Erich Wolfgang Korngold
David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Biographies of film composers abound with tales of precocious children, but none is more amazing than that of Erich Korngold. He was born in 1897, the son of Julius Korngold, Vienna's leading music critic. At the age of 11 he had already composed for piano a ballet, Der Schneemann (The Snowman); his teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, orchestrated it, and it was premiered at the Viennese Court Opera in a command performance for the Emperor, Franz Josef, creating a sensation. A year later came a Piano Trio, of which Richard Strauss said (since I am unable to quote him verbatim, I omit quotation marks), I have recently heard a Piano Trio of exceptional brilliance and maturity. But more impressive than the talent displayed by the composer is the fact that he is a twelve year old boy. When Gustav Mahler heard the lad play some of his music he exclaimed, "A genius ... a genius!" And Giacomo Puccini said of him, "The boy has so much talent that he could easily give us some and still have enough left for himself." He was only 16 when he composed his two short operas, The Ring of Polykrates and Violanta and his concert pieces were played by the great conductors, Nikisch and Weingartner.
As might have been anticipated, such precocity aroused jealousy within the incestuous musical community, and soon rumors that the music attributed to him was actually written by his father were circulating. Korngold père (who had bestowed the first name of one of his own idols upon his son, as a middle name) was no stranger to the guerrilla warfare typical in artistic milieus and knew exactly how to handle this wicked brouhaha. "If I could compose music of this quality," he wrote, "do you think I would be writing music criticism?" In 1920, still only 23, Erich wrote his famous opera, Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), which was premiered simultaneously in Cologne and Hamburg. In 1928 the Neue Wiener Tageblatt conducted a poll of Viennese music lovers to identify the greatest living composers. The winners (both students of Zemlinsky) were Arnold Schoenberg, 54, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, now all of 31.
In 1929 he began his long and fruitful association with the director and impresario Max Reinhardt, for whom he orchestrated and conducted several enormously successful operas he had adapted from the music of Johann Strauss, Jr., including The Great Waltz and a new version of Die Fledermaus (The Bat). Then, in 1934, Reinhardt brought Korngold to Hollywood to arrange and conduct Felix Mendelssohn's music for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Hollywood Bowl. When Warner Brothers commissioned Reinhardt to turn this production into a film, he turned once again to Korngold.
After completing his work on this film, which he seems to have enjoyed, Korngold went back to Vienna, but before long he and his family returned to the United States. This was a fateful concurrence with the emigrations of his contemporaries, including Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith. In Hollywood, Korngold found the warmest of welcomes from his colleagues in music and from others in the film community. Recognition of his great talent soon made him the preeminent artist in his field. He became, as Tony Thomas puts it, the fair-haired boy of movie music. Over the next twelve years (1935-1947) he composed 18 remarkable film scores, including: CAPTAIN BLOOD, ANTHONY ADVERSE (Academy Award), THE SEA HAWK, JUAREZ, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Academy Award), KINGS ROW, DEVOTION, OF HUMAN BONDAGE (remake) and DECEPTION. Then, in 1947, he had his first heart attack and, except for one more adaptation, he retired, after which he devoted his final years to composing concert pieces, including a Cello Concerto, a Violin Concerto (commissioned and performed by Jascha Heifetz), a Symphony in F#, and many chamber works, three String Quartets among them. In some of these he utilized thematic material from his film scores, for which he was derided by the ever-present snobs in the music world.
His response to the criticism which denigrated his music as old-fashioned, out of step with the current vogue, is touchingly modest and devoid of rancor: "I have often been asked whether, in composing film music, I have to consider the public's taste and present understanding of music. I can answer calmly in the negative. Never have I differentiated between my music for the films and that for the operas and concert pieces. Just as I do for the operatic stage, I try to the motion pictures dramatically melodious music sonic development and variation of the themes."
Yet, when he died in 1957, still famous in his native land, his star was in eclipse in his adopted country, where his music was dismissed as anachronistic. I find it terribly sad that he did not live to see the cruel verdict of small minds reversed, but I'm certain that he would have enjoyed the irony of the turn of fate in which it was the revival of interest in his "impossibly romantic" film music that led to a renascence of interest in all of his life's work. In 1972, some prescient person at RCA Records became aware of the underground traffic in tape recordings of music from his movie scores and decided to take a flyer at producing a new LP for this market. The success of this first recording, which was conducted by Charles Gerhardt and produced by Korngold's son George, was phenomenal and led to RCA's Classic Film Scores series. This in turn led to new recordings of his other works and eventually encouraged revivals of his operas, which are now in the repertory of major opera houses.
At the end of his article on Korngold in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, the renowned editor and musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky writes: "Ironically, his film scores, in the form of orchestrated suites, experienced long after his death a spontaneous renascence, particularly on records, and especially among the unprejudiced and unopinionated American musical youth, who found in Korngold's music the stuff of their own new dreams."
It would be, I think, remiss not to recall the wit of this extraordinary man. In 1981 his sons, Ernst and George entrusted their collection of his music manuscripts and memorabilia to the Library of Congress. To celebrate this gift, the Music Division of the Library organized a concert of music from that collection, in the course of which Ernst Korngold made a charming speech. My friend, Jon Newsom, presently Acting Chief of the Music Division, has made available to me a copy of that statement which is too lengthy to be included in its entirety here. But my own favorite Korngold yarn (which also turns out to have beer that of his sons) was recounted by Ernst:
"My favorite story concerns his relationship with the composer, Max Steiner, his friend and rival at Warner Brothers. One day Steiner said to him, 'Tell me something, Korngold. We've both been at Warner's for ten years now, and in that time your music has gotten progressively worse and worse and mine has been getting better and better. Why do you suppose that is?' And without missing a beat my father answered, 'I tell you vy dat iss, Steiner dat iss because you are stealing from me and I am stealing from you.' "
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author