May 1, 2014
“Here’s a challenge for you,” a friend posed over dinner some time ago. “Name the four great child prodigy classical music composers.” He leaned back, smiling smugly in the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t be able to guess them all. Two were obvious: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of course, and Felix Mendelssohn,” I blurted out. My friend kept smiling good-naturedly as I struggled for number three. “Camille Saint-Saëns?” I asked hesitatingly. “Good, good. I didn’t think you’d get that one,” he said. “And now number four, please.”
Number four? I hadn’t the slightest idea. My friend, seeing the blank look on my face, offered a clue. “This composer shares a name with Mozart.” The clue proved useless, however, and finally growing impatient, he served up the answer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) is primarily known as the composer of lush, romantic 1930s and ’40s Hollywood film scores—Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood come to mind, in which Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way across the screen accompanied by Korngold’s music. Such was the success of his film scores that decades of future film composers have been influenced by his style.
Korngold, the son of the leading Viennese music critic of that time, was indeed a child prodigy, and one who achieved near legendary status. He had composed a song for voice and piano at age eight, a first and second piano sonata at twelve (the second a highly chromatic yet exuberant work performed throughout Europe by the distinguished pianist Artur Schnabel), a piano trio at fourteen, a violin and piano sonata at sixteen, the operas Violante and the acclaimed and psychologically probing Die Tote Stadt (The Dead city) while still a teenager. His music, heartfelt and with a singular voice, captivated both distinguished musicians and ordinary music lovers. So much was thought of Korngold that in 1920 Die Tote Stadt received a double premier (conducted by none other than Otto Klemperer) in both Hamburg and Cologne.
Korngold’s Suite for two violins, cello, and piano left hand, Opus 23, was the first work of his I came to know and perform. It was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittengstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War. During rehearsals, our group differed on the work’s merit. Some thought it full of flair and invention, others felt it odd and ungainly.
This was a pattern of disagreement I was to encounter over and over with Korngold’s music, but the Suite’s ravishing slow movement affected me deeply enough to seek out the composer’s son, George, in search of other unknown treasures. George, who lived in his father’s house in Toluca Lake, a suburb of Los Angeles, appeared grateful that anyone was still interested in Korngold’s music a mere thirty years after his death. In little more than half a century, Korngold’s reputation as a hugely successful and daring innovator had plummeted. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich: these were some of the composers whose new musical languages were garnering all the attention. Korngold had been reduced to an old-fashioned relic of a bygone age. Worse still, he was stigmatized in some quarters as merely a film composer not worthy of consideration in any other area.
George told me over the phone that he indeed possessed treasures, namely Korngold’s three string quartets, which he generously offered to send me. I brought the music to our next Guarneri String Quartet reading session, where we looked at new works for future programs. Two of us found the quartets highly attractive, two thought them overblown. With such disagreement, we decided not to play any of the works. The pattern, or should I call it the Korngold curse, was apparently alive and well.
Korngold has lots of company in this never-never land of conflicting opinions. Are Richard Wagner’s operas monumental or merely grandiose, Edward Elgar’s symphonies noble or disappointingly mild-mannered, Gabriel Fauré’s chamber music pieces seductively atmospheric or insubstantial? Depends when, where, and whom you’re asking. I imagine dead composers nervously tracking their rising or declining reputations from six feet under like traders on Wall Street:
Business update: Anton Bruckner down twelve points, Aaron Copland up five in heavy trading.
The composer Mark Neikrug, director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, invited five of us to perform and record Korngold’s Piano Quintet, Opus 15—a work entirely unknown to me and, as I soon learned, to most musicians. The Quintet’s shifting rhythms and colors, its dazzling invention and brilliance counterbalanced by moments of suspended time and deeply moving lyricism clearly showed the twenty-three-year-old composer’s creative juices at full force. I found the work intriguing enough to schedule it for study at the next summer’s Marlboro Music Festival. In the performance that followed, some loved the Quintet while others absolutely loathed it. The Korngold curse once again!
Disagreement over the merits of Korngold’s music is an old story, however. A case in point is his Violin Concerto composed in 1945 and drawn from at least four of his film scores: Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse, and The Prince and the Pauper. The 1947 premier of Korngold’s Violin Concerto by Jascha Heifetz in St. Louis was a triumph. One review called it “the most enthusiastic ovation in the history of the auditorium” and predicted a lifetime of the work equal to the Mendelssohn Concerto. On the other hand, the New York performance that soon followed resulted in a different story. The New York Times critic said: “This is a Hollywood concerto. The melodies are ordinary and sentimental in character. The facility of the writing is matched by the mediocrity of the ideas.” The New York Sun went even further, calling the Concerto “More corn than gold.”
Recently, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra invited me to play at one of their concerts. They also asked me to speak at the event about growing up in the city during the late thirties, forties, and early fifties and to perform something representative of Los Angeles musical life during that period. The pianist Jeffrey Kahane and I performed “Marietta’s Lute Song,” an aria from Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt.
Korngold was an obvious choice as one of the musicians of Jewish heritage along with Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Waxman, and many others who found refuge in the City of Angels after having been driven from their beloved Europe by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi gangsters. Korngold arrived in Hollywood in 1934 and quickly became acquainted with both its music and film world. He partied with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Bros., and Bette Davis, and despite the musical chasm that existed between him and Schoenberg, the composers and their families became surprisingly close friends. Still, despite his success in Hollywood and the growing anti-Semitism and likelihood of war in Europe, Korngold missed his Vienna and returned to Austria, apparently oblivious of the extreme danger he and his family were in.
The telegram from Warner Bros. in 1938 asking Korngold to write the score for a new film, The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, managed to lure him back to Hollywood. Ultimately, The Adventures of Robin Hood won Korngold a second Oscar and possibly saved his life: he began writing the score just as Hitler invaded and annexed Austria.
As Jeffrey and I completed our first run-through of “Marietta’s Lute Song” for the upcoming concert, he remarked how intoxicating the music was and how much it reminded him of Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” written at the very end of the composer’s life. I had to agree on both counts, adding that Korngold had been a teenager when he wrote the aria, more than a quarter of a century before Strauss wrote his “Songs.”
After the concert, several people came backstage to say hello and congratulate us on the performances. One of them told me that he found “Marietta’s Lute Song” no better than a shallow Andrew Lloyd Webber creation. Another said she was overcome to the point of tears by the simplicity and sheer beauty of the work.
Business update: Erich Wolfgang Korngold holding steady amidst continued volatile trading.
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