Hollywood’s Last Romantic

Our film special rolls with a centenary tribute to Erich von Korngold, a great composer for concert hall and cinema. But why, asks Malcolm Hayes, has he been snubbed?

At last, in 1997, the silly jokes have stopped. ‘More corn than gold’, pronounced the critic of the New York Sun (what else?) in 1947, in relation to the premiere in that city of Korngold’s newly composed Violin Concerto. The tone of patronising dismissiveness was typical of how the works of twentieth-century music’s most legendary wunderkind were at that point being assessed. There has to be something suspicious both about the critical comprehensiveness with which Korngold and his music were written off in 1947 on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and the avalanche of feverish acclaim now being showered on the same composer and the same music in his centenary 50 years later. The evidence is that the western musical world in general, and the western musical press in particular, has never quite been able to make up its mind about Korngold. More than that, it seems to have found its own indecision about him irritating, and has until recently been taking out that irritation on the composer himself.

If Korngold’s talent was so vast (which it was) and his idiom is so directly appealing (which it is), why has his music so often been seen as a ‘problem’? And why has it been played so much less during the past 50 years than it was in Korngold’s lifetime? After all, there are other twentieth-century composers of his era whose allegiance to traditional tonality was similarly instinctive and absolute, and whose work has gone on being warmly accepted by performers and audiences as if the related critical dismissiveness didn’t exist. Prokofiev comes to mind at once. So do Shostakovich, Britten and Walton.

Whatever anyone’s interpretation of Korngold’s situation, the facts will forever tell their own astonishing story. Korngold was born in 1897 in Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic). Four years later he was taken to Vienna where his father Julius became one of the city’s most influential music critics, and where Erich Wolfgang emerged as the most precocious composing prodigy the world has seen. While the boy Mozart’s all-round musical gifts were similarly phenomenal, it was not until his late teens that Mozart’s mature creative voice began to emerge unmistakably. What makes Korngold’s earliest works so astounding is that very maturity. His First Piano Sonata, completed in 1909, already speaks in recognisably the same language the composer was to use in his Hollywood film scores 30 years later.

Mahler proclaimed young Erich ‘a genius’. Richard Strauss, having looked over some of Korngold’s earliest works which Julius had had privately printed, wrote back to his father: ‘The first reaction on learning that this had been written by a boy of 11 is something of a shock mingled with apprehension’. The next few years of Korngold’s career were all upward lift and culminated in the one-act opera Violanta, whose idiom of heady sensuality combined with a staggering technical mastery to create what is in effect a tour de force of Viennese-style verismo. It was premiered, to wild acclaim, in Munich in 1916 and in Vienna later that year.

With such achievements already to his credit, and with the pressurising influence of his proud and obsessed father to cope with, it would have been no surprise if Korngold had grown into and had remained an unbalanced personality. All the evidence instead points to a remarkably equable and nice man, whose innate good humour was usually only stretched by inadequate performances (or more general bad treatment) of his music. His lifelong marriage to the musically talented Luzi von Sonnenthal was evidently secure and happy, despite his father’s jealous attempts to destabilise it before it had even started in 1924. by then Korngold Jr was the internationally famous composer of the full-length opera Die tote Stadt (premiered simultaneously in Cologne and Hamburg in 1920) and was starting work on a successor, Das Wunder der Heliane.

When the combined prospect of work as a film composer and a refuge from Nazism led him to live and work increasingly in Hollywood from the 1930s onwards, he there conscientiously supported his own and Luz’s families (both of which were Jewish). His speedy technical mastery of the new medium amazed all who worked with him, and resulted in some of the finest film scores ever written.

So what happened? Why, when the Korngolds returned to Vienna after the Second World War, did they find the erstwhile wunderkind‘s music now being written off as it was in America? ‘Composition has travelled a long way for the idea of just writing some warm, romantic tunes’ reads a Viennese review of the Violin Concerto. A performance of Die tote Stadt in Munich in 1954 was wildly applauded by the audience. The reviews wrote the work off as Romantic old hat. When Korngold died in Hollywood in 1957, his reputation as a serious composer seemed to have died with him.

Much of this relates to the time-honoured factors influencing the psychological share price of any composer’s music in any given place and time. These include the fickle extremities of fashion (especially in a city like Vienna); a long-standing critical obsession with assessing composers in terms of style wars, rather than of what their music has to say on a deeper level; and an irrational and ridiculous snobbery towards the work of a ‘film composer’ in relation to the serious world of the opera house and concert hall. As both Prokofiev – the composer of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible – and Korngold showed, the kind of craftsmanship, expertise and inspiration involved in creating an exceptional film score need not be so very different from the kind needed to create an exceptional opera.

Is the strength of Korngold’s music itself simply more limited, then, than all those starry early successes would indicate? The Violin Concerto is one work that offers a possible clue. Gorgeous as the music’s tunefulness and colouration are, it also has a static quality that’s curiously at odds with its implied intention (very traditional, symphonic, and Austro-German) of developing – of going somewhere. The memorable opening bars seem to introduce the listener to a first view of a wide and hauntingly beautiful landscape. Three movements and 25 minutes later, you have the odd feeling of still looking at it from that point, without having been taken on a real journey through it. But if this is perhaps a relative shortcoming in Korngold’s concert hall music, it relates hardly at all to his stage works. The hyper-atmospheric drama, devastating technical mastery and sheer outrageous panache of Die tote Stadt easily match the same qualities of Strauss’s Salome, which has always held its place in the repertoire from which, until recently, Korngold’s masterwork has been absent for decades.

His influence on later composers – apart from fellow film-smiths – has been at best ambiguous, and arguably negligible. But so what? Perhaps here was a composer who was just too gifted and unclassifiable for his own medium-term good. Perhaps, too, all his music has ever needed is the time it has now had to come happily into its own – in a CD age when individual listeners are, in effect, freer to make up their own minds about such things than ever before.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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