Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
With the middle name Wolfgang, perhaps Erich Korngold was destined to be a composer from the start. Born in Brno (then Austria-Hungary, now the Czech Republic) in 1897, he was the son of Dr Julius Korngold, music critic at the Neue Freie Presse. He was a genuine Wunderkind composer. When he played his cantata Gold for Mahler in 1909, Mahler dubbed him “a musical genius” and recommended he study with Zemlinsky. His first orchestral work was written at the age of 14 and his first full length opera, Die tote Stadt, when he was 23. Korngold’s music earned praise from both Puccini and Richard Strauss, scores written in an opulent compositional style, yet for a long time that style was later dismissed as ‘Hollywood’.

The reason for that barb was that Korngold was one of the great – if not the greatest – composers for film and his style became synonymous with what came to be expected from a Hollywood film score. If you listen to his early concert works, the musical language Korngold used in his film scores wasn’t that different – sweeping melodies, with rich, lush harmonies to the fore – and that style was aped by other composers writing for the silver screen.

The young Korngold had been involved in arranging operettas for performances in the 1920s, including successful adaptations of Die Fledermaus and La belle Hélène with Max Reinhardt. In 1934, Reinhardt invited him to come to Hollywood to adapt Mendelssohn’s score for a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Reinhardt’s only completed sound film.

Initially invited for six to eight weeks, the project took nearly six months to complete. This time was spent in learning the craft of fitting music to film. On seeing a reel, he asked a technician how long one foot of film was: “Twelve inches,” came the laconic reply. “No, how long does it last on screen?” This was the first time anyone had asked such a technical question and nobody immediately knew the answer. On finding it lasted two thirds of a second, Korngold apparently smiled, “Ah, exactly the same length of time as the first two measures of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scherzo’!”

Creating the score was a three-stage process. Korngold made preliminary recordings, then conducted the studio orchestra for complicated simultaneous ‘takes’ as film was shot, as well as recording other insertions after the film had been cut. He even ‘conducted’ actors speaking their lines so they would synchronise with the score. While Korngold composed some bridging music in the style of Mendelssohn, he also adapted music from other works, such as the Scottish Symphony and the Songs without Words

This experience held Korngold in good stead when he was invited back the following year, writing scores for Paramount and Warner Bros. His approach to composing film scores was, essentially, that of writing “operas without singing”, providing leitmotifs for the different characters. His first original film score was Captain Blood, an Errol Flynn swashbuckler about an imprisoned doctor and his fellow prisoners who escape and become pirates.

He had to learn to compose at great speed, often being given no more than seven weeks to produce a score. For Captain Blood, he had just three weeks and raided a couple of Liszt’s tone poems for some of the action scenes. Here are Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone fighting a duel: 

After the Anschluss in Austria, Korngold moved his family permanently to the United States, vowing not to compose concert works again until Hitler was removed from power. Indeed, he used income from his film composing to support his friends and colleagues who had fled Europe. The Adventures of Robin Hood was his first score as a US exile and it won him an Oscar… the first time an Academy Award had been given to the composer as opposed to the studio’s music department.

Errol Flynn was again the dashing hero, with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Of Korngold’s eighteen film scores, Robin Hood is his masterpiece. Korngold knew that, as usual, time would be of the essence once he got to Hollywood, so put in hours of preparation. His father suggested that one of his early concert works – Sursum Corda – could provide useful material and its trumpet theme gives his score to Robin Hood its flavour. He also used music from his one act opera Die Kathrin, while the “March of the Merry Men” is based on a theme Korngold had written for an adaptation of an operetta Roses from Florida.


The duel between Robin Hood and Sir Guy is one of the best choreographed swordfights in Hollywood history, with Korngold’s score matching the screenplay blow for blow:

Other historical romances followed, including the popular Elizabeth and Essex. The Sea Hawk (1940) was Korngold’s last swashbuckler and featured one of his longest and most elaborate scores. Again, it starred Errol Flynn as an English privateer defending England on the eve of the Spanish Armada. 

Korngold became an American citizen in 1943, being based in Los Angeles, but by 1945 and the end of the war, he had grown disillusioned with writing for film and wanted to return to composing for the concert hall. He was stung by accusations of having ‘sold out’ to Hollywood. Ironically, having used some of his earlier concert music to inspire some of his film scores, the tables were now turned and the influence of his film music can de deciphered in his later compositions. Cannily, Korngold had ensured his studio contract had allowed him to keep the copyright of everything he had written.

In his gorgeous Violin Concerto, for example, Korngold drew on his score to Another Dawn (1937) in the first movement, Anthony Adverse (1936) in the Romanze and The Prince and the Pauper (1937) in the dashing finale. 

Korngold didn’t return to Austria until 1949, but his later works didn’t meet with initial success, especially back in Vienna. Did the critics turn their noses up at his music because of his Hollywood success? Had Viennese public taste moved on? Today, thankfully, Korngold’s concert music is justly as celebrated in its own right, while his film scores continue to dazzle.



Brendon G. Carroll: The Making of Max Reinhardt’s celebrated Film of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (CPO)

The Korngold Society