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Happy Birthday, Erich Wolfgang Korngold!


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May 29th marks the birthday anniversary of one of the great film composers of all time, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Of course, Korngold was so much more than merely a "film" composer. He was one of the great musical prodigies, right up there with Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saens, in terms of precocity. In fact, he actually matured faster than Mozart, arriving at a post- (Richard) Straussian style at a terrifyingly early age. He began picking out melodies at the piano at the age of 3. He mastered the instrument by 7, and by 10 he was performing his own compositions for some of the greatest musicians of his day. His first major work was the ballet-pantomime "Der Schneemann" ("The Snowman"), set down at the age of 11. This was performed at the Vienna Court Opera, before Emperor Franz Josef.

Thereafter, Vienna was Korngold-mad. Everything he wrote was published, and his works were performed by such luminaries as Bruno Walter, Artur Schnabel, and Felix Weingartner. Gustav Mahler called him a genius. Strauss himself was awed and humbled by his talent. His early operas, the first two of which were composed at the age of 16, were admired even by Puccini. By the time he reached his early 20s, he was composing some of his greatest works, including the opera "Die Tote Stadt," which created a sensation. In 1932, a poll was taken among the musical cogniscenti of Vienna to determine who was the most important composer of the day. The result was a tie between Arnold Schoenberg and Korngold (both of whom shared the same teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky!). There was a time when his opulent musical vocabulary was actually considered rather forward-looking, and indeed his harmonic progressions could sometimes be a little vertiginous. But it's funny now to look back and think of such a soundly romantic idiom being perceived at one time as avant-garde.

Naturally, with so much early success, there was a sizeable backlash and the predictable factionalism developed. Korngold's father was an influential music critic, an outspoken conservative who derided most of the major musical developments of the day, at the same time pushing his son's musical accomplishments. I imagine some of Korngold's innovations, though modest by today's standard's, would have been enough to make his father's mustache bristle. In any case, he dissuaded his son from experimenting too vigorously, and this may have been in large part the reason Korngold's language matured at a very early age -- more rapidly than that of any other composer, including, it could be argued, Mendelssohn -- and then just simply stayed there, frozen in time. That musical tastes would change and quickly pass him by was inevitable. Also, the elder Korngold managed to step on all the right toes, ensuring a fair amount of cattiness when it came to the reception of his own son's newer compositions. Critics and musicians with axes to grind against Julius, invariably attacked Erich. Still, at the time Korngold embarked for Hollywood in the mid-30s, he was at the peak of his fame.

He did so, at the request of the impresario Max Reinhardt, with whom he had collaborated on revivals of Shakespeare and the operettas of Johann Strauss II. Reinhardt was engaged by Warner Brothers to direct an adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Erich did a smash-up job adapting Mendelssohn's famous incidental music, fleshing it out with passages from the symphonies and orchestrations of some of the piano pieces. The use of music in movies was still in its infancy then. This was only a few years after Steiner's "King Kong," remember, and studios were just beginning to realize how much music could add to the overall impact of film. Korngold was a major celebrity, a real European concert composer, so naturally Warners was anxious to continue the association. Korngold was engaged to write his first original score for "Captain Blood" in 1935, starring a young Tazmanian-born actor, as yet unknown, named Errol Flynn. The rest is history.

Korngold became the first composer of international stature to accept a major contract with Hollywood. This brought him enormous fame, as the the moviegoing public flooded theatres for films like "The Sea Hawk" and "Kings Row." When war broke out in Europe, Korngold, who was Jewish, brought his family to safety in California, and found steady work in films. Unlike Steiner, who was forced to churn out dozens of scores of inevitably variable quality, Korngold was a big enough name that he was able to negotiate with Warners. He was allowed to choose his own projects, and he was given leeway to score at a comparatively leisurely pace. It was not unheard of for the composer to actually arrive on the set to conduct the actors in the reading of their lines in order to accommodate certain musical ideas he had for a given scene. He scored his films like operas, directing his orchestrators to support the individual timbres of the actors' voices. The result was an unprecedented string of artistic successes, some of the greatest film scores ever written. Korngold won two Oscars for Best Original Score, one for "Anthony Adverse" and the other for "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

