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Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) from Vienna to Hollywood

Erich Wolfgang Korngold From the cinematic viewpoint, the careers of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold seem to have parallels in that they all moved to Hollywood from a traditional classical musical education in Europe. Out of this group, though, Korngold was by far the most promising classical composer. His father Julius was a music critic in Vienna and the young Erich Wolfgang was a precocious child prodigy impressing composers of the stature of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini with his composition skills at age 9. He then studied under Zemlinsky among others. By the early 30s, Korngold was firmly on the map as a classical composer of note with a number of operas in the grand Wagnerian style established in the repertoire, and Korngold himself was professor at the Vienna State Academy of Music. However at this time anti-Semitism was on the increase in Europe, and therefore Korngold readily accepted an invitation from director Max Reinhardt to move to Hollywood initially to adapt Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". (A few years later, Korngold's family only just managed to escape from Nazi-controlled Austria and join him in Hollywood.)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Adventures of Robion Hood CD cover His subsequent film scores were a major success in Hollywood with his wonderful command of the orchestra and sweeping romantic sounds which have influenced many later composers such as John Williams. He did much of his work for the swashbuckler movies (most often featuring Errol Flynn as the hero) which were popular in his day, including "Captain Blood", "The Adventures of Robin Hood", "The Sea Hawk" and "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", and also "Kings Row" with Ronald Reagan. Two of his scores were rewarded with Oscars, namely "Anthony Adverse" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood", although the Academy rules at the time meant that the oscar for "Anthony Adverse" was actually collected by Leo F. Forbstein who headed the studio's music department! After World War II, Korngold returned to Vienna and was to incorporate some music from his films (e.g. "Anthony Adverse") into other works, but never quite managed to recreate his earlier classical successes. Whether this was because his romantic style was now out of vogue or because the "film composer" label had now tarnished his image of respectability is not clear.

Swashbucklers - double album CD cover A perfect example of Korngold’'s post-Hollywood concert works and their relationship to his film music is his Violin Concerto. This was the first piece written after WWII, the composer having dedicated himself to support his family through writing only film music until Hitler had been defeated. Korngold borrows themes from his movie scores in all three movements of the Concerto. The soaring violin solo which opens the concerto was taken from the Errol Flynn feature "Another Dawn" (1937), while the entrancing second theme originally accompanied a love scene in William Dieterle’s 1939 movie "Juarez". The lyrical principal theme of the central Romance, first heard on solo clarinet and quickly adopted by the violin, was originally used in the Oscar-winning score for "Anthony Adverse" (1936). The virtuosic Rondo finale contrasts a playful dance-like theme with a down-to-earth, folk-like second theme borrowed from Korngold’'s 1937 score for Mark Twain'’s "The Prince and the Pauper", ending with a fast and furious coda.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Kings Row & The Sea Wolf - double album cover Another example can be found in Korngold's final film score which was the 1946 film "Deception" starring Bette Davis as a pianist in a love triangle with a cellist (played by Paul Henreid) and a composer (played by Claude Rains). There is an extended scene where the cellist (dubbed by Eleanor Aller) plays a Cello Concerto written by the on-screen composer. In reality the music we hear is a lenthy concerto-style work written for the movie by Korngold, and he subsequently expanded this into a full cello concerto for concert performances. Although Deception was Korngold's final film score, in 1956 he acted as Music Supervisor and Arranger for the film "Magic Fire". He selected and arranged a number of extracts from Wagner's operas for the film. When the actor who was to play the part of the orchestra conductor failed to turn up, Korngold himself was persuaded to play the part and you can see him briefly on screen with false beard and hair! See this video on youtube which shows and provides more information about Korngold's appearances in Magic Fire.

If you get the latest Blu-ray disc of "The Adventures of Robin Hood", one of the many special features in addition to the film itself is an audio-only recording of Korngold playing his own music on the piano. This was recorded at the birthday party of his friend, songwriter and orchestrator Ray Heindorf, and is a virtuoso performance in itself lasting some 19 minutes and including mostly his film music but some of his classical works too. Look out too for the maestro sometimes humming and singing along with himself. A worthwhile rarity!

Classical Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold:

    Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Sea Hawk and Deception complete scores 2CD cover
  • Der Ring des Polykrates
  • Violanta - a one-act opera written when the composer was only 19
  • Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) - often considered his best opera, and sounding in places very like Gustav Mahler
  • Das Wunder der Heliane
  • Die Kathrin - his last opera completed just before his extended stay in Hollywood
  • Symphony in F# Op. 40
  • Violin Concerto
  • Cello Concerto - an expanded concert version of the work played in the film "Deception"
  • Chamber music (various)

An interesting fact to note as well as writing film music himself, Korngold's classical music has also been used in films. "The Big Lebowski" features music from his opera "Die Tote Stadt".

Films by Erich Wolfgang Korngold:

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream - arranging Mendelssohn's music for this film version starring Mickey Rooney as Puck
  • Captain Blood - musical adaptation on this pirate movie
  • Anthony Adverse - including the song "I'll Wait For You My Love (Angela's Song)" with lyrics by Howard Koch; the movie also featured excerpts from Claudio Monteverdi's Opera "Orfeo"; in both cases Olivia de Havilland's voice was dubbed
  • The Prince and the Pauper - using smaller orchestral forces for most of the film, with an exciting cue for the "Duel" scene, some of the fast passages have a reputation for being hard to play
  • Another Dawn
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood - a quintessential Korngold score, with fanfares, action, romance and Little John whistles the first line of the English folk song Sumer Is Icumen In
  • Juarez
  • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex - with some gentler moments, a romantic love theme and some regal pomp
  • The Sea Wolf
  • The Sea Hawk - the music has everything: a hugely exciting adventure theme and lush music to accompany romance on the high seas
  • Kings Row
  • The Constant Nymph
  • Between Two Worlds - an unusual film whose plot seems like something from the Twilight Zone
  • Devotion
  • Of Human Bondage
  • Deception - set among orchestral musicians and featuring classical music as well as Korngold's score and the cello concerto which plays a central role in the story
  • Magic Fire - Korngold was Music Arranger and Supervisor for this film, and appears onscreen as the conductor

Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Recommendations:

Some of Korngold's music can be found on compilation CDs, but increasingly there are releases of original soundtracks or restored scores. If you are new to the film music of Korngold, these albums are a good place to start exploring.