Korngold, the genius whom Hollywood loved but Vienna expelled

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, born in a Jewish family in Brno and grown to be a child prodigy, changed the Golden age of Hollywood forever. His film music made him famous, his life was also as adventurous as a film, and he also wrote chamber music, songs, concertos, symphonic poems and operas. In the Müpa, his version of Much Ado About Nothing will be played, alongside his Violin Concerto and some shorter pieces.

Korngold was born in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1897. When he was four, he was relocated from Brno to Vienna. His father, Julius Korngold, was a renowned reviewer of music. Erich Wolfgang Korngold first rose to fame among the Viennese with five when he played a four-handed piece with his father. His virtuoso talent was compared to Mozart’s. He composed at the age of eight, and his ballett-pantomime The Snowman even impressed Emperor Francis Joseph. Richard Strauss complimented his originality, boldness and safe playing style, and Gustav Mahler simply called Korngold a genius. He advised father Julius to send his son to the famous composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Korngold wrote his one-act operas, The Ring of Polycrates and Violanta, with 19, and they were performed in München under the conduction of Bruno Walter. In 1920 he wrote an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in the same year he conducted his own opera, The Dead City. Latter received international recognition and was also played in the New York Metropolitan in 1921. He worked with Max Reinhard on the Fledermaus who was also born in the Monarchy but became famous in the US as a director and producer, then returned to become a professor at the University of Music Vienna. It was Reinhard who suggested to Korngold in 1934 to leave for the US and write music to a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold was happy to leave and never returned, this is how he survived forced labour and death camps. He became a US citizen in 1943.

He signed an exclusive contract with the Warner Bros and won two Oscars: one in 1936 for Anthony Adverse and one in 1938 for Robin Hood. His film music is unmistakably a cornerstone of Hollywood’s golden age. He composed at the piano with a wicked swiftness, while the cinematographer showed him the movie. He contributed to several movies starring Errol Flynn.

While his works were banned in his home country, he used the money he received in the US film industry to help family members and friends arrive in the US after the Anschluss, and to support other refugees too. He decided not to compose concert pieces as long as Hitler is in power. He considered his film music “opera without singing”, and did not see a big difference between different genres he was active in. Once he called Tosca “one of the best film music ever”. His father the music reviewer never forgave him that he turned his back to classical music, “the real art”. He died before his son came back to the original profession, which the younger Korngold could never forgive himself.

In Korngold’s music, we can find the origo of that film music style that now we associate with the Hollywood golden age, and that inspires film music composers until today. The dramatic intensity, beauty and emotional expression of his melodies is compared to Puccini, but he also follows Wagner in the concept of his film music. His works have a strong imaginative power, easy to absorb, emotional and melodious, but also complex, intelligent and difficult; its orchestration is both monumental and refined.

In 1946, shortly after his father’s death, Korngold returned to concert halls from the movie studios. He started to compose with astonishing energy. He recycled some of his film music motifs. Among his works there were string quartet pieces, cello concertos, symphonic serenades and violin concertos. One of his most famous works until today is a Violin Concerto presented by Jascha Heifetz. It was popular after its first performance, although reviewers called it “a Hollywood concerto”. Korngold was also criticised for writing Romantic pieces in the modern era.

Korngold hoped to return to Europe as a concert composer. However, he suffered a heart attack in 1947, which delayed his journey with two years. His symphonic serenade was played by the Vienna Philharmonics in 1950. It was a huge success but did not last long: both the audience and the reviews turned their back on Korngold. His music did not fit the taste of postwar Vienna.

This is how he returned to the US. He tried once again to capture his homeland’s heart, with the Symphony in F-sharp major in 1954, but it was a disappointment once again. But then he received a commission from Munich to write film music to Magic Fire, a biopic about Richard Wagner. He agreed to make it worthy of Wagner’s spirit. He even appears in the movie in the role of conductor Hans Richter, because the actor who was supposed to play him did not turn up. More than thousand figurants were waiting in the studio, so director William Dieterle persuaded Korngold to take the little role. This became his last movie. Shortly afterwards he had a stroke and half of his side became paralysed. He died in Hollywood in 1960, and shortly afterwards the world rediscovered his works which we can hear all around the world’s concert halls.

At the Budapest concert, the Ernő Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok will play his above-mentioned works: conductor is Gábor Hollerung.

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek