Tone Poem Tuesday

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is an interesting case study in being born at the wrong time, but still making a good run of it.

Born May 29, 1897 in Austria, Korngold was an enormously gifted musician to the point of being a child prodigy; he was performing complex piano music and writing his own works before he was even ten years old. But his tastes as a composer kept him from embracing the actual trends in music; modernism and atonality were not for him. Korngold was forever at home in the late Romantic language of Mahler and Strauss, which meant that a lot of his music, while not rejected at the time, never really took hold while he was alive. In order to make ends meet, Korngold ended up writing music for movies, which at that time were moving beyond the silent era. In 1938 he traveled to Hollywood to write the score for the Errol Flynn adventure film The Adventures of Robin Hood, and while he was there, Germany annexed Austria and brought Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies along. Korngold was a Jew, so he stayed in America after he was done scoring that film. He never returned home, becoming an American citizen and living out the remainder of his life composing for film and then trying to re-establish himself as a composer for the operatic stage and the concert hall.

Korngold was prolific, but his music languished for many years, owing to what was seen as his rather dated style, and his reputation as a “movie composer” in a time when film music was not taken seriously much at all. It’s only in relatively recent years that Korngold’s work has seen a re-appraisal in the musical community at large, but he was always known in the film community. John Williams cited Korngold as an influence in the sound he adopted for his score to Star Wars, and listening to Korngold’s movie music certainly points the way to a lot of movie music that followed decades later when symphonic scoring returned to prominence.

Another interesting thing about Korngold was his willingness to repurpose material. He was one to revisit earlier works and mine them for ideas in newer ones, which makes for some interesting listening when you hear the ideas recurring. (Berlioz was another composer who had no compunctions about re-using his own catalog.) One good example of this is that very score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, for which Korngold won an Oscar. Here’s a suite from that score, and you can see here the degree to which Korngold’s music has risen in estimation: the orchestra is the Bavarian Radio Symphony, one of Europe’s finest ensembles, and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, one of the world’s finest conductors.

It must have been particularly rewarding for Korngold to win an Oscar for this score, not just on its own merits, but because Korngold reused material from an earlier tone poem he had written called Sursum corda. This piece doesn’t seem to have made much impression at all upon Korngold’s composing of it; it languished for nearly 20 years before Korngold lifted one of its themes for the Errol Flynn classic. Here is Surum corda, and listening to it now I can’t help thinking of what Korngold’s career might have been had he been born a couple decades earlier.

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