Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Symphony in F# major

Op. 40

About this work

The only work in true symphonic form extant in Korngold's catalog, the F sharp Symphony is Korngold's greatest post-war work, though the origins of it date back as far as 1919. The key signature is a favorite Korngold one but highly unusual for a contemporary symphony -- only Messiaen's Turangalila and Mahler's draft of the Tenth Symphony spring to mind -- and he keeps it wavering between minor and major modes throughout the work.

Scored for a large orchestra including piano, marimba, harp and celeste plus an expanded percussion section, the music is dramatic and tense, bitter and terse, incisive and insightful. To an extent it can be seen as Korngold's 'last gasp' attempt to counter, with a late Romantic symphonic work, the encroachment of atonality and serialism which he saw as "...the ultimate disaster for the art of music." The opening is as 'in your face' and abrupt as anything he ever wrote and the first movement is often referred to by critics as Korngold's own 'danse macabre.' Full of tension and brilliant orchestral color, the symphony was a critical success, Bruno Walter, for example, finding it to be "...of real musical substance, masterfully written, modern in language and yet generally accessible."

Korngold had trouble getting it staged, however, and it would only be performed once before he died, in a Vienna Radio broadcast in October 1954. So little rehearsal time was available that the broadcast and recording turned into a disaster, despite the composer's fervent pleas that it be postponed. He also wanted the recordings erased, complaining the tape hiss was louder than the trumpets! Only since the composer's death in 1957 has the work begun to be appreciated for the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. As conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos said in 1959 "My whole life I have searched for the ideal modern work. I have found it in this symphony."

Korngold's symphony, which he considered to be among his most important works, is replete with references to the work he carried out in Hollywood, especially the scores for Anthony Adverse, Captain Blood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, from which the anguished main theme of the doomed lovers is taken to add pathos to the symphony. The United States in general played an important part in Korngold's musical life, but more specifically he credited America with saving his life, and those of his family, in the run up to the outbreak of war. Consequently he dedicated this important work towards end of his life to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.