Dallas — Part of the pervasive mythology of classical music is the archetype of the prodigious genius who accomplishes artistic miracles at an astonishingly young age. Perhaps the best example of this figure is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose extraordinary talent has been part of popular culture—including movies and Broadway plays—for many years. Even casual patrons of classical music concerts will know the broad outline of Mozart’s spectacular early years, adult disappointments as a composer, and his tragic death at age 35. There are other composers who displayed early signs of musical genius (Mendelssohn especially comes to mind), but there are also a few composers whose talent is of the same level as these famous examples, but whose work is generally far less known. Perhaps the best example of this is Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Korngold was born in 1897, the son of the influential and formidable music critic, Julius Korngold. Young master Korngold began the study of piano at the age of 5, and was seriously pursuing composition theory with Alexander von Zemlimsky (another one of my favorite composers) at the age of 10—at the personal recommendation of none other than Gustav Mahler. The student made rapid progress, and soon began to eclipse even his prominent teachers. According to Jessica Duchen’s excellent and comprehensive biography of Korngold, Zemlimsky left Vienna when he was appointed to a post to conduct opera in Prague in 1911. Erich was then assigned to study counterpoint with Hermann Grädener. Korngold received a cheeky postcard from Zemlimsky which read, “Dear Erich! I hear you are studying with Grädener. Is he making progress?”
Korngold had a series of compositional successes in his early to mid-teens, including his Piano Trio, Op. 1, and his Piano Sonata, Op. 2, which was premiered by the eminent pianist Artur Schnabel in 1911. Korngold wrote the piano trio at the age of 12, but had kept the work secret from his composition teacher, Zemlimksy. The baby-faced young Austrian was, by now, so famous that this trio was premiered by renowned conductor Bruno Walter on the piano, with the concertmaster and principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Acclaimed conductor Artur Nikisch gave the world premiere in 1911 of Korngold’s first orchestral work, the Schauspiel Ouvertüre, Opus. 4. Thus, by the age of 19—the time of the eagerly anticipated premiere of The Ring of Polykrates, Korngold was already a fully formed and highly creative composer, drawing on, and extending, the traditions of a series of brilliant Austrian and German composers.
Back in 2014, The Dallas Opera presented Korngold’s most famous opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), composed at the age of 21, with a libretto by his father (writing under a pseudonym). Despite its downbeat title, the opera concludes with the main character, Paul, overcoming his intense grief, stemming from the premature death of his young wife, and optimistically re-integrating himself into the activities of daily life. In our production, Jay Hunter Morris performed the fearsomely difficult principal role. (As an aside, he and I had friendly debates during the rehearsal and production period about which role, Siegfried or Paul, was the more difficult. By the end of the run, we both agreed that Siegfried, even with its extraordinary demands, was actually easier to pull off). I was especially proud of this production, directed by Mikael Melbye and visually enhanced with the exquisite projections designed by Wendall J. Harrington.
As many readers know, TDO will present Korngold’s first opera, Der Ring des Polykrates, based on the Schiller ballad, later this season. In preparation for these four performances in February, we will host a special preview event on Jan. 14. TDO’s brilliant new Concertmaster, Ellen dePasquale, Principal Cellist Mitch Maxwell, and I will perform Korngold’s Piano Trio, Op. 1 at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 14 at Temple Emanu-El in the beautiful setting of the Stern Chapel. The program will also include a panel discussion, moderated by Cantor Vicki Glikin, of Korngold’s life and legacy. We will discuss his early genius, his flight from Hitler to Hollywood—where he was one of the most influential “fathers” of film music—and his efforts after the war to relaunch his “serious” compositional career.
As I prepare the work for the concert, I marvel at the almost profligate use of creative new material in the piano trio, especially in the outer two movements, as Korngold shifts rapidly from one musical idea to another—changing harmonies and keys at a dizzying speed. I have found that once the music is in my ears, and my fingers on the piano, the harmonic sequences are, for the most part, very logical, but the process of the learning them has been time-consuming because of the thickets of accidentals, and nonstop textural and key changes. As I admire the genius of this young man (and I don’t use the word lightly), I also smile at the odd moment when he finds himself “stuck” in a tonal cul-de-sac, and his occasional misjudgments about how best to orchestrate his ideas between the three instruments. (For example: every so often, he will seek a big tonal effect, either in the strings or the piano, but the composer sells himself short by the sparse orchestration). I love the way he builds to climaxes in the first movement, showing unusually precise instructions to the performers on his desired dynamic levels, which then melt away suddenly when he moves on to contrastingly tender material. His skillful and frequent use of Viennese waltz rhythms in the second and fourth movements—alternately serious, comic, and sinister—draws on the best work of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The first movement’s principal theme is based on a tritone, and I enjoy how he integrated this “devil’s interval” in numerous places in the trio, sometimes for thematic use, and sometimes for coloristic effect (e.g. at the ends of the both the first and fourth movements). What an extraordinarily precocious young man he must have been!
Later in our current season, The Dallas Opera will present four performances between Feb. 9 and 17, 2018, of a rare Korngold double bill. The first part of the program will be his Violin Concerto in D, which he finished in 1945. In his film work in Hollywood, Korngold had negotiated a unique contractual provision that allowed him to reuse musical material from his film scores for his classical works. This concerto draws on thematic material from four film scores including Anthony Adverse and Another Dawn (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and Juarez (1939). The world premiere of the concerto was performed in 1947 by the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, and the St. Louis Symphony. Alas for Korngold, his career never recovered the promise of its pre-war days, and the violin concerto, despite its many merits, was not sufficient to fully relaunch his career. At TDO, Music Director Emmanuel Villaume will conduct, and the solo part will be played by distinguished violinist Augustin Dumay. The acclaimed Dallas Opera Orchestra will perform on stage.
The second half of this double bill will be Korngold’s first opera, composed when he was just 16: The Ring of Polykrates. This opera was written as part of a pair of one-act operas, the other being a darker drama, Violanta. I considered, but rejected, the idea of presenting both operas in Dallas, preferring to focus the audience’s attention on the lighter domestic comedy of Polykrates, with its reminisces of Verdi (especially Verdi’s Falstaff in the ensembles), Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Wagner. This will be just the third professional production in the United States in the last 100 years, and I believe passionately that the opera deserves more regular performances.
In reflecting on Korngold’s life and legacy, there is no doubt that his career as a “serious” composer suffered from his association with film music. This is sadly ironic, in that our current musical world rightly rewards Hollywood composers with fame and fortune, and symphonic “pops” programs featuring film music are a programming staple of every American symphony, large or small. Still, it is gratifying to see more frequent performances of Korngold’s masterpiece, Die tote Stadt, and even some of his less well-known operas (especially in Europe). We are proud to honor Korngold’s legacy in our programming this season, and I hope that there will be far greater recognition of his unique gifts and contributions to the art form in the not-too-distant future.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in TheaterJones.com.
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