The Nearly Man

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music was too sophisticated for Hollywood and too tuneful for Europe. Alastair McKean discusses one of the great 20th century shouldabeens.

There’s a 1955 photograph of the actor Alan Badel having a conducting lesson, in preparation for his appearance as Richard Wagner in the film Magic Fire. Costumed in a flamboyant approximation of a 19th-century tailcoat, and manically grimacing, Badel resembles the great composer somewhat less than he does Dracula. Judging from the desperation with which he clutches the baton while staring hectically in the rough direction of the score, it’s clear that he’s destined to join that long list of actors who attempt to convince us they are musicians, and fail magnificently. To Badel’s left, serving as his model, is the genuine article: a gentleman holding the stick with a natural, unaffected power. This man is older, thinner. He has shrunk since his immaculately tailored suit was made, and he looks directly into the camera with a bleak weariness. Two years later he was dead. He was 60.

This was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Not first and foremost a conductor (although he was a good one), he was a composer, and had been working in Hollywood since 1934. Magic Fire was the last of his 22 films. He composed for a wide range of movies, but was best known for his work on the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the Golden Age. The greatest of these scores is for a 1940 pirates-and-treasure saga called The Sea Hawk. Nowadays the film is the preserve of nostalgia buffs, but if you do catch it on afternoon TV, you’ll miss a lot of the music; 1940s recording technology is what it is, and there are long action sequences where Korngold’s music can barely be heard over the din of battle. Such is the lot of a movie composer – but what a waste! This music is breathtakingly exciting, and in the concert hall, its energy and panache are irresistible.

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Korngold used to call his movies ‘operas without singing’, and it’s a good simile. The music plays almost continuously: a fabulous 2007 recording by the BBC Philharmonic, on a generously filled CD, covers only about two-thirds of the score. Like Wagner, Korngold attaches specific musical motifs to different characters (at least a dozen major ones in The Sea Hawk), and in underscoring he treats speech as if it were sung, ensuring that the orchestra is heard but is never obtrusive. This was hugely innovative. Korngold is the grandfather of symphonic movie music, his most celebrated disciple being John Williams: it’s easy to hear pre-echoes of ET’s aerial bike ride in The Sea Hawk’s lush opening titles.

Williams is a composer with a profound respect for European music. And this is where we get to the other half of Korngold’s career. He wasn’t American; he was born, in 1897, into the sumptuous atmosphere of the late Habsburg Empire. His father was Julius Korngold, the most powerful music critic in Vienna. Erich was playing the piano at five and composing at six. This is actually less unusual than one might think, but even so, Julius’s boy was unquestionably one of the very greatest prodigies in musical history. He was packed off to lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky, a protégé of Brahms and Mahler. Even Zemlinsky couldn’t quite believe Erich. When the latter’s Overture to a Drama was first performed, Zemlinsky wonderingly asked its 14-year-old composer “Erich, did you really orchestrate it by yourself?” A fair question, because less than two years earlier Zemlinsky had orchestrated Erich’s ballet The Snowman for O G its first public performance.

The Overture doesn’t accompany a particular drama, but is a celebration of the power of theatre (Korngold loved Shakespeare his whole life). And it’s a premonition of a composer with an unerring dramatic sense. Excluding rude comments by Julius’s numerous enemies, Erich’s musical brilliance was unquestioned. Richard Strauss thought him ‘unbelievable’ and Mahler proclaimed him a genius. But perhaps more extraordinary is that this sheltered, hot-housed boy should have such acute adult psychological penetration. His second opera, Violanta, is a darkly sensual tale of forbidden erotic torment. Fin-de-siècle Vienna went mad for it. Korngold, aged 18, was incontestably not writing from personal experience.

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Arguably his greatest work, written five years later, is Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), a study of sexual obsession, guilt, and grief. The glorious Act I aria, ‘Marietta’s Lied’, is staggeringly beautiful and often heard in recitals. But in the original operatic context it’s about the acceptance of terrible loss, and it is heartbreaking. No surprise that this portrait of a broken man, lost in mourning for his wife, was a runaway success in the Germany after World War I.

Today, performances of Die tote Stadt are rare. Admittedly there are practical issues with mounting a littleknown opera with a gigantic orchestra and exceptionally taxing roles for the principal singers. There is also, however, a lot of snobbery. Warner Bros. saved the Korngold family’s lives, extending a job offer just before Anschluss, and they joined other Jewish émigrés in the southern Californian sun. The man in that 1955 photo, though, is one whose life has not turned out as he expected. He was by now thoroughly disillusioned with the movie business. He’d tried to make a postwar European comeback, but his Europe was destroyed. The cognoscenti deemed irrelevant the late-Romantic opulence which had so caught the time 30 years before, and his movie music was beneath their contempt. And so his music sank into a halfobscurity, not unknown exactly, but more read about than heard. The charming Dance in the Old Style, for instance, was written in 1917, but the first recorded performance was only
in 2007. Korngold has still not come to occupy his proper place in the repertoire.

It’s inexplicable, really. One wouldn’t have thought late-Romantic opulence a bad thing. If the closest you’ve come to Korngold is second-hand via Indiana Jones, his fresh, vital, heartfelt, exhilarating music is a wonderful discovery, and the APO’s survey is a marvellous taster. Ignore the snobs. As Korngold pointed out, “Music is music, whether for the stage, rostrum or cinema.”

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