Erich Wolfgang Korngold

1897 1957

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Composer • Conductor


Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an Austrian composer, most popular for his association with the symphonic film score. Although music scholars and enthusiasts are more attracted to Korngold’s film music of the early 1900s, he produced many outstanding works during his early years and was a recognised and respected composer from a very young age. Korngold displayed outstanding musical talent as a child and he was undoubtedly one of the most prodigious young composers in the history of music.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the son of the successful music critic, Julius Korngold and was born in Brno, Czech Republic. He was raised in Vienna and his precocious musical talents were recognised from a very young age. Before long he was declared a prodigy, composing his first works by the age of eight. Richard Strauss' reaction was 'This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!’Mahler described the young Korngold as a genius after hearing his cantataGold in 1906 and encouraged his father to send him to Alexander von Zemlinsky for lessons in composition. Zemlinsky did become Korngold’s mentor however this did not last a very long time.

By the age of eleven, Korngold had composed his Piano Sonata, Piano Trio and his remarkable ballet,Der Schneemann which was performed at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. At this early stage, Korngold was receiving much attention from many other composers such as Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck andGiacomo Puccini to name but a few.

By the early 1920s, Korngold’s fame and popularity had reached its peak. His first orchestral work,the Schauspiel Ouvertüre, Op. 4 was premiered in 1911 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The work was admired greatly, particularly due to Korngold’s clever use of orchestration. In the same year his Piano Sonata in E Major was premiered and received an outstanding reception. In 1913, his Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 6 was premiered along with hisSinfonietta in B Major, Op. 5. By 1914, he had written his first two operas,Der Ring des Polykrates and Violantahowever, it was not until after he had completed his opera Die tote Stadtat the age of 23 that he received international popularity.

The libretto of Die tote Stadt was based on the novel, Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach and was in fact secretly written by Korngold and his father, who went by the collective pseudonym of ‘Paul Schott’. It was only after Korngold’s death that this fact was discovered. The opera received a dual premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. During the following years, Korngold continued to compose but he also began arranging and conducting operas for composers such as Johann Strauss, among others. Included amongst these projects was Strauss’sEine Nacht in Venedig. Additionally, he began teaching composition at the Vienna Staatsakademie. By this time, he had also completed what he himself considers his most important opera,Das Wunder der Heliane.

In 1929, Korngold began collaborating with actor and director, Max Reinhardt and by 1934 he had invited him to Hollywood to work on his film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over the next few years, Korngold began composing extensively for film, becoming renowned for his influences in the development of the modern film score. He scored many acclaimed films, includingCaptain Blood (1935),The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Korngold won his first Academy Award forAnthony Adverse (1936) and his second for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

As a result of his background as a composer of opera, Korngold treated each film as similar to a stage production, with each character having its own ‘voice’ throughout the musical score. The fact that each character had his or her own musical idea, orleitmotif, undoubtedly led to the evolution of the classic Hollywood film music later in the 20th Century. He created rich, romantic and complex scores which have had an enormous impact on the production of modern film music.

One of his most popular and critically acclaimed works is without doubt his score forThe Adventures of Robin Hood. The 1938 Warner Bros production was an immediate success; however Korngold initially refused to compose it as he felt he did not have the time or the resources to do so. Eventually, he was persuaded to compose the work in a more casual and freelance manner, which he completed in seven weeks. Despite having such a limited time to complete the music,The Adventures of Robin Hood score is regarded as a masterpiece. The vivid and energetic orchestral score provides the perfect accompaniment to the wild and dramatic construction of the film. Like many of his previous film scores, he has approached the music in an operatic manner, providing recurring themes for each character. Interestingly, there is no vocal music present in this score and this is likely due to an agreement between Korngold and Warner Bros. Nonetheless, the seventy-five minute long score, orchestrated for a total of sixty-five instruments is an expressive and thrilling work, which has inspired many film composers to date.

From about 1936 and onwards, Korngold returned to a career of composing absolute music, and the end of World War II also saw the end of his career in the film industry. During this time he composed many substantial works, including aViolin Concerto in 1937, a Cello Concerto in 1946, a Symphony in F sharp and a Symphonic Serenade for string orchestra in 1947. Although his compositions possessed outstanding quality in harmonic complexity and orchestration, the late-Romantic style of his works proved to be quite dated and unappealing to audiences of the post-war era. Sadly, Korngold’s reputation and popularity faded, and he died in 1957, believing he was forgotten. He was partly correct, as his name became a vague memory for years, however a revival of his music did eventually occur and he gained much popularity and success after his death. In particular, it was Korngold’s brief but highly productive period in the film industry that attracted the attention of composers and scholars. His innovative and operatic approach to his orchestral scores was a highly significant element in the development of Hollywood film.

Images courtesy of Well Tempered and public domain