Eric Korngold
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A Mirror of His Time

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny looks at the life and music of Erich Korngold, composer of Die Tote Stadt.

published Sunday, March 2, 2014


Dallas —  Later this month, The Dallas Opera will present the Texas premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s (1897-1957) lush and moody romance, Die tote stadt. Not only is the opera a masterpiece of late Viennese style, Korngold’s life history is so tightly linked with major events of the 20th century, and so connected to other major musical figures, that it would make a worthy subject for an opera in itself!

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the son of the distinguished (if irascible) music critic Julius Korngold. His talents emerged at a very young age. By the age of five, he was playing four-hand piano works with his father, and by six, starting to keep a notebook of ideas for compositions. When he was nine years old, he had composed a cantata entitled Gold. Sensing his son was a major talent in the making, Julius took him to see Gustav Mahler in order to assess his son’s potential. Korngold played and sang his cantata, and Gustav Mahler (no pushover) declared him a genius. Mahler recommended to Korngold père that the son study with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, an unjustly neglected composer of opera and symphonic works in the late Viennese style taught, not only Korngold, but also Arnold Schoenberg. Adding yet another linkage, Schoenberg went on to marry Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde.

Korngold’s young years were a flurry of precocious and prolific activity. At 11, he wrote his Piano Sonata Number One. In 1910, when Korngold was just 13, he composed his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), accompanied by piano four hands. An orchestrated version was presented the following year, conducted by the famous conductor Felix Weingartner. The ballet was ultimately performed in 30 different productions. In 1910, Korngold’s Piano Trio Opus 1 was performed by musicians of the extraordinary stature of Bruno Walter, Arnold Rosé and Friedrich Buxbaum. So prodigious were his talents, and his trajectory so like Mozart’s, that audiences began to suspect Julius Korngold of having added the middle name “Wolfgang” to his son’s name as an afterthought (which wasn’t true, as it turns out).

Continuing the run of extraordinary musical collaborators, the famous pianist Arthur Schnabel premiered Korngold’s second piano sonata in 1911, which Korngold wrote when he was just 13. Schnabel—famous for his interpretation of Beethoven—toured with the work. My own piano teacher in London, Lady Spender (née Natasha Litvin) had studied with Schnabel years before, and he used to refer to her as his “first grand-daughter.” Knowing Schnabel’s passion for Beethoven’s music, I can understand his interest in Korngold’s second sonata, given that the figuration in the first movement builds on Beethoven’s compositional elements (albeit with a more Lisztian flair).

Despite his son’s great success, Julius was quite worried that his talented son would be “corrupted” by the dissonant school. In hindsight, it is easy to see why. The conflict between post-romanticism and early atonal writing was growing more intense. Richard Strauss, one of the most brilliant opera composers of his—or any—generation, incorporated into his music both harmonic lushness (e.g. Der Rosenkavalier which premiered in 1911) and more dissonant treatments (e.g. Elektra, which premiered in 1909), well before Korngold was writing his early mature works in his teens.

Fast forwarding to 1920, Korngold completed his masterwork opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) with a libretto by the composer and his father writing under a pseudonym—a secret which was not discovered until 1975. The work shows remarkably sophisticated orchestration and compositional style for a composer of any age, let alone a man in his early 20s. The opera draws on both Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, but the style is also uniquely Korngold’s as well. (The vocal lines for the primary tenor role, Paul, often remind me of the title role of Wagner’s Siegfried). Korngold’s use of unrelated harmonic elements as coloristic devices (such as Richard Strauss created for Der Rosenkavalier) became distinctive, and the work employs a series of musical leitmotifs. The work was such an immediate success that it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1921—the first German opera presented after the “War to End All Wars.”

Korngold was conscious at a young age that it would be difficult to support his eventual wife Luzi and their hoped-for family as a composer alone. Perhaps he was at least subliminally aware of the financial difficulties his namesake, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had suffered in his lifetime. (Being a prodigy is one thing; paying the bills is quite another). Beginning in the early 1920s, Korngold began to work on adapting and conducting lesser works by Johann Strauss, Jr., much to the dismay of his learned father. And, significantly, Korngold teamed up with the famous and controversial theatrical figure, Max Reinhardt. Early in his career, Reinhardt was an opera producer and director; he fled the threat of Hitler in the early 1930s and settled in Los Angeles. In 1934, Reinhardt asked Korngold to come to Hollywood to work on an adaptation of Mendelssohn’s1826 music for a new production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Warner Brothers. The partnership was a tremendous success, and Korngold began to divide his time between Hollywood and Vienna—an unlikely pairing of cities that undoubtedly troubled his serious-minded father.

This collaboration, however, literally saved Korngold’s life, and probably his father’s as well. In 1938, Korngold was working in Vienna, when he was invited back to Los Angeles to compose music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. After initially refusing the offer, he had a change of heart and departed for California, immediately before Hitler annexed Austria. Despite the fact that he and his family were secular Jews, Korngold felt at significant risk because of his Jewish heritage, especially after the Nazis seized all of his property following the annexation. He managed to get his family out in the nick of time, including his father. Korngold swore that as long as Hitler was in power, he would not compose for the opera house or concert hall. As anyone who has studied opera knows, oaths often backfire; Korngold kept his oath, but probably lived to regret it.

