The MHS Review 393 Vol. 11 No. 15, 1987
David M. Greene
Authentic musical prodigies have been, in my experience, pretty rare. Perhaps the most successful living example is Loren Maazel, who conducted the New York Philharmonic at the age of nine, and has maintained a career as violinist and worldclass conductor ever since. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (note the middle name!) was, however, probably about as close as we've been to the real thing in living memory. Born in Brunn (now Brno, Czechoslovakia), he was the son of Julius Korngold, a sometime lawyer who had turned to music and had become, thanks to his association with Eduard Hanslick, Wagner's old detractor, one of the most important music critics in Vienna. Erich could play piano duets with his father at the age of five and began composing two years later.
By 1907 his work had caught the attention of Gustav Mahler, who sent him to Alexander von Zemlinsky for polishing. The Imperial Ballet danced his Snowman when he was 13. His large economy-size sinfonietta appeared in 1912. His first opera, Polycrates' Ring, written when he was 16, was produced in Munich when Korngold was 19, in a double bill with his second, Violanta. His third, Die tote Stadt (whose lute song involves one of the great melodies of all time), was doubly premiered in 1920 in Hamburg and Cologne, and was immediately taken up all over the world. (The Met presented it within the year.)
In the following decade Korngold became involved in teaching and in updating operettas. He was, for example, responsible for the stage version of The Great Waltz, based on Strauss tunes, which was a smash on Broadway and on the road in the mid-'30s, and which spawned a popular but scarcely related film. Such work brought an association with the great director Max Reinhardt, who took him to Hollywood to score his all-star production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After that, Korngold, in effect, commuted between Vienna and Los Angeles, in which latter locale he was in great demand, winning an Academy Award for Anthony Adverse in 1936.
As Korngold's son George, the producer of this record, tells the story, the family was in Vienna in January 1938, where Erich was wrestling with the production of Die Kathrin (which turned out to be his last opera) when he received a telegram offering him Robin Hood if he could be in Hollywood in two weeks. When it turned out that the singers wanted for the opera were not available, Korngold reluctantly accepted, and, despite storms at sea and a train wreck, reached his goal in time, only to find that the film was not his sort of thing. He was arguing resignation when news came that the Nazis had marched into Vienna, and he saw there was no turning back. Worried about his other son and his parents (they caught the last train to Switzerland), Korngold struggled with the film, which he loathed. But the score was finished in six weeks, won him a second Oscar, and has always been regarded as one of the most truly musical of film scores.
Korngold continued to work in the studios until the end of the war, then returned to his own music. But the association with the "pop" world had branded him, and as his kind of all-out romanticism was no longer fashionable, he was looked on as a has-been. Seriously overweight for many years, he died at 60 of heart disease.
Since then there has been something of a Korngold revival. I was lucky enough to hear Die tote Stadt at the New York City opera, and most of his major works have been recorded. At least in its CD version, this record offers a convincing interpretation and super-brilliant recording.