Even listeners unfamiliar with the name of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold are likely familiar with his musical style. During World War II, Korngold sought refuge in America and found employment composing symphonic scores for the Hollywood studios, quickly establishing a reputation as the greatest composer to have worked in film. His personal compositional style so influenced other film composers that it is difficult to hear any music written by Korngold without being reminded of the classic sound of Hollywood in the golden era.
Korngold's life began very differently, however, as perhaps the greatest child prodigy the music world has ever seen, famous throughout Europe while still a teenager. Erich was born in 1897, the son of the leading music critic in Vienna, Julius Korngold. At age 7 he was already improvising small compositions on the piano, and already showing his own unique harmonic voice. When he was 9, his father brought him to play for Mahler, who declared him a 'genius' and sent him to study with Alexander von Zemlinsky (who was also Schoenberg's only composition teacher)
The first piece heard tonight, Don Quixote: Six Character Pieces, comes from those first years of study with Zemlinsky. Written when he was only 11 years old, Korngold's musical thinking is already fully mature. The pieces are astounding in their idiosyncratic harmonies, pianistic brilliance and effective portrayal of character and image. In 1909, Julius Klengel sent a private printing of the twelve year old Erich's first substantial works, including these character pieces, his first piano sonata and the ballet The Snowman to leading composers and scholars throughout Europe to garner their opinions, and the reaction was one of universal praise and wonderment. Richard Strauss said he felt a sense of 'awe' reading the compositions and became a mentor to Korngold for the the rest of his life. The premiere of The Snowman in 1910 launched Korngold's extraordinary rise to fame: by the time he was in his young twenties, he would be one of the most successful composers in the world, with four operas being produced throughout Europe and a catalog of major works being performed in concert halls the world over. He was regularly hailed for his unique blend of modern, personal harmonies with innovative, vigorous rhythms and a seemingly effortless gift for mesmerizing melodies. He was often labeled the 'future of music', the natural successor to Strauss and Mahler.
Korngold's Sextet for strings was written in 1916, as the 19 year old composer was just beginning to establish himself as an independent adult, and is widely considered to be Korngold's finest chamber work. At the premiere, performed with the famed Rosé Quartet, critic Joseph Reitler wrote “Korngold's signature is unmistakable. Of the composers alive today, apart from Strauss, there can be none who writes as personally and as individually as he. He represents the greatest musical talent in Austria” It is also one of the most complex and difficult scores of its type to bring together. Korngold extensively notates his near constant tempo changes, and I owe a great debt to my colleagues for their dedicated work on this beautiful score.
Korngold's incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing premiered at a production in 1920 and was an immediate success. So much so that, when the originally engaged musicians had to return to work at the Vienna Philharmonic some months later, Korngold was forced to arrange the score for violin and piano to continue the production. These four pieces stem from that arrangement (my arrangement for cello was necessitated by my lack of foresight in not learning the violin.)
In 1934 Korngold's friend Max Reinhardt persuaded him to visit America for the first time to arrange Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. This engagement led to a continuing series of requests for Korngold to compose original movie scores. Korngold eventually accepted some of these offers, and it was one of these requests, to score The Adventures of Robin Hood, that very likely saved Korngold's life, convincing him to leave Austria just days before the Anschluss. With return to Vienna impossible, Korngold settled into a remarkable career as a film composer. Among his better known scores are Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse, The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Robin Hood (for which he won an academy award), The Sea Hawk, Kings Row, Devotion, Of Human Bondage and Escape Me Never. His style, using the Wagnerian tradition of introducing and developing leitmotifs for each major character, has remained deeply influential in film music to this day. Korngold was also deeply involved in all aspects of the 1946 Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains picture Deception, which featured a love triangle involving a cellist, a pianist and a composer, and it is for this movie that the short work heard tonight titled 'Romance Impromptu' was written (though it never made it into the final cut of the movie).
Following the end of the war, Korngold eschewed film composing and attempted to re-establish his career as a 'serious' composer. A commission for a violin concerto from Jascha Heifetz seemed to offer a perfect opportunity, and many significant works flowed from Korngold's pen in the next decade, but he found both in Europe and America that his style–once considered modern and inventive–was now considered old-fashioned in the wake of the rise of composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Furthermore, his time in the Hollywood studios gave critics an easy excuse to dismiss him. (One famously quipped “more Corn than Gold”) Korngold died in 1957 in a world that had little interest or use for the music of the composer who had once been celebrated as the 'future of music'. By 1970 he was a nearly forgotten name from the past. But slowly, much like the Mahler revival in the early 1960s, people began to re-discover his music and many of them became passionate advocates. Today there are regular performances and recordings of Korngold's work around the globe, and his popularity only seems to be growing. A world that seems to have wearied on modernity purely for the sake of modernity is searching once again for music that is meaningful to them, and Korngold may yet again be a 'composer of the future' !
For more information on Korngold, I highly recommend Brendan Carroll's biography The Last Prodigy and his youtube channel 'brendangcarroll'. I would like to offer my deepest thanks to my colleagues, Eric, Jenny, Ivo, Joan, Evelyn and especially Kevin, a passionate Korngold advocate who inspired this concert and whose arrangements we hope to present at a future Kongold-iads. Thank you for joining us this evening.