The Korngold Legacy

Quick! Name a musical prodigy whose name is Wolfgang! (Not Mozart.)  Name a master of the Viennese Waltz. (Not Strauss.) Name the Oscar-winning father of the Hollywood film score. (Not Williams.)

If the name Erich Wolfgang Korngold sprang instantly to mind you are to be congratulated, but who are we kidding? Few of even the best-educated, most well-informed, culturally literate people alive today have heard of Korngold. And anyone other than a scholar of Keith Cerny’s stature (see the companion article, “A Peek Behind the Curtain at The Dallas Opera”), or a serious student of cinema history, would be hard-pressed to hum even a line of Korngold’s music.

It wasn’t always thus.

In Vienna, the capital of classical music, in the concert halls where the prodigies Mozart, Mendelssohn and Strauss performed their earliest compositions, 11 year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold was hailed as a wunderkind. According to scholars of music history, he was “a near-master at 13.”

At 16, Korngold composed his first opera, a one-act comedy called The Ring of Polykrates, which premiered at the National Theatre in Munich. An immediate hit with Germany’s most sophisticated audiences (consider it the “Hamilton” of its time), productions of Polykrates were quickly mounted in Vienna and Dresden. The charming new opera was the talk of Europe and its teenaged composer was poised for early stardom the likes of which only Mozart had known.

Love also came early for Korngold in the person of Luise von Sonnenthal, “Luzi,” a gifted young pianist and actress whom he met at a dinner party before he was 20. Her grandfather Adolf Ritter von Sonnenthal was not only Vienna’s most popular classical actor and matinee idol, he was one of the only Jews to be knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph. Theirs was a perfect shidduch, a match made in heaven, and a marriage that was to triumph over every obstacle.

Korngold’s first composition as an adult was a three-act dramatic opera called Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). He was 23. The piece was so hotly anticipated that rival theatre companies battled for the opportunity to produce the work and Die tote Stadt had the singular distinction of simultaneous world premieres in Hamburg and Cologne. It became one of the most popular staged works in the 1920s, with performances at all the world’s most prestigious opera houses, including several productions by the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Korngold’s next opera, a veritable love letter to Luzi, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), premiered just as a virulent modern-day strain of anti-semitism began its chokehold on Austria. When Korngold should have enjoyed his greatest artistic success, there was a change in the air. His shining moment passed.

Instead of violin concertos and light opera, Europe became attuned to the sounds of hate speech, political ranting, and xenophobic propaganda. It wasn’t that the opera houses went dark or the orchestras fell silent, it was that the work of Jewish composers—who, until that time, had been among the most influential voices in classical music—was unceremoniously buried.

In 1935, the expatriated European impresario Max Reinhardt invited Korngold to Hollywood and there, as Luzi later wrote in her biography of her husband, “Erich fitted his music to the running film just as he would accompany a singer on the opera stage.”

Korngold’s first film composition was a re-orchestration of Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for what is now a classic film of the same name, and his score, which he also personally conducted, set a new standard in cinema.

“Korngold pioneered the art of the soundtrack,” says University of Texas at Arlington music professor Dr. Jack Unzick. “His use of instrumentation to evoke character and emotional tone added an unprecedented depth to motion pictures and won Korngold the respect of the studio chiefs who then competed for his services.”

For several years, Korngold commuted between Vienna and Hollywood, composing epic scores such as the swashbuckling music for Captain Blood, which launched the careers of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and revitalized period costume dramas.  Ironically, it is a lesser known and all but forgotten film that may have had the largest impact on film music. The 1936 film Anthony Adverse was the first movie accompanied by a continuous musical score. Korngold’s composition was a symphonic counterpoint to the drama, as much an interpretation of the novel as the movie’s dialogue, costumes, and the visual tableaux of Anthony Adverse. The film’s music underscores the drama in its entirety and required a much larger orchestra than studios typically employed. This score was an outstanding achievement for which Korngold received the 1936 Academy Award.

What was so special about Korngold’s film compositions?

