Saturday, 21 April 2012

Solid Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was one of the great prodigies of music, producing works by the tender age of twelve that equal those of better-known prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn. Great composers from Mahler to Strauss acclaimed a genius in the making. The Brno-born Viennese boy grew into a composer who achieved worldwide fame with his operas and concert works. In the 1930s he moved between Austria and Hollywood and became one of the founders and greatest exponents of film music. Following the Nazi occupation of Austria, Korngold - being Jewish - stayed in America and became a U.S. citizen in 1943. Great film scores poured from him until, soon after the war ended, his efforts shifted firmly back to concert works. Alas, by this time his lush romantic style was becoming unpopular with the critics and his star waned. This period of neglect continued after his death until a couple of decades ago when a revival of interest in his music got into full swing. His star has risen again.

As a sample of what the 12-year old Erich was capable of please try the section from his Characteristic Pieces entitled Don Quixote's Conversion and Death, music of considerable sophistication - especially in its harmonies (which remind me at times of the celesta chords in the Presentation of the Silver Rose from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier). That piano piece would deserve a 'Wow!' even if it wasn't written by a pre-teenage composer. Composed slightly later, and just as advanced harmonically, please also try the The Fairy Tale's Epilogue from his Seven Fairy Tale Pictures Op.3. Its opening bars have shades of Debussy and Schoenberg but the true-romantic melodist in Korngold soon takes wing - and how! Other pre-teen pieces include the ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann ('The Snowman'), the overture from which is performed here by an amateur orchestral, and - from his eleventh year - the Piano Sonata No.1, whose first movement espouses an adult-sounding dramatic rhetoric and whose finale takes the tricky form of a passacaglia on a theme by his teacher, Zemlinsky.

Reaching his thirteenth year, he finished his Piano Trio in D, Op.1. You can hear the lovely, ardent first movement here. He also wrote his grand Piano Sonata No.2 (a better work than the first) in which the surging Romanticism of the Largo third movement displays fully mature-sounding chromatic harmony and where the fiery, almost diabolical Scherzo holds a trio of rich Viennese charm at its centre.

By the age of 14 his mastery of the orchestra had yielded such a dashing score as the Schauspiel Overture, Op.4, music sure to appeal to any lover of the music of Richard Strauss...and talking of Strauss, around this time Korngold also wrote a set of songs known as his Einfache Lieder, Op.9 ('Simple Songs'). Please treat yourself to Sommer ('Summer') from that set in its lush (1917) orchestral guise, where the German's influence is felt most attractively. In another gorgeous song, Liebesbriefchen ('Love Letters'), the world of Marietta's famous lied from Die tote Stadt can be heard not so much in embryo but in full ripeness. Extraordinary songs.

By 15 years of age, Korngold had upped his game even further and written such a glorious piece as the Sinfonietta. Handling a large orchestra with the skill of a Strauss or Mahler, he used that fine beast to pour fourth a stream of glowing invention in this masterly score. Don't be fooled by the title as this is a 45-minute long work of symphonic proportions. It's a remarkable thing that, however wonderful his later works, Erich never surpassed this work of childhood. His mature voice is already found here - as anyone who knows his film scores will appreciate. The sumptuous, swashbuckling first movement is followed by a fiery scherzo (with a lustrous trio tune), then a dreamy, enchantingly-scored slow movement and a sweeping finale to round things off. The work opens with something that was to become the composer's signature in music - a figure make from two interlocking rising fourths and a rising fifth called 'The Motif of the Cheerful Heart'. This appears again and again in later Korngold works and in the Sinfonietta acts throughout as the springboard for much of his thematic material.

Other works from that time include the Violin Sonata, Op.6. You can sample its post-Wagnerian lyricism and emotional warmth here in the Adagio. Even rarer is this Heine-setting for chorus and orchestra, Der Sturm ('The Tempest'), where the youngster anticipates the style of some of his own middle-aged film music quite strikingly. (This is no idle fancy on my part. He re-used it in his score for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.)

