Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

KORNGOLD, Erich Wolfgang

(b 29 May 1897, Br]auu[nn, Czechoslovakia; d 29 Nov. '57, Hollywood) One of the most talented of the refugee composers who ended up writing film music. He composed a cantata at the age of nine which was shown to Gustav Mahler, who was impressed; he began writing operas at 16; Richard Strauss and Sibelius thought he was a genius. After the comic opera The Ring Of Polycrates the sumptuous and erotic score for Violanta '16 caused a sensation; the future conductor Jascha Horenstein remembered Korngold being carried through the streets. Die Tote Stadt incl. 'Marietta's Lute Song', described as the last hit song from German opera; Das Wunder der Heliane was his last opera, stretching tonality to the limit without going beyond it. He also wrote chamber music, his piano quartet being commissioned by Arnold Rose; his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned by the famous one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who also commissioned Ravel's concerto. When the last opera was premičred '27 he was said to be the youngest professor of music (at the Vienna Academy) in the world; but his career suffered when his father Julius (a critic) started a campaign against Ernst Krenek's popular Jonny Spielt Auf, which combined elements of atonality and jazz. He went to Hollywood '34 when Max Reinhardt asked him to adapt Mendelssohn for a film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a film composer his method was unusual: he would watch the film in a projection booth, improvising at the piano and later writing the music down from memory, without even using a stopwatch. He never thought of film music as slumming, but as opera without words; he gave each character a leitmotif, and the music had a symphonic character. (Much of it was orchestrated for him by Hugo Friedhofer; see his entry.) Korngold scored about 20 films, winning Oscars for Anthony Adverse '36 and The Adventures Of Robin Hood '38, as well as nom. for The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex '39 and The Sea Hawk '40. Among the other refugees in Hollywood was novelist Franz Werfel, whose Juarez was filmed '39 with a Korngold score. When Warner Brothers offered him a new contract '46 he turned it down; his only subsequent film was the Richard Wagner biopic Magic Fire ten years later for Republic: Korngold adapted four minutes of Wagner's Ring and the producer cut it to one, but the picture was a stinker anyway. Meanwhile, Korngold's violin concerto was premičred by Heifetz '45, but his once-daring music now seemed old-fashioned; one critic famously pronounced it more corn than gold, and when Der Tote Stadt was played again in Munich post- war, another wrote, 'It's still dead.' This of course doesn't mean the music isn't any good, and in any case the film scores are unique. They don't make movies like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood any more.