Unfortunately, for all his popular success and his good working relationship with the studio, his standing was compromised with "serious" music critics. By the end of the war, Korngold's vocabulary seemed hopelessly outdated, and in any case he had artistically whored himself by rubbing shoulders with Errol Flynn and Bette Davis. How vulgar! He attempted to stage a comeback in Vienna and in the United States, but history and musical tastes had passed him by. Despite some high-profile events, like the Violin Concerto written for Heifetz, and a Symphony dedicated to the memory of FDR, his works were met largely with condescension or, worse, indifference. At the time of his death, in 1957, he believed himself wholly forgotten.

However, within the next fifteen years, some major musicians were again beginning to take notice of Korngold's music. The renowned Strauss-interpreter Rudolf Kempe set down the world premiere recording of the Symphony in F-sharp. Erich Leinsdorf, music director of the Boston Symphony and a regular presence on the podiums of the world's great opera houses, recorded "Die Tote Stadt." And Charles Gerhardt tapped an unsuspected vein of nostalgia in several generations of movie lovers by initiating the Classic Film Scores series. All three of these groundbreaking projects were undertaken by RCA.

The music-loving public, exasperated by a very bleak period at mid-century when all new music came to their ears as an indecypherable cacophony began to reassess the ouput of composers who had embraced melody. Korngold benefited from this -- and how! With the introduction of compact disc technology in the 1980s, record companies were anxious to explore new, bankable terrain. After the initial glut of standard repertory, largely forgotten or marginalized figures who had written in accessible styles were gradually revived. Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, Gerald Finzi, and Erich Wolgang Korngold. And people were beginning to realize these guys were actually pretty good, that there had been more than one thread of musical thought in the 20th century, and that romanticism and melody had not been wholly abandoned after all.

The Korngold centenary occured in 1997, and by now all his major works have been recorded. There was a time when it was inconceivable there would ever be another recording of his Symphony, which I played in its LP incarnation only sparingly lest I wear it out. You see, it had gone out of print. Now it is possible to choose between such ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic, the Oregon Symphony, the Northwest German Philharmonic, to say nothing of the original Munich recording. A great day for Korngold fans, and for music-lovers in general! Never before has such a bounty of musical treasures, both well-known and obscure, been so readily available to the general public.

So I encourage you all to explore, if you have not already done so. Korngold was one of the true pioneers of a medium which has become so important to all of us here. John Williams owes Korngold a tremendous debt, not only for his direct influence and his spiritual kinship, but for his overall part in the creation of the form. He was truly one of the giants.

Happy Birthday, E.W.K.!

RECOMMENDED LISTENING:

"Symphony in F-sharp"

Kempe/Munich Philharmonic (Varese Sarabande)

Downes/BBC Philarmonic (Chandos)

Previn/London Symphony Orch. (Deutsche Grammophon)

"Sinfonietta for Large Orchestra"

Albrecht/Berlin Radio Sym. Orch. (Varese)

Litton/Dallas Sym. Orch. (Dorian)

"Violin Concerto in D"

Perlman/Previn/Pittsburgh Sym. (EMI)

Heifetz/Wallenstein/L.A. Phil. (RCA)

"Piano Concerto for the Left Hand"

Hamelin/Vanska/BBC Scottish Sym. Orch. (Hyperion)

"Orchestral Works," 4 volumes

Albert/Northwest German Phil. (CPO)

"Piano Trio, Op. 1"

Goebel Piano Trio (Etcetera)

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

Pacific Art Trio (Delos)

"String Quartets Nos. 1 & 3"

Chilingirian Quartet (RCA)

"Suite for 2 Violins, Cello & Piano Left Hand"

Fleisher/Silverstein/Laredo/Ma (Sony)

"Die Tote Stadt" (opera)

Leinsdorf/Munich Radio Sym. (RCA)

"Das Wunder der Heliane" (opera)

Mauceri/RSO-Berlin (London)

"Die Kathrin" (opera)

Brabbins/BBC Concert Orch. (CPO)

"The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of E.W.K."

