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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

The transmutation of opera into film is neatly—maybe even a little too neatly—epitomized by the career of the Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), a composing prodigy on the order of Mozart and Mendelssohn. In 1907, aged ten, he played a cantata he had composed to Mahler, who pronounced him a genius and sent him to Alexander von Zemlinsky—Schoenberg’s former mentor—for study. At the age of eleven he composed a ballet that was performed to wide acclaim at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910, when Korngold was thirteen. From then on he was famous. His Sinfonietta, op. 5, composed when he was fifteen, aroused “awe and fear” in Richard Strauss, who pronounced Korngold’s “firmness of style, sovereignty of form, individuality of expression, and harmonic structure” to be the equal of any living composer’s.

Korngold was one of the most active and successful participants in the explosive operatic culture of Weimar Germany. His third opera, Die tote Stadt (“The dead city,” 1920), on which he began work at the age of twenty, spread his fame throughout the world, with successful productions in Prague, Budapest, Antwerp, Lwów (Poland), and New York, to mention only those outside the German-speaking countries. It is a symbolist drama, with an action that takes place in a space ambiguously located between dream and reality. The music is sophisticated both in structure (the use of leitmotifs) and in sonority, the young Korngold being, among other things, a virtuoso orchestrator. With its gorgeous imagery of death and luxuriant decay, Die tote Stadt is often cited, despite the composer’s extreme youth (which precluded “genuine” world-weariness), as the supreme monument of musical “decadence.”

Decadence was a little old-fashioned in the age of neue Sachlichkeit, but that did not impede the opera’s success, and Korngold followed up on it with an even more sumptuous expressionist drama, Das Wunder der Heliane (“Heliane’s miracle”, 1927), which contained an eight-minute nude scene for the title character that put even the one in Strauss’s Salome (not to mention Hindemith’s coy bathtub aria) in the shade. The music was an epitome of everything that Asafyev declared outdated: fat, round, heavy, swooning, slow-moving, full of puffy sublimated waltzes. It was the music of romantic “hypnosis” par excellence, and never was a musical hypnotist more adept than Korngold.

He commanded the full panoply of Wagnerian and Straussian resources with a routined virtuosity that exceeded Wagner’s and Strauss’s, thanks to advances both in orchestral technology and orchestrational know-how. By the use of harp glissandos and brass harmonics, Korngold pioneered effects of orchestral portamento—the illusion of continuously sliding pitch to enhance and intensify modulations—that conspired with perpetual tempo rubato and constantly waxing and waning dynamics to produce (in Ortega’s sense) the most “humanized,” and (in Hulme’s sense) the most “vital” orchestral music ever written. One technical detail is indicative: the celesta, Richard Strauss’s sauce piquante (to speak in “culinary” terms), which famously adorned the scene of awakening love in Der Rosenkavalier, mutates with Korngold into an indefatigably churning section of keyboard and mallet instruments—xylophone, glockenspiel, harmonium, piano, organ, and even the rare glockenklavier, a set of tubular bells attached to a keyboard—that oozes endless aromatic goo.

Listeners to Korngold’s music were sensually surfeited and emotionally buffeted to a degree that not even Strauss or Scriabin attempted. In his operas, particularly Heliane, he applied these hypnotic techniques to subject matter that combined bombastic religiosity and coy eroticism to produce something that might usefully be christened “sacroporn,” and that has become very familiar indeed to movie audiences from Hollywood’s many mythical and biblical epics. It was very popular with the opera audience that later became the movie audience. During his heyday in the 1920s, Korngold tied with Schoenberg in a newspaper poll to name the greatest living composer.

But his career was abruptly cut short in 1938, when Austria joined Germany in the Nazi Third Reich, and Korngold had to join the great wave of Jewish emigration. Actually, Korngold was already in America when the Austro-German Anschluss (annexation) took place. The theatrical director Max Reinhardt, who as a German rather than an Austrian Jew had to flee from Hitler earlier than Korngold, invited the composer to Hollywood in 1934 to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for Reinhardt’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold accepted a contract as a staff composer at the Warner Brothers studio. Between 1935 and 1946 he furnished original scores for nineteen films, and won two Oscars. After Die Kathrin (1939), already in progress when he went to America, Korngold never wrote another opera.

But of course he was writing opera all along. Korngold never had to adapt his style in any way to the exigencies of the new medium; it was perfectly suited. The style of Viennese opera that Korngold inherited and extended became the Hollywood style of the 1930s and 1940s, as established not only by Korngold but by other Central European immigrants like Max Steiner (1888–1971), who was in Hollywood as early as 1929. It was Steiner who pioneered the techniques of “underscoring” or putting continuous, leitmotif-laden music behind the dialogue in a talking picture, and this is what enabled the mutation of opera into cinema in method as well as style.

Perhaps the finest operatic scene that Korngold ever wrote was the love scene from Anthony Adverse (1936), his third original score and one of the two that earned him Academy Awards. The opulently swooping, endlessly modulating music could be spliced right into Das Wunder der Heliane. The Tristanesque “Night” sequence from Another Dawn, Korngold’s second Hollywood feature, accompanied the ardent confessions of Kay Francis and Errol Flynn with a solo violin and a quartet of cellos to stand in for the lovers’ voices. It later furnished the thematic basis for the first movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto (Ex. 9-21). Composed in 1945 for Jascha Heifetz (1901–87), perhaps the greatest virtuoso violinist of the time, it, too, was a sublimated operatic scene, nostalgically evoking the vanished world that Korngold once inhabited, and that he had helped transform.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009012.xml