Continuing with our theme, the last two weeks, of exploring the great composers of Hollywood film music, this week, we're going to look in depth at the work of many-time Oscar-winning MGM film composer Erich Korngold.
There are more flattering pictures of Korngold than this one, but to me, this was the most interesting: Korngold when he was a teenage musical prodigy and genius. His eyes reflect the smugness of such gifted youth and penetrating unsentimentality. How different he appears than what we might expect after hearing the intense, lush romanticism of his music.
Korngold's early works were in the romantic style of that time, the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, Wagnerian but with a modernist edge. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss both praised his early works, Mahler in 1906 (Korngold was nine!) calling him a musical genius for his Gold cantata. His first publicly successful work was his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), first performed at the Vienna Opera in 1910. From such beginnings, he went on to become a successful composer of multiple popular, publicly-composed operas before he was twenty.
His most famous pre-Hollywood work is probably the opera Die Tote Stadt (City of the Dead), premiered in 1921 at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Here is the finale of Die Tote Stadt, which I present to you to give you a feeling for the Korngold of the twenties.
Lush, grandiose, romantic, at times sentimental, heavily orchestrated. The style is that of the post-romantic German composers like Mahler and Strauss, his contemporaries, although they had quite a few years on him.
I presented the above to you to make a larger point about Korngold's music and his influence on Hollywood. Because of his prodigy, because of the time and place in which was born and his style formed, Korngold already stood as a remarkable example of late romanticism carried into the twentieth century, a century which would see increasingly abstract and abstruse music that alienated the non-musically trained popular audience. If Korngold's music seems to reach into the romanticism of the past, let's remember, when he started, it wasn't the past, yet! And this is the style that he would bring, honestly and sincerely, to his Hollywood compositions.
Uh oh. Another example! I was going to go with just the Die Tote Stadt finale as an example of his early work, and kept typing while I listened to this Youtube to completion in the background. How lovely! This is an aria from his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), sung by Renee Fleming, something I had never heard before. I feel guilty now. I always put too many appetizers in my diaries before the main course. The beginning evokes memories of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.
And so we have Korngold, and his music, and Germany. As we leave the 1920s and enter the 1930s, we also have the Nazis and a brilliant Jewish composer whose family was in peril. As many composers of that time did, he got out and found refuge in a very welcoming Hollywood that just happened to need composers to fill in the soundtracks to talking pictures, an art form in its infancy. In Germany, all of his music was banned.
A couple of weeks ago, in our diary about Oscar winning film music, we posted examples in the diary (and in comments) of Korngold's work. He was recognized for his music for the swashbuckling MGM adventure films of the thirties. He won two Oscars for Best Original Score, for Anthony Adverse(1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938). He received two other nominations for Captain Blood(1934) and The Sea Hawk(1940).
But now, to the Violin Concerto of 1946! After the war, Korngold returned to composing concert hall music, although he felt unrecognized. And he was unrecognized. The Romantic style had fallen out of favor and his music sounded "Too Hollywood."
Here is a short clip of violist Ilya Gringoltz, addressing this.
Shorter Gingoltz: It IS Hollywood music, but Korngold was a foremost inventor of Hollywood Music. To call it too Hollywood is like calling Chuck Berry too Rock 'n Roll.
Another short two minute clip, this of violinist David Robertson explaining the influences on Korngold's film music and the Violin Concerto.
About the Korngold Violin Concerto
Let's talk about the music we are going to listen to shortly. Korngold's Violin Concerto doesn't just have the Hollywood sound -- and by that, I mean, this will be a very comfortable experience for almost anybody. It's very John Williams-y. Parts of it could have been substituted into E.T! But this is because of the extent of Korngold's influence on Hollywood, not Hollywood's influences on Korngold. And there are actual themes from Korngold's films in this concerto. The main theme, upon which the entire concerto is built thematically, comes from Another Dawn(1937), which I'll link to but not embed. Listen to it later.
The outstanding feature of the this theme is the tritone. (Don't let your eyes glaze over while I get technical.) If the theme is in C major, we can describe it as C-G-F#, that dissonant F# (a tritone) standing out in its peculiarity and becoming the most important recurring theme of the music. Okay, so your eyes did glaze over? I'm talking about that very cool, funny sounding note which you will hear right away and which will reappear in different forms. You'll be humming it.
The Korngold Violin Concerto In D Major performed by Hillary Hahn, first movement.
The first movement is in Sonata-allegro form (If you don't know what that is by now, go back and read our Koscar-nominated first diary!) It begins with the main theme in D major, that melody with the tritone, lush and broad. The second, alternating theme in the key of A comes in at 3:14, more introspective, serious and touching.
The main theme pops its head back for a moment at 4:30 (in the key of C) to round off the exposition and prepare us for the development section, which begins with a long, tense, worrisome violin solo. In fact, the violin soloist carries the burden of most of the development. As it ends, a wonderful "film music" type of trilling segue tells us that we are coming back to D major and the recapitulation in D major.
As we come to the end of the first movement, notice in the clip how small the orchestra is compared to some of the late-romantic pieces we have covered. This is a rather modestly-sized orchestra for a man used to managing huge forces for his operas of the twenties. And as Robertson noted in his clip, Korngold wastes no part of this orchestra, giving all instruments key parts to play. Korngold was a master of orchestration, as one might expect of somebody who hard-labored their way through the Hollywood patronage system.
Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major, performed by Hillary Hahn, second movement.
Just listen. Simply beautiful. The theme of this rather free-form movement is derived from his Oscar winning film score for Anthony Adverse(1936). The music touches into a mysterious area (tritones!) near the end before coming in for a very, very soft landing in G, setting us up for the final movement.
Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major, performed by Hillary Hahn. Third/final movement.
The best movement is this, the last, a rondo. Good showmanship style! The galloping theme should sound familiar: it's the same theme as the concerto started with, the Another Dawn theme with its tritone. In this movement, we begin a series of fast, rhythmic, powerful variations on that theme.
At 4:53, we reach a powerful climax with a full orchestra statement of the theme. As it settles down, the music softens, relaxes, and we might think that the concerto is over, but we are beginning the final stretch, as the variations on the tritone theme resume, but at accelerated pace.
Damn. Isn't Hillary Hahn adorable!
If you don't have this concerto in your library, you should get it. Although she did a wonderful job with it, the classic performance is the one by Jascha Heifetz. I would have used his recording, which is also on Youtube, as our example today, but the sound quality of the clips (not of the recording itself) are rather poor. So go buy it, or do whatever you do to get your music.
Next week: I have no idea! Any suggestions?