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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The missing link in the reel

By Norman Lebrecht / October 24, 2007

The saddest letter I have ever set eyes on fell out of a dusty book I was buying in a basement shop off Charing Cross Road. Dated ‘Hollywood, 5 March 1957’ it was written by the wife of a dying composer to a conductor, Mark Lubbock, who had arranged to give a short talk on the BBC on the composer’s 60th birthday.

In a tone that veered from ingratiating to embarrassingly obsequious, Luzi Korngold applauded Lubbock’s advocacy of her husband’s work and showered him with a pile of recordings. ‘My husband is still not well enough to write himself,’ she wrote in laborious English, ‘(but) I thank you in his name, already in advance, for the pleasure we will have in listening to you.’

Her husband, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, had once been the most successful composer in movieland and, before that, at the Vienna Opera. But musical fashions flicker faster than old films and Korngold’s time had passed; he had six months to live, just long enough to see his reputation vanish.

A commemoration in the coming weeks at London’s South Bank offers some reparation with a long-belated British premiere of Korngold’s 1927 opera Das Wunder der Heliane, a post-romantic work that lifts opera out of the Richard Strauss dinner-jacket into a realm both mystic and modern.

Conducted by the London Philharmonic’s new chief Vladimir Jurowski, the mini-series may provoke a Korngold reappraisal, at least I hope it will. What it cannot do is heal the schism that Korngold left behind – a seismic faultline in the musical process that has prevented the best classical composers from engaging seriously with the cinema, the most popular art form of our time.

No such constraints existed in the world that Korngold was born into in 1897, a world where Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss played cards together twice a week, celebrating their parallel dominance of cerebral and popular art. Korngold’s father, Julius, was music critic of Vienna’s influential Neue Freie Presse. He took the wunderkind, aged ten, to see Gustav Mahler and came away with a commission to write a ballet. Musicians acclaimed the kid as the best since Mozart, though this may have been in deference to his father’s career-breaking power.

By 18 Erich had two operas on stage. At 23, he addressed the post-War malaise with Die Tote Stadt (Dead City), co-written with his father, a necrophiliac opera about a man who drives himself crazy that his dead wife is having an affair in another town. It won soprano Maria Jeritza world fame and transferred within a year to New York. Over the next 15 years it had more performances in Vienna than any contemporary work.

Eclectic and inquisitive – keen on movies and keen, too, to escape his overweening Papa – Korngold sailed in 1934 to join director Max Reinhardt on the Warner Brothers lot for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Micky Rooney and Olivia de Havilland). There, he so impressed the moguls that they let him write his own contract, allowing him, uniquely among Hollywood slaves, the right to own his music and recycle it in any form he chose.

Over the next decade, while Nazism ravaged Europe, Korngold single-handedly defined the parameters of movie music as we know it today – a patchwork of Mahler, Wagner, Berlioz and Johann Strauss, with occasional chromatic moments of original melody for love and tragedy. He specialised in rowdy scores for Errol Flynn swashbucklers but he could turn to baroque pastiche for The Sea Hawk and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and to contemplative, disturbing quietude for the psychological studies of Kings Row (1942, with Ronald Reagan), Of Human Bondage and Deception (both 1946).

By now, the war over and downcast by his aged father’s death, Korngold realised how far he had drifted off course. ‘I will be 50 in May (1947),’ he told Warner Brothers. ‘Fifty is very old for a child prodigy. I feel I have to make a decision now if I don’t want to be a Hollywood composer for the rest of my life.’

He resumed composing concert works, only to face rejection. Hollywood success had blighted his highbrow reputation. He wrote a gorgeous violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz, scorned by the New York Times as ‘a Hollywood concerto … ordinary and sentimental in character … matched by the mediocrity of the ideas.’

A cello concerto, drawn from the Deception score and intentionally discordant, was similarly derided. The more Korngold composed, the less he got played. Conductors like Wilhelm Furtwaengler, who once accepted his pieces sight unseen, no longer replied to his letters. Broadcasters dropped him from their playlists. The desperation in Luzi’s appeal to the BBC must have echoed Korngold’s deathbed despair.

Through no fault of his own, he had come to symbolise the success of popular movies against the stagnancy of musical tradition. His ostracism was intended as a warning to future composers never to defect to mass temptations.

The line he crossed remained inviolate until the past decade when, facing audience crisis, orchestras took up the Steven Spielberg scores of John Williams and the Lord of the Rings suite by Howard Shore - along with occasional airings of the Korngold violin concerto (a recent Vancouver recording by the young Canadian James Ehnes is outstanding). The excommunication had been lifted.

Yet listening to current movie scores – Patrick Doyle’s fine work, for instance, for the forthcoming Sleuth – you realise how little the art of movie composing has advanced since Korngold gave up in 1946, how stuck directors have become in the expectations of action and emotion that he cultivated, major themes for love, minor for loss.

Korngold, 110 next month and 50 years dead, richly deserves to be welcomed back to the concert hall. But he deserves even more to be recognised as a pioneer of an allied art, an art that now cries out for a new Korngold to rejuvenate its methodology. The time has come to erase the line between movie and concert music, to encourage the likes of John Adams, Thomas Ades and Mark Anton Turnage to try their hand at lifting film tracks out of the Korngold groove and into 21st century modalities.

The LPO play Korngold’s film music on 2 November, the violin concerto on 14 November and Heliane on 21 November. Audio samples can be heard on

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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