between Two Worlds), and historical biographies (Juarez, Devotion), among other genres.
Korngold became one of the most respected and well remunerated musicians in Hollywood, and the financial security that he achieved was welcomed in a world as filled with uncertainty as that of the late '30s and early '40s. His isolation from the world of serious music took its toll, however, as he learned when he tried to resume his career in the concert hall after the war.
He found himself even more of an anachronism to the world of serious music in the late '40s than he had been in the late '20s. This might not have been a problem, but for the fact that the war had destroyed much of the audience that he'd had during the '20s and '30s. Additionally, the critics and editorialists in postwar Austria made no secret of their contempt for Korngold having gone to America and, worse yet, sold his talents to Hollywood during the war. His return to Austria in 1949 ended in frustration and failure, his music either ignored or ridiculed.
Korngold's Symphonic Serenade, the most important serious work he'd written in a decade, was premiered by Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1949 in a poorly prepared performance, and was badly received. His Symphony in F-Sharp was completed in 1950, but initially failed to find an audience. After the failure of a new production of his most popular work, Die Tote Stadt, Korngold had to face up to the fact that he had no future in Europe. He returned to Hollywood to a life of enforced semi-retirement, and after years of declining health, died in 1957 at age 60. Ironically enough, in 1959 the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos encountered the Symphony for the first time, and declared his intention of performing it in concert. Alas, Mitropoulos died suddenly in the fall of 1960, and the intended performance was never to be. It took Rudolf Kempe, conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, to rediscover the work in the early '70s, and a recording followed soon after.
It was Korngold's movie music, however, that led to a full-scale revival of interest in his work for the concert hall. The latter was not being played much, but his film music had never faded from the consciousness of moviegoers or older producers and directors, who regarded Korngold — along with Miklos Rozsa and Max Steiner — as one of the prime symbols of Hollywood's "Golden Age."
The first re-recording of his classic film scores took place at the end of the '50s under Lionel Newman, conducting the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra in a series of selections from his most famous movie music. This record didn't sell very well, and later became a much-sought collector's item, but it was a first step, showing the lucky few who knew it what Korngold's music could sound like away from the movie theater, in the hands of a good orchestra. In the early '70s, RCA released a new recording of Korngold film music, played by the London's National Philharmonic Orchestra (essentially a studio agglomeration consisting of members of the London Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, among others) under the baton of Charles Gerhardt, and produced by Korngold's son George. This record, entitled The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, spearheaded a full-blown revival of his reputation, at least in the world of movie scholarship.
Suddenly, Korngold's name was recognized by more casual movie buffs and enthusiasts, alongside those of the stars of the films he'd worked on: Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland, Joan Fontaine, and Basil Rathbone. Across the decades since the '30s and '40s, the movies that Korngold scored — Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Kings Row, Between Two Worlds, The Sea Wolf — had proved to be some of the most enduring of the century, shown constantly on television and in revival theaters, quoted and referred to in other, more recent films (including Star Wars), sold heavily in home video editions, and later colorized and introduced to an entirely new audience of younger viewers.
Additionally, Korngold had not entirely lost his following among serious musicians. In addition to Kempe's recording of the Symphony, RCA Records also released a complete recording of Die Todt Stadt during the 1975, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and starring Rene Kollo, Carol Neblett, Herman Prey, and Benjamin Luxon that has proved to be an enduring part of the company's catalog. By the beginning of the '80s, other labels and orchestras were beginning to explore Korngold's work anew, including a second recording of the Symphony, and this became a full-blown revival, at least on record, by the end of the '80s, as conductors and producers turned to Korngold in their search for lost Romantic masterpieces. By the mid-'90s, a new recording of Die Todt Stadt had been released, and Korngold's Symphonic Serenade received its New York Philharmonic debut in 1995. Early 1996, Rhino Records added another key element to the recognition of which Korngold had been cheated by releasing Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Warner Bros. Years, a collection of the original music tracks that he'd conducted from 1935 through 1946, cleaned up and assembled in chronological order for commercial release on two CDs.