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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?  

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 05:37 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A violist friend of mine (4+ / 0-)

    has met--and, I believe played with--Hillary Hahn. Lucky bastard.

  •  A late edition... (4+ / 0-)

    I found this link through one of the recommended youtube links.  It's a documentary clip about Germany in the twenties, the trends in art at that time, and in particular, about Korngold's opera Heliane.  (The second clip in the diary was from Heliane).  The critic describes it as one of the most complicated pieces of music of the twentieth century.

    And here we're all thinking to ourselves, "Gosh, that violin concerto sounds like the flying bike scene from E.T!"

    This fascinated me.  I'm very impressed with Heliane, which I had never heard before today.

  •  Love the piece, but never knew the name... (6+ / 0-)

    It's this one, Korngold Violin Concerto In D Major, first movement that I'm listening to now as I write this.  

    I've discovered the pleasure of turning off the radio when I'm driving and just listening to classical music.  I don't have to know whether the stock market is going up or down, or what crisis is afflicting the world at this moment.

    I just listen, and enjoy.  I'm lucky enough to be able to drive along the coast of the pacific, and watch the waves, and let the music envelope me as I'm doing right now.

    This is the genius of this web site, that in the mist of the politics and the dissension, we get something like this.

    Please sign me up to follow, or be a member of your DK4 group.

    •  I have no idea what a DK4 group is and don't (4+ / 0-)

      want to know.  I'm going to become a Dailykos Luddite.  But I'll be here every Thursday!

    •  Growing up, the preferred (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo

      radio station (in fact, nearly the only radio station allowed, aside from NPR) in the car was always KING "classical" 98.1 FM. My dad and I would get in the car, he'd switch on KING, nod, and start quizzing me on what whatever piece was playing (he'd always know, no matter what). If I didn't know immediately, he'd ask "country of origin?...era?" and so on, until I got it.

      The man used to drive me nuts, but I've grown grateful to him for introducing me to classical music, and now it's just a fun little game we play. I like contemporary stuff (and I adore and respect the work of the Beatles, Bowie, the stones, Andrew Bird, Fleet Foxes and dozens of others), but so much of it I just can't recognize as "music," per se.

      One of my girlfriend's chief complaints about classical music is that she has a hard time attributing an identifying mood or feeling to pieces like "Symphony no. 4" or "Violin Sonata no. 23"; it sounds so anonymous and arbitrary to her that the music just all runs together. I have a similar feeling toward modern pop--it all sounds like a carbon copy of itself, and as someone who has difficulty recognizing and appreciating lyrics, it just feels like I'm listening to the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. Songs like Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and Katy Perry's "California Gurls," which have literally the exact same backing beat and were released within months of each other certainly don't help. How lazy are people getting?

      •  What your girlfriend says... (3+ / 0-)

        ...it sounds so anonymous and arbitrary to her that the music just all runs together

        That's a real problem, and I think I know what she's saying.  Unless you have been exposed to classical music early, as you were, it is difficult to organize it all in your head.

        That's one of the nice things about film music, by the way.  People who have no trouble grasping the score for a movie often do have difficulty understanding the music without the film to set context.  So there's a mental organization problem, and that's what I originally set out to address with my first diary, the one on Sonata-allegro form.  

        You know, it's funny, most people who love classical music may never have heard of Sonata-allegro form, but about half of classical music is in it.  It defines the shape and order of things.

        About being exposed to classical music early... I wasn't.  EXCEPT through Warner Brothers cartoons!  They had an impact, bless 'em.

        I raised my daughter on Disney's Fantasia.  We were awful parents.  We would just park her in front of the TV with Fantasia running and forget about her.  But she loves classical music today.  

  •  Dumbo, are you a musicologist? Your diaries (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo, Samer, Youffraita, moira

    are gr8!!!

    "Say little; do much." (Pirkei Avot: 1:15)

    by hester on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 06:40:01 PM PST

  •  Hey, I can sing the "Cliffs of Dover" song (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo, texasmom

    from "Seahawk."

    I love those old movies and I love that kind of music.

    Freedom has two enemies: Those who want to control everyone around them...and those who feel no need to control themselves.

    by Sirenus on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 06:57:58 PM PST

  •  Just finished listening to this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo

    and it's brilliant; especially loved the third movement. It's funny--the concerto doesn't sound that "movie-ish" to me, especially compared to, say, Mahler's more schmaltzy stuff.

    •  Well, movie-ish certainly when contrasted (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oysterface, chingchongchinaman

      with the other great concert hall composers of the time like Stravinsky or Bartok or Shostakovich.

      I think I may have misstated things when I said calling Korngold's music Hollywood was like saying Chuck Berry sounded too Rock 'n Roll.  I was trying to point out the cause and effect confusion, because Korngold's music and his style BECAME what we know as Hollywood music because we were exposed to it and became so comfortable and familiarized with it first through that medium.  And it went on to set a pattern for other composers that derived their style from him.

      None of this is meant to diminish other great early film composers, like Max Steiner, for instance, who also set the early tone of film music.  