So what was Erich Korngold writing in his late teens? Mainly operas. 1916 saw the birth of two of them - Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta. From Der Ring des Polykrates, please try the beautiful 'Diary Scene'. You must also try the glorious finale from Violanta (shades of Strauss's Elektra abounding) here, and orchestral excerpts from the score here and here. As well as these stage works, he also had time to write the String Sextet in D major, Op.10. The Brahms sextets and that other famous late-Romantic sextet, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, seem to be its closest antecedents - plus the usual dash of Richard Strauss - but it speaks in its own voice, even if that voice isn't quite the same voice as the more familiar Korngold of the orchestral music. There are four movements: a Moderato-Allegro, a nostalgic Adagio, a lyrical Intermezzo with a Viennese waltz for its trio and a presto Finale with plenty of panache. Throughout, the flow of melody is sure to win it friends. Korngold did briefly serve in the Austrian army during the First World War and from that period comes this brilliant Military March. Korngold composing light music!

By the time Korngold enters his early twenties he is ready to produce many of his best-known works, beginning with some incidental music to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. There's an orchestral suite which begins with a fizzing Overture followed by a nostalgia-suffused movement called The Maiden in the Bridal which point we'll cross to the popular version for violin and piano to hear this same beautiful section in a new guise and follow it with the mock-Mahlerian march Dogberry and Verges, the blissful Scene in the Garden and, finally, the lively and virtuosic Masquerade (Hornpipe). The orchestral version from the incidental music itself of this last movement is well worth hearing too. (Stravinsky's Pulcinella was just about to be written!)

Korngold entered the 1920s with his most famous opera, Die tote Stadt ('The Dead City'). We often hear its most famous highlight (originally a tenor-soprano duet) as a separate concert aria for soprano and orchestra, namely Marietta's Lied. I've always had a soft spot for it. The aria has a superb span of rapturous melody worthy of Puccini and those shifting harmonies at the end are pure magic. The orchestration is as enchanting as you'd expect from Korngold. The composer wisely reprised this tune at the close of the finale of his opera, giving it to the tenor. The other well-known number from Die tote Stadt is the beautiful lyrical baritone aria known as Pierrots Tanzlied. Puccini loved this opera - and so did Berg!

Following on from Die tote Stadt came the four melancholy Lieder des Abschieds ('Songs of Farewell'), glorious songs where the influence of Mahler is most keenly felt and where Korngold's gift for writing long melodic lines is again heard to its best advantage. You can hear a couple of them, Mond, so gehst du wieder auf ('Moon, You Rise Again') and  Sterbelied ('Requiem'), in their original versions for voice and piano at the links provided and Mond, so gehst du wieder auf can be heard along with Gefasster Abschied ('Serene Farewell') in their orchestral versions here. The orchestrations (made in 1923) really do carry the music into the soundworld of Strauss's widely-adored Four Last Songs of the late 1940s. Mond, so gehst du wieder auf, in particular, is particularly special and its haunting melody provides the theme for the variations of the slow movement of the Piano Quintet, Op.15. This centrepiece of the Quintet is a very fine movement, covering a surprising range of moods, keys and textures. The first movement is almost as good, having a fine sweep, plenty of lyricism and some lovely key changes. Unfortunately the Finale really isn't up to the same standard as its companions, for all its energy and cheerfulness.

Around the same time Erich wrote the first of his three string quartets. The String Quartet No.1, Op.26 is one of a few works from this time that show the composer writing in a somewhat more abrasive manner (foreshadowed by passages in Die tote Stadt), though such wild or anxious-sounding passages are assuaged by sweeter, more lyrical sections. The second movement Adagio shows Korngold pushing his chromatic harmony quite far, though without ever threatening to abandon tonality. The stylish Intermezzo isn't free from tension either but it's followed by a Finale where anxieties are replaced by a broad smile - and 'the Motif of the Cheerful Heart'. The First String Quartet is a fascinating work and ought to be played more often.

You may be familiar with the name Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist brother of Ludwig who lost an arm in the First World War for whom Ravel wrote his famous Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Korngold also wrote a Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for him - a heroic affair for the pianist with a lovely second subject. (The whole concerto can be purchased here.) That work from 1923 was followed seven years later by a chamber work for Wittgenstein - the Suite for 2 violins, cello and piano left-hand, Op.23. The titles of the suite's movement are in the same neo-Classical vein as found in Stravinsky and in Schoenberg's contemporary suites. Of course, the music sounds like neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg, though - as in the First String Quartet - there is a toughness at times in the Suite that is not usually associated with this composer and suggests that he was keeping up with the zeitgeist (a little bit). The opening Präludium und Fuge is quite powerful, the second movement Walzer is warmly nostalgic (and my favourite movement), the Groteske central movement is rather wild and interesting (with a sharply contrasted trio section), the following Lied is sweetly lyrical and the closing Rondo - Finale (Variationen) is a charmer.

