Erich Wolfgang Korngold

29/05/1897 Brno, 09/11/1957 Los Angeles  


“He is the only example of a composing prodigy that I have found who had a fully formed musical personality from the word ‘go’, from the beginning. In his very first works, for example, the Don Quixote suite, the very opening movement, it couldn’t be by anybody else. And he is eleven, ten years old in this piece,” said Brendan G. Carroll, the author of a Korngold biography. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born on 29 May 1897 in Brünn/Brno, Austria-Hungary (present-day Czech Republic). His grandfather Simon Korngold (1832–1897) had arrived from the province of Galizien (Galicia, today Poland) and established a liquor factory in the city. His first son, Julius (1860–1945), from his first marriage, to Rosa Lamm (1837–1879), studied law and music in Vienna (his conservatory teachers included the composer Anton Bruckner). He would become a major European music critic. Erich Wolfgang was Julius Korngold’s second son. Laying his hopes on fulfilling his own artistic ambitions, in 1909 the father privately published three early pieces of Erich’s: the ballet/pantomime Der Schneemann (The Snow Man), Piano Sonata No. 1 and the suite for piano Don Quixote. He subsequently sent copies of the scores to a dozen renowned musical figures, including the conductor Arthur Nikisch, the musicologist Hermann Kretzschmar, and the composers Engelbert Humperdinck and Richard Strauss. Moreover, Julius Korngold co-penned the librettos to Erich’s first opera, Der Ring des Polykrates (The Ring of Polycrates), as well as, under the pseudonym “Paul Schott”, to the opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), based on the novel Bruges-la-morte (Dead Bruges) by Georges Rodenbach (1855–1898). And finally, Julius Korngold’s bellicose critiques drove potential competitors of his son, among them Franz Schreker, out of Vienna. 

In June 1906, the father introduced Erich, nine years of age at the time, to Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), who, as Julius Korngold later wrote in his memoirs, referred to the boy as a “musical genius” and recommended that he take lessons from Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942), a friend of Mahler’s. Zemlinsky would give Erich instrumentation classes, yet after 18 months arrived at the conclusion that there was nothing more he could teach him. The boy went on to study with Karl Weigl (1881–1949) and Hermann Grädener (1844–1929). In 1911, at the time working at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague, Zemlinsky wrote rather sardonically to Erich about the latter: “Dear Erich, I hear that you are studying with Grädener. Is he making progress?”

“Such mastery can produce amazement, even fear.”
Richard Strauss

In 1910, the Hofoper in Vienna hosted the world premiere of Korngold’s ballet/pantomime Der Schneemann, as choreographed by Carl Godlewski. “Had we not known the age of Der Schneemann’s  creator and who he is, had we not seen the piano reduction, we would say that the music for the simple pantomime is extraordinarily highly inspired, amazingly rhythmically vivacious and harmonically singular ... But knowing that it has been written by an 11-year-old boy, actually just offhand, we are facing something inconceivable and mysterious,” the critic Richard Specht wrote after the opening night. The enthusiasm was not reduced by the fact that the piece was instrumented by Alexander Zemlinsky, Korngold’s teacher at the time. In late 1910, Korngold triumphed again, with the Piano Trio, Op. 1, premiered in Munich and soon performed in New York and his native Brno. 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ballet/pantomime Der Schneemann was a sensation. The critics lavished praise, notwithstanding that the piece was instrumented by Alexander Zemlinsky, the young composer’s teacher at the time.  BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Matthias Bamert.

