He was one of the great film composers. But before that, he was the toast of Vienna. On Sunday afternoon, the Concordia Chamber Players will offer an opportunity to discover why.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in Brünn, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1897. He was one of the most amazing composer prodigies who ever lived. He produced works of remarkable maturity from a very early age.
The earliest masterpiece to be composed by a former prodigy is generally held to be Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings. Mendelssohn was 16 at the time. By 15, Korngold had already written his first large-scale symphonic works, including a Sinfonietta (really a 45-minute symphony in all but name), which was given its premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Felix Weingartner.
Korngold rubbed shoulders, metaphorically, with figures like Gustav Mahler, who declared him a genius, and Richard Strauss, whose first reaction to the boy’s talent was one of “awe and fear.”
Puccini praised Korngold’s one-act opera “Violanta,” composed at the age of 16. By the time of his first full-length opera, “Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City) in 1920, the 23 year-old Korngold was the great hope of German-language opera. A contemporary poll asking who was the most important composer living in Vienna placed him at the top of the list, alongside Arnold Schoenberg.
Even Mozart had a warming up period. The most amazing thing about Korngold was that he seemed to spring wholly formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. His earliest works are of a piece with the music composed at the very end of his life. In fact, what was a boon in his youth became something of a millstone later on.
By the 1940s, Korngold’s romanticism seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. And with the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, any hope of maintaining a career in Vienna was swept away.
Korngold spent the war years in Hollywood, where he wrote film scores for Warner Brothers. He excelled particularly in historical adventures, making him the perfect match for Errol Flynn. In this vein, Korngold wrote music for Flynn’s “Captain Blood,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” and “The Sea Hawk.” He was recognized for his artistry with two Academy Awards.
At first, Korngold enjoyed the challenge of writing for film, and treated his music as if it were composed for the opera, even on occasion cuing the actors on set, so that the dialogue would fit his overall conception. But eventually he tired of the formulaic process.
He attempted a return to the concert hall, but sadly, by the end of the war, fashions had changed. Despite the success of his Violin Concerto, first performed in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz, Korngold believed he would be wholly forgotten. He died in 1957, 15 years before his reputation would begin a slow but inexorable turnaround on recordings.
The Violin Concerto is currently one of the most performed by a 20th-century composer, and these days one is as likely to encounter his concert works as his film scores.
Concordia will perform one of Korngold’s most rewarding chamber pieces, the Suite for Piano Left Hand, Two Violins and Cello.
“Korngold’s music I find so original and intriguing to listen to and to play, given that he seems to cross barriers,” cellist and Concordia artistic director Michelle Djokic observes. “He has a tremendous amount of discipline in his writing, and unbelievable ingenuity, yet he crosses into another realm. You can easily see why he was so successful in the movie world with his writing, which seems to generate so many images. As a musician it’s just so satisfying to perform.”
Djokic, born in Trenton, makes her home in the San Francisco Bay area. She was back in town on Tuesday to conduct a master class with young musicians of Foundation Academy Intermediate on West State Street.
“This particular suite, being written only for left hand, I don’t think it gets played very often,” she says, “and that slow movement is just perhaps one of the most divine experiences I’ve ever had in my life of playing music.”
Indeed, it is one of those rare pieces in which time seems to stand still. In a good way.
Composed for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I, the work is remarkably inventive. Of course, the greatest challenge for any composer of left-hand piano music is to create something that can stand toe-to-toe with works in the standard, two-handed literature.
Wittgenstein commissioned some of the most prominent composers of his day, including Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith and Benjamin Britten, to write concertos and chamber works to expand his repertoire. The best known of these works is the Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel.
Ironically, Wittgenstein could be rather cavalier when the music didn’t suit his taste. He made cuts and changes to the Ravel concerto, which incensed the composer, and never performed major works by Prokofiev and Hindemith. Since he held exclusive performance rights, these works went unheard until after his death. The Hindemith concerto was rediscovered in a Pennsylvania farmhouse in 2002.
Korngold’s music was more fortunate. His Piano Concerto for the Left Hand of 1923 was met with enthusiasm by the pianist, who then commissioned the Suite, written in 1930. Like most of the Wittgenstein works, it slipped from the public consciousness with the pianist’s death, until its revival by figures like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, notable performers who experienced problems with their right hands.
Djokic first tackled the work in 2012 at a concert given at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Festival artistic director Scott Yoo thought the piece a good fit. Likewise, her pianist on that occasion, John Novacek, was a strong advocate. Novacek and Yoo, who is also a violinst, will join Djokic for Sunday’s concert. Violinist Kristin Lee will round out the unconventional quartet.
“The Suite is in the hyper-Romantic style of Mahler and Richard Strauss,” Novacek states, “and pianists almost never get to play in that style. The ‘Waltz’ is the closest I’ll get to (Strauss’) ‘Rosenkavalier,’ and the ‘Lied’ has the exquisite, twilit beauty of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I won’t even want to breathe when playing it, for fear of breaking the spell.”
He compares the manual gymnastics of the piece to a wild game of Twister.
At the age of 11, Korngold wrote a ballet-pantomime, titled “Der Schneemann” (The Snowman), which was orchestrated by his teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky. The ballet received a command performance at the Vienna Court Opera before Emperor Franz Josef.
Music of Zemlinsky will form the first half of the Concordia concert, as the musicians present his String Quartet No. 1 of 1896. Zemlinsky, later Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and only formal teacher, at a point became quite serious with Alma Schindler, before she broke off the relationship and married Gustav Mahler.
The music of Zemlinsky’s maturity moved through a post-romantic opulence, as heard in his most famous work, the “Lyric Symphony,” to arrive at something leaner and harder-edged.
However, early in his career, he received the support of Johannes Brahms, and Brahms’ influence is noticeable in the first quartet.
Violist Toby Appel will join Yoo, Lee and Djokic for this performance. The 3 p.m. concert will take place at Trinity Episcopal Church in Solebury, outside New Hope, Pa.
Concordia will conclude its season on April 27 with an all-Czech program, featuring music by Leos Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu and Antonin Dvorak. For more information, look online at concordiaplayers.org.
Concordia Chamber Players
Music by Zemlinsky and Korngold
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Trinity Episcopal Church, 6587 Upper York Road, Solebury, Pa.
Admission: $25; (215) 297-5972 or concordiaplayers.org
by Ross Amico
From The Times of Trenton