      However, it's easier to do a Korngold tribute diary than a Steiner tribute diary because Korngold has so much more backstory and non-film music.

      I'm still blown away from listening to Heliane today (second clip in the diary).  That really impressed the hell out of me.

  •  Thank you, Dumbo... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo

    I can't contribute anything about Korngold (but I love Hilary Hahn). Somebody in this household probably has some of his work (I can't listen tonight--new computer, need to get the speakers working). I'm not a big fan of late Romantic music, but I am a fan of yours, and I'm sure I'll find you on DK4.  Thanks for such interesting and informative diaries.

  •  I've recently become a Korngold fan (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo, chingchongchinaman

    I'd never heard of him until about two years ago.  A few weeks ago I heard Renee Fleming sing a selection of his pieces at Carnegie Hall - a fabulous musical experience!

  •  That is a delightful (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oysterface, Dumbo, chingchongchinaman

    concerto that is totally new to me.   I really enjoyed it.

    I also realized, listening to the appetizers, that I don't mind post romantic Germanish music  if it is orchestral but just don't care for it vocally.

    •  A lot of people are that way, so I understand. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oysterface, chingchongchinaman

      I didn't like operatic vocal music for many years.  It had too many uncool mental associations for me.  And then I fell in love with it.  But I still hate certain warbling types of mezzo soprano voices.

      •  I think we are at opposite ends of a spectrum (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo

        I love warbling mezzo soprano voices.

        It has taken your series to get me to love orchestral music.

        You have broken my heart; and my wallet.

        •  Lol! (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          oysterface, chingchongchinaman

          And I've been going out of my way to find the LEAST warbly sopranos for my choice of embeds!  Ah!  Well, I'll try to include a few more warbly mezzos for you.  By warbly, I mean the ones that sound like billy goats on downers.

          Damn, I'm trying to remember the name of this one Wagnerian mezzo I really, really hate.  I think I blacked it out in my mind.  She's very popular.  

          •  Oh. We need to get some definitions down then. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Dumbo

            I thought you didn't like opera. Bel canto in particular - lots of folks don't. So, I'd love to see some of your billy goats to see if we agree...

            •  I'm not even sure what bel canto means, (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              oysterface, chingchongchinaman

              and I just googled it.  I've heard of it before.  See, I know lots of technical crap, but not simple things.  Surprise, surprise.  

              I don't dislike opera, really.  I just never got into it very much, although I've been more interested in it since starting this diary series.  Like, for instance, I'm very curious about Korngold's Heliane opera after today.  

              Damn, I can't remember that soprano's name.  doing searches now...

              •  I think bel canto is short-hand (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Dumbo

                for show pieces with lots of trills and ornamentation.

                Like say, there is a line: My love

                and they go on with that for ages:

                mi love, mi mi, mi, love, love, love, mi love

                could it be Brigit Nelson in Wagner?

                •  Hmmm... I don't know. (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  chingchongchinaman

                  I'm surfing through the Liebstodt clips now.  There are some new ones of Waltraud Meier singing it at Bayreuth and La Scala, and I couldn't resist watching them first because I lust after her so.

                  I think you may be right.  Birgit Nilsson.  I don't know right now... but I will by next week.  Let me give you an example of a soprano I like versus one I don't like.  I've posted both of these before.  They are both clips of Hymn to the Sun by Rimsky Korsakov.

                  Here's one I don't like: Olga Trifanova.

                  At least it has the translation at the bottom.  Now here's another version, much tighter, crisper.  All that weird chromaticism is made clear.

    •  the SLSO has done the Korngold concerto.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo

      ....a number of times; the one time that comes to mind is November 2004 with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist and conductor Gilbert Varga.  I think they've done it once since, but the time escapes me.

      "It's only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake." (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

      by chingchongchinaman on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 10:32:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Dumbo: not next week, likely, but in two weeks (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, chingchongchinaman

    I could do another "guest" diary. . . .

    We don't want our country back, we want our country FORWARD. --Eclectablog

    by Samer on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 08:33:32 PM PST

  •  damn! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo

    i'll have to email myself the link to your diary, so i can listen tomorrow. right now, i'm not able to.

    i found a great 'lesson' i'd like to share with you, re 'eroica,' which is sustaining me at the moment.
    eroica.
    (i'd let it load totally, then 'replay.')

    a link to a lesson, that is, and it, too, is a small orchestral work that has magical output.

    i'll be back! congratulations on your nominimoneinomin for koskar!

    The Addington perpwalk is the trailhead for accountability in this wound on our national psyche. [...you know: Dick Cheney's "top" lawyer.] --Sachem

    by greenbird on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 11:01:51 PM PST

    •  I watched the whole thing. Excellent. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greenbird

      And I would definitely have joined the conductor downstairs for drinks.

      If you liked that, you might also like the video and audio clips of BBC's Discovering Music, hour long shows that dissect music.  I wish I could do something like that, here, where you start and stop the music and talk about it, but I'll have to do with the youtube clips as it is now.  I think there's a huge amount of merit to that approach in explaining music.

      Be back next week.  Thursdays at 5pm PDT (actually, I'm rarely on time.)

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