He was the dean of Hollywood film composers in the 1930’s and 40’s. Years before the Nazi dictatorship that forced him and so many of his contemporaries to flee Europe, he had made his reputation as a child prodigy, a modern-day Mozart. Yet his classical compositions, his operas and his ballet scores would be eclipsed for decades by the music he composed for Warner Brothers. But his reputation would ultimately rebound, to the point where his work would find a place once again on the concert stage, and his amazing Violin Concerto would become standard repertoire.
I’m speaking of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, of course.
Born in Moravia, Korngold grew up in Vienna. He was something of a child genius at composition, and his earliest works were performed by major orchestras while he was still a teenager. His operas featured the leading artists of his time—“Die Tote Stadt” premiered at the Met in 1921 and starred Maria Jeritza, the legendary soprano who was the first to heighten Tosca’s drama by beginning “Vissi d’arte” while lying face down at Scarpia’s feet.
Korngold came to Hollywood in 1934 and signed an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers the following year. He practically became synonymous with Errol Flynn movies–“Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, for which he won an Oscar—and other costume dramas like “Anthony Adverse” (his first Oscar) and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”. He did do “modern dress”–famously, “Kings Row” (“Where’s the rest of me?”) “Between Two Worlds” (more about that later) and, his last score for Warner Brothers, that Bette Davis camp classic, “Deception,” featuring what later became his Op. 37, the Cello Concerto in C. After World War II and the end of his film contract, Korngold devoted his energies exclusively to composing concert works. He died in 1957 at the age of 60 after several years of ill-health.
Korngold’s name started to return to prominence in the 1970’s. The New York City Opera revived “Die Tote Stadt” and Charles Gerhardt began his Classic Film Scores series with “The Sea Hawk”, followed by “Elizabeth and Essex”, bringing Korngold’s wildly romantic yet exhilarating sound front and center. Taken together, these recordings showcase a wide range of Korngold’s talent. I’m particularly fond of the selections from “The Sea Hawk”, which puts us on the bounding main with sweeping strings and majestic brass. Korngold’s music is intensely lyrical, and this was never on better display than in “Nora’s Theme” from the non-Bette Davis “Of Human Bondage” (For collectors of trivia, this was the music that Dorothy Hamill skated to when she won Olympic Gold). There’s more than a little Richard Strauss in his music—the selection from “The Constant Nymph”, featuring a contralto solo, could have come straight from “Der Rosenkavalier”. But Korngold’s Cello Concerto, which figures so prominently in “Deception”, is all his, and somewhat more abstract than the rest of his scores. Perhaps it hints at the direction he would have taken in film music, had he chosen to continue in that medium.
Another of my favorite Korngold albums is the aptly titled “Between Two Worlds“, referring not only to his film score of the same name, but the fact that the disk contains two of his best concert works, the “Symphonic Serenade” and the “Theme and Variations.” Warner Brothers’ “Between Two Worlds” was a wartime remake of the moralistic “Outward Bound”, made lively by the presence of some great studio talent—John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Eleanor Parker, with Faye Emerson as the fallen woman and George Coulouris as the villainous war profiteer. Korngold’s score features some of his most ravishing music, and while the film contains some huh? scenes (nowhere in any universe could Sara Allgood have been John Garfield’s mother), the score never ceases in its beauty.
But when all is said and done, my favorite Korngold work is his Violin Concerto. The piece just…..sings. Without any apology whatsoever (and as expressly permitted by his Warner Brothers contract), Korngold incorporated themes from at least three of his movies—“Another Dawn”, “Juarez” and most memorably, “The Prince and the Pauper”—into the work. Yet in doing so, he transformed them. This concerto has drive—it’s an independent statement, neither an illustration of action nor a mere commentary on another medium. Yes, it’s shamelessly rhapsodic, but there’s enough meat on its bones to be a welcome showcase for the soloist (Jascha Heifetz premiered the work in 1947). Among its many delights is the dialog in the last movement between soloist and concertmaster, when the two toss the theme back and forth in Q&A fashion. The music comes from Korngold’s score for “The Prince and the Pauper”, and it’s fascinating to compare its first, pompously majestic version on “The Sea Hawk” album to its witty appearance in the concerto. It’s a wonderful piece from start to finish, and I had the good fortune to hear it live just several days ago, performed with unabashed glee by violinist Leonidas Kavakos, accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. What a ride!
Nest time around: Max Steiner, the go-to composer for Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the tallest and darkest leading man of all time….King Kong.