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Article by Alastair McKean

THE GREATEST COMPOSER you' ve never heard of

He had the makings of a star, but Korngold’s career sadly ended in relative obscurity. Alastair McKean takes a look at the composer who left an extraordinary mark on 20th century music.

Josephine Korngold wanted to call her second son Erich. The baby’s middle name, though, was at the insistence of her husband Julius, an extremely learned musician and Vienna’s most powerful music critic. Erich started playing the piano at five and composing at six, and his father grew increasingly astonished and, in truth, perhaps a little disturbed by the child’s exceptional talent. So Julius decided to seek the advice of the musician he respected above all others, and one day in June 1907 took his ten-year-old son to visit Gustav Mahler. Erich played, from memory, a cantata he had recently composed. Mahler without hesitation declared him a genius. Perhaps now Julius recognised the unwitting prophecy of that middle name. For ‘Wolfgang’ had been borrowed from another prodigy – Mozart.

Within a couple of years it was abundantly clear that Mahler’s judgement was correct. Julius, though, was careful not to alert musicians in Vienna, among whom he numbered plenty of enemies. Inevitably, news of the brilliant boy got out, and musical Vienna – then as now, a small, gossip-ridden town – went crazy. Over Julius’s objections, Erich’s ballet The Snowman was performed in 1910. He was thirteen. The pace of his career thereafter can be summarised by observing that within ten years, his opera The Dead City (actually his third opera, if you please) was being staged as far afield as New York.

In 1934, a colleague asked Korngold to come to Hollywood and work on a film. Korngold found himself ideally suited to the job. For a start, he liked the technical challenges. When he first visited the Warner Bros. studio he asked how long a foot of film was. “Twelve inches”, came the slightly bewildered reply. “No, no, I mean how long in sound?” More importantly, though, movie music (which he called “opera without singing”) harnessed Korngold’s exceptional dramatic instincts. He’s best known for Errol Flynn swashbucklers like Robin Hood and Captain Blood, but he scored a surprisingly wide range of films, including a 1941 number called King’s Row, widely agreed to be the finest screen work of a second-string actor called Ronald Reagan. He was the first great composer to work in movies, and although he didn’t invent film music, he codified its grammar, which was followed by generations of composers. The music of John Williams, in particular, is completely unimaginable without that of Korngold. It’s a great irony that although Korngold is sadly now relatively obscure, his movies arguably make him one of the most influential composers of the century.

By the mid-thirties, Korngold was dividing his time between LA and Austria, to whose increasingly dark political situation he was largely oblivious. In 1938 a telegram arrived, asking if he could be in Hollywood in the next fortnight for a new film. It concluded: STRONGLY ADVISE ACCEPTANCE. So, like many other Jewish artists, he and his family ended up ‘exiled in Paradise’. By the end of the war the movies had palled and Korngold was longing to resume his glittering Viennese career. Alas, he who had been hailed as a phenomenon by Mahler and Strauss was now snobbishly dismissed. His beautiful Violin Concerto of 1947 was notoriously dispatched by the New York Sun with the brutal headline “more corn than gold”. Tired, disillusioned, forgotten, he died in 1957, in Hollywood.

This was the time of his only Symphony, written between 1947 and 1952. It’s rarely played, and that’s a great pity. It’s typical Korngold in its optimism, its dazzling orchestration and its luxurious sound; few composers make an orchestra so Rolls-Royce lush. Indeed, Korngold is so individual that even when he writes pastiche, such as twenties jazz in the Baby Serenade, it’s still instantly recognisable as Korngold. And this is the other reason why his post-war comeback fell so terribly flat. By 1945 the world had changed utterly. Korngold hadn’t. It’s worth remembering he was lionised as a child not because he was writing music per se, but because that music was so daring and innovative. So it was, in 1910. By the other end of his life that same music was passe. But who cares? It’s wonderful. It’s rich, melodic, emotional, exciting. Audiences (once they’ve discovered it) love it. At the party after the premiere of The Dead City, the 23-year-old composer said he’d been confident the opera would be successful, because “a good authority” had told him so. Who? The fireman on duty at the theatre, who heard the glorious ‘Marietta’s Song’ and said “Herr Korngold, that is splendid”.

You can hear Korngold's Symphony in F sharp at The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2

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