While still a teenager, Korngold’s works were admired and performed by the greatest musical figures of the time: Artur Schnabel championed his 1910 Piano Sonata No. 2; Arthur Nikisch and the Gewandhausorchester first performed in Leipzig his first orchestral piece, the 1911 Schauspiel-Ouvertüre (Overture to a Drama), Op. 4. In 1913, Sinfonietta in B major, Op. 5, premiered in Vienna, conducted by Felix Weingartner, and the Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 6, was presented in Berlin by the virtuosos Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel. In 1919, within the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Hofoper in Vienna, Korngold’s one-act operas Der Ring de Polykrates and Violanta were performed under Bruno Walter, who had conducted their joint world premiere, on 28 March 1916 in Munich. The productions featured such stellar singers as Alfred Piccaver, Lotte Lehmann, Maria Jeritza, Rose Ader, Arthur Fleischer, Leo Slezak, and others. In 1917 the famous Rosé Quartet premiered in Vienna Korngold’s String Sextet in D major, Op. 10; in 1920 Die tote Stadt, Korngold’s third opera, opened to great acclaim simultaneously in Hamburg (conducted by Egon Pollak) and Cologne (under Otto Klemperer). Korngold was just 24 years of age when in 1921 Die tote Stadt was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (with the celebrated soprano Maria Jeritza cast in the lead role of Marietta) and in Vienna, where it would be given another 84 performances. In 1922, the piece was performed at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague, conducted by Alexander Zemlinsky and directed by Louis Laber. By 1933, Die tote Stadt had been staged in 55 productions. 

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) is Korngold’s most feted opera. It has been staged at numerous theatres worldwide, with the productions featuring in the lead roles celebrated singers, including Maria Jeritza and Alfred Piccaver. A recording of a 2018 performance at the Komische Oper in Berlin.

“I remember very well the time when as a child prodigy, at the age of 11 or 12, I amazed and terrified the music authorities with my harmonically ultramodern compositions. Yet since, at the age of 17, I began writing for opera stages […], I have remained faithful to my firm conviction that music should be melodic and, as a Viennese master preached and taught me, euphonious.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Longing for an independent life 
Following the triumph of Die tote Stadt, in 1921 Korngold was engaged at the Stadttheater Hamburg as a conductor, music arranger and coach. In 1924, he married the actress and singer Luise (Luzi) von Sonnenthal (1900–1962), to whom he would later dedicate his opera Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane). She would describe life with Korngold as a “long and happy love story”. Although both of them were Jewish, their marriage certificate reads that they were “without religion”. The couple had two sons: Ernst, born in 1925, and Georg, born in 1928. With regard to having his own family and Julius Korngold’s tendency to control his son’s personal life, as well as handle the royalties and fees for performances of his music, the young composer began seeking ways of freeing himself of his father’s influence and securing additional income. Hence, he started to arrange operettas. Korngold thus participated in the successful Theater an der Wien adaptation of Johann Strauss II’s Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice). He also re-orchestrated the same composer’s wildly popular Walzer aus Wien (Waltzes from Vienna), premiered in 1930 at the Operntheater in Vienna and four years later, titled The Great Waltz, performed on Broadway. While arranging operettas, Korngold also continued to compose works of his own. The pieces he wrote during the 1920s include String Quartet No. 1, Op. 16, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Op. 17 (to Paul Wittgenstein’s commission) and Drei Gesänge (Three Songs), Op. 18. In 1926 he received the Kunstpreis der Stadt Wien, and a year later he was named professor at the Wienermusikakademie, becoming at the age of 30 the youngest person to have held the title. In 1927, Korngold also completed his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, which, however, eclipsed by Ernst Křenek’s Zeitoper Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up), only met with a lukewarm audience response, despite the Vienna production boasting an excellent cast, including Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura. In 1932, Korngold plunged into his final opera, Die Kathrin (The Catherine), completing it in 1937. The publisher Schott suggested that he change the subject matter (Franco-German reconciliation). Yet minor modifications to the libretto did not placate the Nazi censors, and the opera would only receive its premiere in 1939, in neutral Sweden. By that time, the Korngolds had settled in Hollywood.

In the 1920s, Korngold was a sought-after music arranger. Possessing a great sense for Johann Strauss II’s style, he paid tribute to the Waltz King in his last orchestral work, the lovely Straussiana. Sinfonia of London, conducted by John Wilson.