Musician Tim Mahon says, “The registral placement of music below the actors’ voices in order to avoid any aural conflict, coupled with an instinct for counterpoint that enabled him to avoid interrupting the flow of dialog and action, are two of the composer’s [Korngold’s] enduring legacies to the art of film scoring.”

But while Erich Korngold was pioneering a new art form it was to him all but a frivolous pursuit. G-d hadn’t filled his head with symphonies so that he would compose movie music. Devastated by the destruction of Europe and the war on the Jewish people, he vowed he would not compose “serious” music until Hitler was defeated and peace restored. If these film scores are evidence of Korngold in hiding, it is painful to imagine the frustration he must have experienced keeping what might well have been his true masterpieces inside. Refraining from giving orchestral voice to the music in his mind, it was as if the father of 20th century classical music was protecting innocent symphonies from being born into an evil world.

So, Korngold “sold his soul” to Hollywood, accepting movie commissions both to feed his family and to keep his mind occupied.  Moviegoers couldn’t get enough of swashbuckling escapism and Korngold was in high demand. It was sheer luck – or what we would call hashgacha pratis, a very specific divine intervention – by which his family, with whom he was commuting between Vienna and California for several years, avoided the 1938 Anschluss. In fact, Erich Korngold credited Max Reinhardt and studio head Jack Warner with saving his family’s lives by commissioning him to compose a score for The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Erich, Luzi, and their two sons were in Hollywood for Robin Hood, Jewish Vienna was being systematically destroyed. Most Viennese synagogues were desecrated and then burned in full view of fire departments and the public. Thousands of Jews, including most of the Korngold and von Sonnenthal families and their friends, were arrested and deported to the Dachau or Buchenwald concentration camps. Mauthausen became the main concentration camp in Austria. Those prisoners fortunate to be given work were forced to carry heavy stone blocks up 186 steps from the camp quarry. The steps became known as the “Stairway of Death.”

Fortunately, Erich and Luzi Korngold and their two sons were on one of their trips to Los Angeles when the deportations began. The Nazis confiscated the Korngold’s home, piano, artwork, and the rest of their possessions, but they were safe in the United States. Korngold later said,

We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.”

The Robin Hood score brought Korngold a second Academy Award in as many years but what meaning could that hold for a man whose world was vanishing? Europe had expelled him and though he was grateful that Hollywood crowned him royalty in exile, he was traumatized by the war and irritated by the superficiality of the movies. On the other hand, Korngold’s unique studio contract permitted him to retain the right to re-purpose portions of his film compositions as thematic material in later symphonic works. That connection of his Hollywood work to what Erich Korngold believed to be his life’s work preserved some of the European Jewish legacy.

After the war, when a journalist asked why he was giving up films, Korngold quipped: “When I first came to Hollywood, I could not understand the dialogue. Now I can.”

Vienna was home and Luzi was eager for her husband to be restored to his earlier reputation as a ‘great composer.’ So after the war, the Korngolds left California. Alas, they returned to a Europe they did not recognize and that showed little interest in them. Austria was still hostile toward Jews and upon the Korngold’s return to Vienna, they were not even allowed to enter their former family home.

In the aftermath of a near-fatal heart attack in 1947, Korngold attempted to resume his work and dedicated a new composition, Symphonic Serenade, “to Luzi, my beloved wife and best friend.” The symphony was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1950, but performances of his later works were poorly attended and the critics were unkind. The boy genius had grown up and musical tastes had decidedly changed.

The Korngolds retreated to Los Angeles, where they lived out their last few years in quiet obscurity. Following a stroke that caused physical and emotional difficulties, Erich Wolfgang Korngold died at age 60 in 1957. Luzi Korngold died of heart failure just five years after her beloved passed away and her biography of her husband was published posthumously, without fanfare, in 1967. The Korngolds left behind two sons, three grandchildren, and an extraordinary contribution to world culture. They are buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, down the block from the Paramount Pictures studio.

Now, 100 years after its triumphant premier in Vienna, The Ring of Polykrates, the delightful comic opera composed by 16 year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold, will be performed by The Dallas Opera. This is the third professional production of Polykrates ever performed in the United States. The Dallas Opera’s production in February represents an historic moment in music history as the work of a master composer is restored to its rightful place in the canon.