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Korngold Sr. & Jr. – Cliché, Critic and Composer

The music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold has enjoyed a little renaissance over the last decade or two. He is no longer the neglected, unknown master; the hidden Wunderkind of 20th century classical music. The point is proven by the pleasant fact that his entire œvre is available on commercial recordings – from eighth different versions of the Violin Concerto (Heifetz, Perlman, Shaham (!), Mutter, to name only the most prominent accounts – Kavakos and Hahn offer it on DVD) to a proud rendition of “The Goose-liver at the Durschnitz-residency” (a song for baritone taken on by Dietrich Henschel).

“Korngold 101” is easily encapsulated in: Precocious teen and Wunderkind who composed too-beautiful music to be taken seriously at a time when modernism swept the cultural stage. Composer of highly successful film music in his years in Hollywood – and consequently snubbed by the “real classical music” ‘elite’.

That’s good enough for the start – but just how much more complicated, conflicted, twisted, and interesting Korngold’s story is can be experienced at an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna that will run through May 18th.

The first point is made by the exhibition’s title: “The Korngolds”. This is not about Erich Wolfgang Korngold alone, but in almost equal measure about his father, Julius Leopold, too. (Little Erich was given his middle name in honor of Mozart – considering his father’s middle name and the path that Erich should take a touching bit of irony.)

In order to understand Erich Korngold’s situation as a composer in Vienna, it is essential to have a grasp of just how dominant a figure his father was. Chief music critic for the Neue Freie Presse as successor to Eduard Hanslick, he commanded not just the most important music criticism position in Vienna, he was the arbiter of what is good and bad: in essence he was the pope of musical taste. Not quite able to speak ex cathedra, perhaps, but his word carried weight. So much weight, indeed, that his word could make artistic life in Vienna impossible for all those who aroused his fervent ire. In that sense, Julius Korngold not only shaped the musical life of Vienna but also of Berlin – whereto all those fled that could not get a leg on the ground in hostile Vienna.

It is one of the most beautiful ironies in music criticism that there were never before nor ever thereafter classical music critics who prepared themselves more diligently for their reviews than Hanslick and Korngold, who were more knowledgeable about music, music theory, and the work they were going to review. Whenever possible, every new work played through – several times – on the piano and painstakingly analyzed before being reviewed. Yet, despite this profundity and seriousness in preparation and self-perception, not Hanslick or Korngold nor most of their erudite contemporaries were – amid much very perceptive criticism – able to overcome polemical and ideologically tainted attacks on what they thought “should not be”. Those of Hanslick’s judgments that now seem ill-considered (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Wagner, etc.) are more famous than his ample insight. Korngold loved everything that was in any way related to Gustav Mahler and otherwise more or less hated everything that Hanslick would not have liked, either.

That it was to the main music critic of the most important city for classical music that a son was born who should turn out one of the greatest composing prodigies in music history is another cute twist of fate. Korngold Sr. didn’t trust his potential bias at first and sought the opinion of 40 leading critics everywhere but in Vienna to judge his 11-year old son’s ballet piano score to “The Snowman”. The response ranged from baffled enthusiasm to bewilderment. One critic in Budapest was so enthused that he went public with his ‘finding’ – and before long (against the will of Papa Korngold), the “Snowman” was given a big premiere in a gala performance honoring the Emperor’s name day (October 4th, 1910).

The Korngold exhibit, based on a concept of Michael Haas (known to classical music aficionados who read the small print in liner notes as the producer of Decca’s “Entartete Musik” series), shows us the life of Korngold and his father from the earliest days until Korngold’s death in 1957, dividing it more or less into seven stages and eight rooms. The influence and power of Julius is illustrated with facsimiles of the Neue Freie Presse” (where Korngold had the lower third of the first three pages (!) to write about whatever he wanted to) and loud interjections of some of Korngold’s pointedly phrased, strong opinions via speaker that interrupt everything you might try to do. Even three rooms further you can still hear his cantankerous howling about atonal music. That you can’t escape his opinions and ideas – not in Vienna of the time, at any rate – is the deliberate, unsubtle, well-made point.

Korngold’s (greatest, at least biggest) opera “Das Wunder der Heliane” (Decca’s re-issue of which I recently reviewed) gets its own room – which might seem much to us, if we don’t know the work or how important it was at its time. It was given 45 performances between the two opera houses in Hamburg and Vienna. Posterity has obscured our view a little by the contemporary and greater success of Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf”, but the two operas were pitched against each other as equals. The monopolist manufacturer Austrian Tabacco issued two cigarette brands: An unfiltered brand named “Jonny” – and nicely packaged, filtered and perfumed cigarettes called “Heliane”. (With the economics of smoking mimicking art, “Jonny” is still available, “Heliane”, not.)

Not the least to – temporarily – escape his unbearably overbearing father, Korngold ‘fled’ to Hollywood for one season where Max Reinhardt, his collaborator on many Strauss-Operetta projects, persuaded Korngold to work with him on Warner Brother’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Once Hollywood had noticed Korngold, at his arrival easily the most talented musician to work in film, his future options looked bright when he had to leave Vienna not to escape his father’s influence (Julius joined Korngold and his wife, Luzi at the last possible moment), but Hitler. His career for film is well known and well documented in the exhibit. Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, Robin Hood are all there – as is Kings Row which was of course the break-through hit for the 40th President of the United States.

A myriad of interesting information can be found in this lovingly presented exhibit as well as the thorough 200 page catalog that comes with a CD of important or personal excerpts of Korngold’s music and playing. Curious factoids emerge: Korngold’s Cello Concerto, for example, was premiered by the Hollywood String Quartet’s Eleanor Slatkin – while she was pregnant with Leonard Slatkin's little brother Fred (Zlotkin).

When Korngold died on November 29th in 1957 the program of the memorial concert at Schoenberg Hall, University of California (one of several items lent by the Library of Congress’ Music Division) lists Louis Kaufman as the participating violinist. Kaufman played violin in many of Korngold's movies, but his claim to fame is having been the first violinist to record the Four Seasons.

The exhibition and catalogue are presented in German and English throughout and runs through May 18th.

Picture Credits:

1.) Erich Wolfgang Korngold age 12

2.) Julius Korngold in Los Angeles 1942

3.) Korngold at the piano, approx. 1940

4.) Erich Wolfgang Korngold conducting, Hollywood 1944

All pictures © Korngold Family Estate

A small survey of Korngold recordings can be found here: The Sounds of Korngold.

A review of his opera "Das Wunder der Heliane" can be read here: Korngold and Sock Monkeys.

Currently broken links to the defunct WETA column will eventually be replaced with updated intra-ionarts links.

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