("Robin Hood," "Juarez," "Kings Row," "Capt. Blood," "Anthony Adverse," and more)

Gerhardt/National Philharmonic (RCA)

"Elizabeth and Essex: The Classic Film Scores of E.W.K."

("The Prince and the Pauper," "Anthony Adverse," "The Sea Wolf," "Deception" Cello Concerto, "Another Dawn," and more)

Gerhardt/ National Philharmonic (RCA)

"Captain Blood: Classic Film Scores for Errol Flynn"

("The Sea Hawk," "The Adventures of Robin Hood")

Gerhardt/National Philharmonic (RCA)

"The Sea Hawk: Previn Conducts Korngold"

("Captain Blood," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Elizabeth and Essex")

Previn/ London Symphony Orch. (DG)

"The Adventures of Robin Hood"

Kojian/Utah Sym. Orch. (Varese)

"Kings Row"

Gerhardt/National Philharmonic (Varese)

"The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex"

Davis/Munich Symphony Orch. (Varese)

RECOMMENDED READING:

"The Last Prodigy: A Biography of E.W.K."

Brendan G. Carroll (Amadeus Press)

"Erich Wolfgang Korngold"

Jessica Duchen (Phaidon, 20th Century Composers series)

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Amen to that. Williams owes a great deal to Korngold and always mentions it. Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Happy Birthday and of course, I should have known he was a Gemini!!!

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Happy Birthday to one of the great founders of film music! Everyone who doesn't have it should go out and pick up Tsunami's Captain Blood CD now.

Marian - who's still waiting for DVD releases of all those old Errol Flynn movies with Korngold scores.

:music: Small Soldiers (Jerry Goldsmith)

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I went to his grave last year with a friend and he cleaned it up a bit cause it was a little dirty and grassy at the edges.

Director - great admirer and fan of Korngold

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I went to his grave last year with a friend and he cleaned it up a bit cause it was a little dirty and grassy at the edges.

Director - great admirer and fan of Korngold.

Happy Birthday, Erich!

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Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Rather, the piece when Anakin wins the race.

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  • 3 years later...
Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Rather, the piece when Anakin wins the race.

In what way?

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Yikes! Who resurrected this thing? Lotman? Was I really posting here three years ago? Beats the hell out of this year's birthday salute -- although no doubt MSM found it too long for his rather limited attention span. :mrgreen:

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  • 2 years later...

Happy Birthday Mr. Korngold!

Also, in case you still come here, thanks for the biography and recommendations, Figo. I hadn't known Korngold was a child prodigy.

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Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Rather, the piece when Anakin wins the race.

In what way?

We never got an answer to that one.

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Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Rather, the piece when Anakin wins the race.

In what way?

We never got an answer to that one.

Was no need, just listen to the cue. <_<

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I have the violin concerto and a CD called Between Two Worlds.

Betwen Two Worlds is excellent, although I never realised it until I heard it performed live.

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Must listen to it again. It never really captivated me like the violin concert did.

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Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing suite is also very good.

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Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing suite is also very good.

I heard that live in another concert several years ago. I don't remember it, but I did like it - I should probably get that CD.

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  • 11 years later...
On 5/29/2002 at 7:22 PM, ocelot said:

Williams owes a great deal to Korngold and always mentions it. Even one of the pieces from TPM was ddedicated to him (panaka and the Queens Protectors) if I'm not mistaken.

Intriguing. What is the source of this info?

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12 minutes ago, Disco Stu said:

To anyone who wishes a happy birthday to Korngold, I have some bad news...

 

He would have been 122, incidentally the age of the oldest person of all time (Jean Louise Calment).

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On 9/21/2019 at 8:08 AM, Modest Expectations said:

Intriguing. What is the source of this info?

It was in one of the videos of the scoring session, when he said it and when they started the recording, he said, something to the effect of "this one is for Korngold", but it was such a long time ago. Check out the videos of the recording sessions, they should still be around.

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