First steps in Hollywood
“Music is music whether it is for the stage, rostrum or cinema.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Between 1934 and 1938, Erich Korngold paid regular visits to the United States. Living between two worlds, in the winter he composed film scores in Hollywood, while in the summer he continued to write classical music in Vienna. Korngold first came to California in 1934, upon the invitation of Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), who had asked the composer to arrange Felix Mendelsohn’s incidental music for his cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold and Reinhard had known each other since 1929, when both of them worked in Berlin on the productions of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus and Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe La belle Hélène, in the latter of which the title role was sung by the Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná. Reinhard made the film A Midsummer Night’s Dream almost exclusively with Europe-born artists – besides Korngold, they primarily included the Danish costume designer Max Rée, the Polish expressionist painter Anton Grot and the Russian choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. Their joint endeavours resulted in one of the most remarkable movies of the time. In addition to arranging Mendelssohn’s score, Korngold supplied melodies of his own. Legend has it that when, in 1934, he first set foot in Hollywood, he asked a technician at a studio how long a “foot” was, whereupon the technician replied: “Twelve inches.” “Well,” Korngold went on, “I meant the soundtrack, its duration on the screen”. As no one had previously asked such a question, someone went to check the time and came back with the answer: “Three quarters of a second.” Korngold laughed and said: “Oh! That’s precisely the same as the first two bars of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo!” In October 1935, Reinhard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was released simultaneously in New York and London, and that year it was first screened in Austria. The film was only presented in Germany in the late 1960s.  

In 1934, Max Reinhard and other Europe-born artists, including E. W. Korngold, created a cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare‘s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most exceptional films of the time.

In 1940, in an interview for the magazine Music and Dance in California, Korngold described his work on Reinhard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as follows: “I had to make preliminary recordings – the so-called playbacks – of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo and Nocturne, which were relayed over huge loudspeakers during the actual filming [of the ballet episodes]. Furthermore, I conducted the orchestra on stage for complicated simultaneous ‘takes’, and lastly, after the film was cut, I conducted a number of music pieces, which were inserted in the completed picture as background music. In addition, however, I had to invent a new method, which was a combination of all three techniques, for the music that accompanied the spoken word. I wrote out the music in advance, conducted – without orchestra – the actor on the stage in order to make him speak his lines in the required rhythm and then, sometimes weeks later, guided by earphones, I recorded the orchestral part.”  Korngold also oversaw the editing and post-production. He perceived film as a medium of opportunities, as a new platform for application of art. As he himself put it: “We no longer have to lean on Puccini, Verdi or Mascagni. Producers have realised that public taste has changed and we are now carrying out a test that may lead to the writing of entire modern operas for the screen. When that day comes, composers will accept the motion picture as a musical form equal to the opera or the symphony.”

A European conquers Hollywood
In the wake of the success of Reinhard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1935 Korngold composed film scores for both Paramount and Warner Bros., with the latter of which he soon signed an exclusive contract. His very first original film music, for Captain Blood, helped launch Errol Flynn’s illustrious career. Korngold’s subsequent score, for Anthony Adverse, received an Oscar for best film music of 1936. In 1937, Korngold wrote the scores for Another Dawn and The Prince and the Pauper. In January 1938, while in Vienna, the composer received a telegram urging him to come to Hollywood within 10 days so as to work on another film, The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Korngolds duly made use of the opportunity to flee the politically turbulent Europe and move to the USA, which they did in March 1938, just a few days prior to the Anschluss. Thus The Adventures of Robin Hood most likely saved their lives. What is more, the composer received for the original score his second Oscar. Oddly enough, Korngold never collaborated with any film company in Europe. In 1930, he was addressed by Germany’s UFA, which offered him the chance to work on Erik Charell’s famous musical comedy movie Der Kongress tanzt (The Congress Dances), but the composer refused, either because he was too busy or not yet interested in writing film music. 

A fragment from the last score Korngold composed for Warner Bros., for the 1946 noir drama Deception, depicting a love triangle between a pianist, cellist and composer. One of its scenes features a section from the Cello Concerto, completed in the same year. The Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra was conducted by Korngold himself.

While in the USA, until 1946 Korngold mainly worked for the film industry and, together with Alfred Newman (1900–1970), Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975) and Max Steiner (1888–1971), formed a new Hollywood musical style. The movies he scored include Juarez (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, nominated for an Oscar), The Sea Hawk (1940, nominated for an Oscar), The Sea Wolf (1941), Kings Row (1941) and Deception (1946), which he would use as the basis for the Cello Concerto (the contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that he could employ his film music in concert works). 