Now that was a leap from 1923 to 1930, so what was Korngold up to in between the Piano Concerto and the Suite? Some songs (such as Was du mir bist? ('What are you to me?') from his Gesänge, Op.18), some piano pieces and the Baby-Serenade, Op.24. The major work of these years, though, was another opera - Das Wunder der Heliane. Many critics consider this, rather than Die tote Stadt, to be his operatic masterpiece, full of near-Expressionist experimentation whilst remaining quintessentially Korngold in its mix of passionate post-Wagnerian Romanticism and operetta-style lyricism. Some describe Heliane's gorgeous Act Two aria Ich ging zu ihm as an update of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, though it seems more Richard Strauss than Richard Wagner to me. The opera opens most beautifully and ends rapturously. The prelude to the Third Act is wonderfully like film music. 

Film music was soon to become very important in Korngold's life and career but before we reach 1934 and the composer's first visit to Hollywood, there's one of my favourite works to consider - the String Quartet No.2, Op.26 of that fateful year, 1933. This is such a Viennese-sounding work, full of imagination, fine craftsmanship, great tunes and charm - plus plenty of harmonic daring. I can't account for why it is so neglected. A part-dramatic, part-easy-going opening Allegro is followed by a lightly-sighing Intermezzo, a soulful and imaginatively-scored Larghetto/Lento and a delightful Finale in waltz-time (which rivals the waltzes of Strauss's Rosenkavalier) to finish.

In 1934 actor and director Max Reinhardt invited Erich to Hollywood to turn Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream into film music, which he duly did. Here's our man's transformation of the perfect Mendelssohn Overture into  pure Hollywoodelssohn. He stayed four years, writing some of the earliest classic film scores, beginning with the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) with its magnificent main theme and love scene, and continuing with - among others - The Green PasturesAnthony AdverseThe Prince and the Pauper and Another DawnWhat a feast of uplifting, romantic, tuneful, brilliantly-written, wonderfully orchestrated music lies on the end of those links! 

Korngold then went back to Vienna, but only very briefly because Hollywood beckoned again, asking for music for Errol Flynn's latest film of daring-do, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Korngold headed straight back to America and wrote this masterly score. Shortly after, Hitler sent his army into Austria and, obviously and very wisely, Korngold stayed put in the Land of the Free. More glorious film scores poured out of him in the following years - just to name most of them is to know their quality: JuarezThe Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a favourite of mine The Sea HawkThe Sea WolfKings RowThe Constant NymphOf Human BondageDeception and Escape Me Never

One of the consequences of all this film music was that when Korngold stopped composing film music in 1946 and returned to concert music he had a ready store of themes to plunder. For the Cello Concerto, Op.37 , however, he simply expanded a cello concerto that was integral to the plot of Deception and created a short but effective single-movement piece. Even better though is the now popular Violin Concerto, Op.35. This drew on themes from Anthony Adverse, Juarez, Another Dawn and The Prince and the Pauper. Only the worst kind of critic would now sniff at its tunefulness and populism, given the incredible quality of the music and the genius for craftsmanship displayed by its creator. Both the first and second movements are deeply lyrical - the first ardent, the second nostalgic in character - while the third combines lyricism with energy and fizzing virtuosity and has a climax where the orchestra rides in like the rescuing hero in a Hollywood blockbuster - a moment that always carries me away! 

Now, Korngold hadn't just been writing film music during the years leading up to the fall of Hitler. He also composed some of his finest songs - songs from Shakespeare. There are the glorious Songs of the Clown, op.29, of which I find Come Away, Death and For the Rain It Raineth Every Day particularly attractive. The Four Shakespeare Songs, Op.31 are also masterly, with a touching Desdemona's Song standing out.

1939 saw the birth of Korngold's latest opera, Die Kathrin - a more tender and far simpler work than his earlier operas. Typical lush scoring, catchy popular tunes, soaring romantic melodies, beautiful love-duets, a dash of Strauss, a splash of Puccini - it's got 'em all! (Critics seem much less enamoured with the plot, which they say is over-sentimental). Please try the Act One love duet, the Wanderer's Song, the Soldier's March and Prayer, the Letter Aria, the Nightclub Scene and the Serenade. That's a representative selection.

1941, the year America entered the Second World War and Nazi Germany decided on the 'Final Solution', saw Erich Korngold compose his only two religious works: His Passover Psalm, Op.30 for soprano, chorus and orchestra and his Prayer, Op.32 for tenor, female chorus, harp and organ. The Passover Psalm is the better piece and sounds remarkably like a thoroughly post-Romantic update of Schubert's lyrical choral music with added touches of Jewish melody. It's a splendidly stirring piece.