Korngold was a highly successful film composer between 1934 and 1946, composing a dozen film scores that created the template for nearly every major film composer that followed. He won the Academy Award in 1938 for his work on Robin Hood, composed (in part) at the keyboard while a projectionist ran finished scenes for him, over and over. Many of the elements that made Die tote Stadt such a success were evident in his film writing. These included meticulous musical structure and orchestration, sweeping string writing, bold use of brass, dramatic and regular use of solo violin, and leitmotifs (some drawn from his classical career). He even worked with actors to “keep them in time” to his music (undoubtedly to the surprise of some actors, who would have assumed that he would keep time to them). Korngold influenced generations of film composers, much as British composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets influenced numerous composers for science fiction films. Increasingly, though, Korngold longed for his classical career back in Vienna, where he could be, once again, a “serious” artist.

Korngold’s morale throughout this period was also undermined by regular conflicts with his father. Julius felt that movie music was beneath his brilliant son, and suggested he use film themes to compose “serious” music. Korngold resented his father’s interference, but, in fact, by contract Korngold was permitted to reuse material so long as it did not compete with the film. One notable example was Korngold’s use of material from the film Deception for his Cello concerto composed in 1950, based on the 1946 film.

In response to the end of WWII and his father’s death in 1945 following a long illness, Korngold abandoned his film career to return to classical composition. “Fifty is very old for a child prodigy,” he wrote. “I feel I have to make a decision now if I don’t want to be a Hollywood composer the rest of my life.” Because of the wartime devastation of Austria, he was not able to return until 1949. He had hoped to revive his career in Vienna, but after some initial flurries of interest, he found this difficult, proving once again the maxim that “you can’t go home again.”  Not when the world itself has changed.

There are probably many reasons for Korngold’s struggles to reestablish his dominance in classical music. Some artists who had remained behind resented émigrés, feeling that they had “toughed it out” through the war years, and there were still Nazi sympathizers in important positions even after the war. However, I believe that there were musical reasons as well. Korngold’s compositional style had not evolved dramatically in his 12 years devoted to movie music (making him similar to Puccini in that regard). Korngold was therefore a relatively static artistic figure in a musical and artistic world that had undergone tectonic shifts. Even before 1920, the time of the hotly anticipated premiere of, arguably, his greatest work, Die tote Stadt, radical changes were emerging. Consider just a few examples: In 1909, Schoenberg had composed his first true atonal works, including the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11. As I noted in an earlier OTC, Igor Stravinsky premiered his Rite of Spring in 1913, a year after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The anti-art movement Dada was founded in 1916, De Stijl emerged in 1917 (van Doesburg, Piet Mondrain, and others), and the surrealist movement was founded by André Breton in 1924—not to mention Picasso’s extraordinary output in the 1930s and 1940s.

Fortunately, there has been a gradual, and overdue, resurgence of respect in recent years for Kornfold’s music, especially Die tote Stadt. For me, this work represents the zenith of his career, and remains an exquisite example of high Viennese, post-romantic operatic writing. As sad as Korngold may have been at the end of his life, he fared better than his former teacher, Zemlinsky. Pity poor Zemlinsky! In his early life, he was infatuated with Alma Schindler, who ditched him for the more handsome and successful Gustav Mahler. In 1930, Zemlinsky abandoned his Jewish faith, and converted to Protestantism. Zemlinsky fled to Vienna from Germany in 1933, and then emigrated to the U.S. in 1938 to escape Hitler; but after settling in New York, he sadly remained obscure and unknown. Zemlinsky ultimately died of pneumonia in 1942.

In support and admiration for the neglected genius Korngold, we hope that you can come join us for our upcoming performances. We should take as our recommendation the many renowned musicians who revered his work:  As noted earlier, Bruno Walter premiered Korngold’s Piano Trio, and Artur Schnabel toured with Piano Sonata Number 2. The famous conductor Otto Klemperer premiered Die tote Stadt in Cologne (while Korngold himself conducted a different performance on the same night in Hamburg). Paul Wittgenstein commissioned and premiered in 1924 the piano concerto for the Left Hand, Opus 17 (after losing his right arm in WWI). Jascha Heifetz premiered Korngold’s violin concerto in 1947 (and made the excellent suggestion to make the final movement more difficult). Fürtwangler premiered his Symphonic Serenade for Strings, Opus 39, in 1950. And there are other examples as well.

In conclusion, as Dallas Morning News Classical Music Critic Scott Cantrell has noted, “No opera ever composed has music more gorgeous, more sumptuous, than Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.” It is an exquisite work that repays the investment. See you later this month at the Dallas Opera!

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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A Mirror of His Time
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny looks at the life and music of Erich Korngold, composer of Die Tote Stadt.
by Keith Cerny

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