Erich Wolfgang Korngold (May 29, 1897 – November 29, 1957) was an Austro-Hungarianfilm and romantic musiccomposer. While his compositional style was considered well out of vogue at the time he died, his music has more recently undergone a reevaluation and a gradual reawakening of interest. Along with such composers as Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is considered one of the founders of film music.
Korngold won the Academy Award for his score to The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938, widely considered one of the greatest scores ever written. His score to Anthony Adverse (1936) also won the Oscar; however, at this time, composers were not eligible to be nominated in the Original Score category. His score to Robin Hood was ranked by the American Film Institute as the eleventh greatest American film score of all time.
Born in a Jewish home in Brünn (Brno) (Austria–Hungary, now Czech Republic), Erich was the second son of eminent music critic Julius Korngold. A child prodigy, Erich played his cantataGold to Gustav Mahler in 1906; Mahler called him a "musical genius" and recommended study with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Richard Strauss also spoke very highly of the youth. At the age of 11 he composed his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), which became a sensation when performed at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910, including a command performance for Emperor Franz Josef. This work was followed first with a piano trio, then his Piano Sonata No. 2 in E major that Artur Schnabel played throughout Europe. During his early years Korngold also made live-recording player piano music rolls for the Aeolian Duo-Art system, all of which survive today and can be heard.
Max Reinhardt, who invited Korngold to Hollywood to collaborate on the film A Midsummer Night's Dream
Korngold wrote his first orchestral score, the Schauspiel Ouverture when he was 14. His Sinfonietta appeared the following year, and his first two operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, in 1914. He completed his opera Die tote Stadt, which became an international success, in 1920 at the age of 23. At this point Korngold had reached the zenith of his fame as a composer of opera and concert music. Composers such as Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini heaped praise on him, and many famous conductors, soloists and singers added his works to their repertoires. He completed a concerto for piano left hand for pianist Paul Wittgenstein in 1923 and his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane four years later. He also started arranging and conducting operettas by Johann Strauss II and others while teaching opera and composition at the Vienna Staatsakademie. Korngold was awarded the title professor honoris causa by the president of Austria.
Max Reinhardt, with whom Korngold had collaborated on the operas Die Fledermaus and La belle Helene, asked the composer to come to Hollywood in 1934 to adapt Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to his film version of the play. Over the next four years, he became a pioneer in composing film scores that have been recognized ever since as classics of their kind. In 1938, Korngold was conducting opera in Austria when he was asked by Warner Brothers to come back to Hollywood and compose a score for their new (and very expensive) film The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. He agreed and returned by ship. Shortly after he arrived in California, the Anschluss took place and the condition of Jews in Austria became very perilous so that he stayed in America. Korngold later would say the film score of The Adventures of Robin Hood saved his life. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Score for the film, and was later nominated for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940). A Korngold authority wrote:
Treating each film as an 'opera without singing' (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.
– Brendan G. Carroll, Korngold, Erich Wolfgang, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
In 1943, Korngold became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The year 1945 became an important turning point in Korngold's life. His father, who had never been entirely comfortable in Los Angeles, and who had never approved of Erich's decision to focus exclusively on film composition, died after a lengthy illness. Roughly around the same time, the war in Europe drew to an end. Korngold himself had grown increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood and with the kinds of pictures he was being given, and he was eager to return to writing music for the concert hall and the stage. Korngold stopped writing original film scores after 1946. His final score at Warner Bros. was Deception starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains. However, he was asked by Republic Pictures to adapt the music of Richard Wagner for a film biography of the composer, released in Trucolor, as Magic Fire (1955), directed by William Dieterle from a script by Ewald Andre Dupont. Korngold also wrote some original music for the film and had an unbilled cameo as the conductor Hans Richter.
Despite his achievements and considerable popularity with the musical public, Korngold for years attracted almost no positive critical attention, but considerable critical disdain. Then, in 1972, RCA Victor released an LP titled The Sea Hawk, featuring excerpts from Korngold's film scores performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Gerhardt and supervised by the composer's son George. (This album and other classic film scores by Hollywood composers were later issued by RCA on CD in Dolby Surround Sound.) This was followed by recordings of Korngold's operas and concert works, which led to performances of his symphony and concertos, as well as other compositions.
In 1973, Warner Brothers released special LPs featuring excerpts from the original soundtracks of films scored by Korngold, which had actually been conducted by Warner's music director Leo Forbstein, as a well as a rare recording of Korngold playing the main theme from Kings Row on the piano. In addition, a KFWB radio broadcast from 1938 with Korngold conducting the studio orchestra in excerpts from The Adventures of Robin Hood, narrated by actor Basil Rathbone, was released on LP. In 1975 Die tote Stadt was revived to capacity houses in New York.
Further recognition came in the 1990s; two full-scale biographies of him appeared almost simultaneously. One is Jessica Duchen, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon Press, 20th Century Composers series, 1996). The other is Brendan G. Carroll, Erich Korngold: The Last Prodigy (Amadeus Press, 1997). Carroll is President of the International Korngold Society.
Orchestral and vocal works
Der Schneemann (a Pantomime). Composed and first performed 1910
Schauspiel-Ouvertüre (Overture to a Play), Op. 4, composed and first performed 1911)
Sinfonietta, Op. 5 (composed 1912, orchestrated and first performed 1913)
Der Sturm (The Tempest) for chorus and orchestra, after Heinrich Heine, composed 1913
Kaiserin Zita-Hymne for solo voice, choir and piano / orchestra, composed 1917
Military March in B major, composed 1917
Much Ado About Nothing, Op. 11 (Incidental music to the play by Shakespeare 1918–1919. First performed 1920
Sursum Corda, Op. 13 (Symphonic Overture, composed 1919, first performed 1920
Piano Concerto in C♯ for the left hand alone, Op. 17, (composed 1923; first performed 1924)
Baby Serenade, Op. 24, composed 1928–1929, first performed 1932
Tomorrow, Op. 33, tone poem for mezzo-soprano, women's choir and orchestra, for the movie The Constant Nymph. First performed in concert 1944