Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1916)
© AKG Images

Having Wolfgang for a middle name doesn’t necessarily guarantee musical prodigy status, but it sure helps. Following in Mozart’s footsteps, Erich Wolfgang Korngold began composing at a tender age. Whereas Mozart had a composer for a father, Korngold had a music critic. Dr Julius Korngold wrote for the Neue Freie Presse and was responsible for young Erich’s early musical education. Korngold Jnr’s ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann (The Snowman) was composed when he was just eleven years old, performed at the Vienna Court Opera before Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1910.

Korngold is the subject of Bard Music Festival’s “Rediscoveries” focus for 2019, a series of concerts and panel discussions aimed at exploring the life and music of a single composer within a wider artistic context. Korngold’s music is perhaps less well known than Chopin (2017) and Rimsky-Korsakov (2018), with only his Violin Concerto a staple work of the concert hall repertoire. So who was Korngold and why isn’t his music better known? Many listeners may have unwittingly come across his music via the silver screen. How did Korngold end up writing for Hollywood?

But we need to start with his youth. Although Korngold wasn’t quite as prolific as the young Wolfgang Amadeus, by the age of 17, he had composed a Sinfonietta and two one-act operas (Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta). His music had attracted the attention – and approval – of great composers such as Richard Strauss and Puccini. Mahler called him “a musical genius”.

His early style was typical of fin-de-siècle Vienna – lushly scored music, full of creamy opulence. His biggest early success came with the opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), based on the 1892 novel by Belgian symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. With a libretto by Paul Schott – a pseudonym for Korngold and his father – the surrealist plot deals with the struggles of Paul, a young man, to come to terms with the death of his wife, Marie. He keeps a “Temple of Memories” as a shrine to her memory and refuses to get on with his life, convinced that a woman he has met on the streets of Bruges (Marietta) is actually his wife. Korngold’s score is rich and through-composed, although two numbers – Marietta’s Lied “Glück das mir verblieb” and Pierrot’s Tanzlied “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” – have taken on their own life in recitals of opera arias. Jordan Fein’s semi-staged production forms a fitting close to Bard’s festival.

The Richard B Fisher for the Performing Arts at Bard College
© Peter Aaron '68/Esto

Korngold’s next opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, is much more rarely performed; indeed, Bard’s production, directed by Christian Räth, will be – astonishingly – the opera’s American premiere. This heady score tells the tale of a love triangle between a ruthless despot (The Ruler), his beautiful wife (Heliane) and an unearthly young man (The Stranger). When Heliane is (falsely) accused of adultery, The Stranger kills himself, leaving her unable to prove her innocence unless she agrees to undergo a trial set by her husband: to bring The Stranger back to life. Korngold claimed, before the 1927 Hamburg premiere, that this would be his masterwork, but it failed to excite the critics. Only in recent years has interest in Heliane been reignited.

By the early 1930s, Korngold had written several orchestral scores – including a “Left-Hand” Piano Concerto, commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost an arm in World War 1. There were many chamber works, of which the String Sextet and Piano Quintet are probably the ripest plums, and many Lieder. During the 1920s, Korngold was busy re-orchestrating and re-arranging operettas by Johann Strauss II. But Vienna in the 1930s was no longer a safe place for a Jewish family and, in 1934, Korngold visited the United States when he was commissioned by Max Reinhardt to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for his film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a terrific, inventive adaptation, Korngold quickly realising the potential in writing for the cinema. After the Anschluss in 1938, Korngold moved his family permanently to America, pledging not to compose for the concert hall again until Hitler was removed from power.

Korngold almost single-handedly created the concept of the Hollywood soundtrack, composing in his familiar, lushly orchestrated style swashbuckling scores for hit films such as Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood, the latter of which won him an Oscar. Quickly becoming aware that composing film scores needed to be a speedy process, Korngold would steal from his “classical” works, adapting them for his purposes. It earned him fame in Hollywood, composing scores for over twenty films, but it meant his earlier music wasn’t taken seriously, amid accusations of having “sold out” to the silver screen. Although Korngold became an American citizen in 1943, by the end of the war he had grown disillusioned with writing for Hollywood and wanted to resume composing for the concert hall.

Just as he had plundered his early works in writing for Hollywood, he used themes from his earlier film scores in composing his most famous work, the Violin Concerto in D major. Another Dawn (1937), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Prince and the Pauper (1937) all put in fleeting cameo appearances in this luxuriantly scored work, dedicated to Alma Mahler and premiered in 1947 by the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz.

It’s arguable that the concerto’s success – and those Hollywood scores – have overshadowed Korngold’s other music. Therefore, Bard College’s festival goes some way to redressing the balance. Listeners can hear the early chamber music, the songs, the concertos – though not the Violin Concerto – and the operas alongside the film scores and music by Korngold’s contemporaries, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Strauss and Hindemith. For the musically curious, it promises to be a rewarding exploration.

Click here for full details of Bard Music Festival’s Korngold series.

This article was sponsored by Bard College