Besides the concertos, what did Korngold get up to in the twelve remaining years of his life after the end of the war? This final decade was the period when the tide of critical opinion shifted so painfully away from a composer whose success in the looked-down-upon medium of film music and 'outdated' Romantic style was not what was looked for in serious modern composers by those looking for tougher, harsher music to 'reflect the age'. He flopped when he attempted a comeback in Vienna and when back in America fared little better. Poor Korngold's sell-by-date had expired - at least according to the critics, some of whom were deeply unkind in their criticism of him (as is the way of the breed - sometimes!) Such things don't matter for us now, thankfully. We can judge those late pieces on  their own terms. 

Korngold began his return to concert music with the String Quartet No.3, Op.34. As with the concertos, he drew on themes from several of his films (Between Two World, The Sea Wolf and Deception), which gives the work its strong melodic appeal. However, here the result does unquestionably (to my ears) sound like 'proper' chamber music. The first movement and Scherzo, in particular, sounds surprisingly (and effectively) 'modern' - though the trio of the Scherzo is pure lyrical lushness. The slow movement is marked 'like a folk tune' and begins with a tender lyricism that should go straight to your heart, though there are nervous stirrings at the movement's heart and the music deepens interestingly. The Finale is tuneful feel-good music and it makes me feel good.

His final set of songs, the Fünf Lieder, op. 38, begins with Glückwunsch ('I wish you bliss') which has something of Marietta's Lied about it and is as lovely as that comparison might lead you to expect. The rest of the set maintains a high level. There's Der Kranke ('The sick one'), Alt-spanisch ('Old Spanish Song') - unusually Ravel-like -, Old English Song and, back to Shakespeare, My Mistress' Eyes

There are two more significant orchestral scores to go. The first is the Symphonic Serenade, Op.39. This seems to me to be an unqualified masterpiece, worthy to stand in the grand tradition (occupied by the likes of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, etc) of works for string orchestra. The opening Allegro is excellent, with an opening theme that is unquestionably (as we critical types say) inspired. The Intermezzo is somewhat in the vein of the Scherzo from the Third Quartet and, in its pizzicato writing, shows Korngold to be a master of orchestration to the very end. The third movement Lento religioso is very beautiful and seems to partake of the spirit of another of Austria's finest composers, Anton Bruckner, as much as of Gustav Mahler. (Who suspected that of Erich Korngold?) Typically, the Finale is fun but also a worthy conclusion to an impressive piece of 'symphonic' writing. 

The other major orchestral work from this period is the Symphony in F sharp, Op.40 - the work that seemed to sink Korngold in America. It's a fascinating work, but I must admit that it doesn't seem quite so impressive as either the contemporary Symphonic Serenade or the childhood Sinfonietta. I came to it late in my Korngold journey and was rather taken aback by the Mahlerian anger of the opening movement. There are familiar Korngold passages of consoling lyricism and heroic uplift but quite a bit of this gripping if disconcerting movement sounds startlingly bitter. It's tempting to try and tease out personal motives for its mood but probably fruitless. The Scherzo is fierce too, though it too has the consolation of brilliant orchestration and some stirring writing for the horns (Errol Flynn to the rescue!). The Adagio seems heavy with disconsolate feeling. It is a clear attempt to speak from the heart through music. The Finale is swashbuckling stuff and characteristically displays a 'Cheerful Heart'. 

There's also a delicious tribute to one of the musical love's of Erich's life - Johann Strauss II - in Straussiana: Part of a polka and a waltz. Minor Korngold? Most definitely, but Korngold loved his other Strauss even more than Richard and this work pays tribute to someone whose ideals clearly meant a lot to our man.

And, yes, there was a final stage work. The man whose operas had featured so many operetta-like melodies ending his (short) life as a composer for the stage by composing an operetta, Die stumme Serenade ('The Silent Serenade'). YouTube has some intriguing stuff on this, including a magical glimpse of Korngold himself, humming along as he plays a waltz from the score on the piano and there are several very pleasing extracts from a staging of the piece which can be accessed (hopefully) here.

I've enjoyed writing this survey of Erich Korngold's music and I hope you will be further tempted to explore his output at your leisure. 

1 comment:

  1. What a nicely observed and comprehensive survey. Thank you for taking such trouble!