Korngold, a child prodigy in Vienna, ended up writing scores in Hollywood.Illustration by Seth
His melodic gift rivalled Puccini's-but his reputation suffered when he began writing movie scores. Now the classical world is giving him a fresh listen.
"That sounds like film music" is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term "film music" has little descriptive value. Worst is when the pejorative is used to discount figures who brought distinctive personalities to the scoring business, thereby elevating it. Such was the fate of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who began his career, in Vienna, as one of the most astonishing child prodigies in musical history and who reached maximum fame writing film scores, in Los Angeles, in the nineteen-thirties and forties. A master of late-Romantic opulence, Korngold shaped the sonic texture of Golden Age Hollywood. To say that his work sounds like movie music is an elementary fallacy, a confusion of cause and effect.
The Bard Music Festival, which has been exploring neglected corners of the repertory for the past three decades, is honoring Korngold in this year's edition, which began on August 9th, at Bard College, in upstate New York. In addition, Leon Botstein, Bard's president and musical ringleader, recently conducted the American première of "Das Wunder der Heliane" ("The Miracle of Heliane"), Korngold's second full-length opera, on the campus. These performances echo an ongoing Korngold revival in Europe. "Die Tote Stadt" ("The Dead City"), the composer's first mature opera, had a production at La Scala earlier this year, and in the fall it will be staged at the Bavarian State Opera, with the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann heading the cast. The missing link is the Met, which presented "Die Tote Stadt" in the early nineteen-twenties but has yet to return to it. I cannot fathom why that opera is not as popular as anything by Puccini-its melodic writing is no less indelible, its expressive urgency no less intense.
Korngold, the son of a leading Viennese music critic, was himself something of a miracle. By his mid-teens, he had not only acquired total technical command of the art of composition but had also developed an unmistakable voice. Although he knew his Puccini, Mahler, and Richard Strauss, he was far more than a clever imitator. In the Scherzo of his Sinfonietta-completed in 1913, when he was sixteen-Korngold is speaking his own language: melodies bound along with rhythmic freedom, harmonies ricochet from one major triad to another, a full-strength orchestra glitters and dances before the ears. Even more astounding are the one-act operas "Der Ring des Polykrates" (1914) and "Violanta" (1916), which overflow with effortlessly effective vocal writing. In the annals of composing prodigies, Korngold's only serious rival is Felix Mendelssohn. Mozart's youthful pieces lack comparable individuality.
Like many wunderkinder, Korngold had a bumpy transition to adulthood. "Die Tote Stadt," which had its première in 1920, when the composer was twenty-three, promised a long and triumphant operatic career. The work had the benefit of a deliciously decadent story, based on Georges Rodenbach's Symbolist novel "Bruges-la-Morte": a widower is wandering through the Flemish city, obsessively mourning his wife, when he meets a dancer who uncannily resembles the dead woman. (Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" offers another variation on Rodenbach's scenario.) Korngold alternates between tunes of indelible potency and shimmering, dreamlike textures.