“We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

In 1930, alongside the composers Arnold Schönberg, Wilhelm Kienzl and Julius Bittner, Korngold was listed in the Best-known Austrian poll, published in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt daily. Eleven years later, upon the order of the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, Austria stripped him of citizenship and the Vienna Gestapo confiscated his property. As a result, Korngold was left stateless. This lasted until February 1943, when he was granted US citizenship. While living in California, he was in contact with other famous Austrian exiles in “Little Weimar”, regularly visiting Alma Mahler, Franz Werfel, Thomas Mann and Wilhelm Dieterle.

Post-war hardship
“Erich Korngold was a man of the greatest integrity and honesty, he was serious when the occasion demanded, but the seriousness was always tempered with great warmth and humour.” Helen Korngold, daughter-in-law of Erich Korngold’s, wife of his son Ernst

In 1946, Korngold said good-bye to the Hollywood film industry. Hoping to return to concerts, he focused on composing absolute music. Adroitly borrowing the themes from his scores for four films (Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper, the main motif of which he employed in the final movement), he created his famous Violin Concerto, Op. 35, premiered by Jascha Heifetz in 1947. Furthermore, Korngold wrote the Symphonic Serenade, Op. 39, first performed in 1950 by the Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Planning to return to Europe in 1947, the family’s departure from the USA was delayed due to the composer’s suffering a heart attack in the autumn of that year. Consequently, they would only arrive in Austria in 1949. Yet the performances of Korngold’s music met with little enthusiasm, and so the disappointed artist went back to America. In 1954, he came to Europe again, with high hopes for the Symphony in F sharp major, Op. 40. The premiere, however, was a flop. The local audience’s tastes having moved on during his absence, Korngold’s music had become outmoded. Dejected by his failure, the composer accepted the offer from the American film studio corporation Republic Pictures and went to Munich to work on a film, Magic Fire, a biography of Richard Wagner, whose music he would adapt for the screen. It would be his last movie score. In 1956, Korngold suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed. He died in 1957 in Hollywood, with a second symphony and a sixth opera sketched.  

The winner of the very first Academy Award for best original film score departed this world at the age of 60, virtually forgotten. Korngold’s legacy would only enjoy revived interest in the 1970s, owing to his sons Georg and Ernst, who had released a series of records featuring his movie music. Since 1995, the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek has awarded the Erich-Wolfgang-Korngold Preis for lifetime achievements of outstanding film music composers. 

Perhaps the best-known Erich Wolfgang Korngold piece is the 1947 Violin Concerto, in which the composer used themes from his scores to the films Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper, with the main motif of the latter appearing in the final movement. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti (violin), Kiril Karabits (conductor).

Korngold and Brno
Erich Wolfgang Korngold spent the first four years of his life in Brno. In 1901, his family moved to Vienna, where his father, Julius Korngold, assumed the position of music critic at the Die Neue Freie Presse, Austria’s leading liberal newspaper. Yet Brno did not forget its celebrated native. In 1917, it staged his one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, with the title role in the latter portrayed by the  Brno-born soprano Maria Jeritza (Marie Jedličková), a star of Vienna’s Hofoper. In 1922, Brno saw a performance of his opera Die tote Stadt. Between 1929 and 1931, Korngold was a permanent guest conductor with the local German opera company. In 2002, a memorial plaque created by the sculptor Milivoj Husák was unveiled on Korngold’s native house, Na Kolišti 1. Since 2004, the Dům pánů z Kunštátu has housed the Korngold Centre, including extensive factual and music archives. 

Korngold only composed one symphony. He hoped it would help him regain his erstwhile fame in Europe following World War II, yet the piece failed to impress the critics and audiences alike. The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

Other noteworthy facts

  • Musically gifted too was Korngold’s elder brother Hans (1892–1965), a leader of a jazz band, drummer and composer of music for vaudeville shows. 
  • At the outset of his career, Erich Wolfgang Korngold recorded performances of his piano compositions, using the Aeolian Duo-Art system. The recordings have survived and can be listened to today. 
  • Besides taking music lessons, Korngold studied at a gymnasium. During World War I, in 1917 and 1918, he served in the army, writing marches for the orchestra of the first Landwehr-Infanterie-Regiment.

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