Lovers of opera, decadence, and general excess, had reason this year to rejoice. This past summer, Bard Summerscape staged, as its centerpiece, complementary to the Bard Music Festival, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane), which is possibly the single most important work by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). And the work has now appeared in a sumptuous new recording (reviewed here) as well as in a much-praised DVD version from the renowned Deutsche Opera (Berlin), which indeed looks wonderful in this trailer.
Delving into the music of Alberic Magnard is to reach deep into the heart of French culture. Magnard was a subtle, aristocratic composer, trading in understatement. If you enjoy the delicate chromaticism of Gabriel Fauré, or Albert Roussel’s early works, such as his First Symphony, Poème de la forêt, you will love Magnard. If you are looking for the more obvious charms of Berlioz, Dukas, Franck or Saint-Saëns, you may be disappointed. Magnard is like Franck, but turned inward and away from Franck’s saccharine religiosity. Despite all the forte moments one could want, this is music best heard with the lights low and a log in the fireplace.
As I return to the Bard Music Festival year after year, I notice that the spaces of Olin Hall and the Fisher Center, become more crowded and sold-out notices appear ever more frequently. I also notice that I’ve seen a good many of the attendees before. There is certainly a minority who are passionately interested in one composer or his historical and cultural context and not in the others, but I am confident in saying that the core of the Bard audience consists of recidivists. Lately the choice of focal composers has shifted from the undisputed pantheon to composers who are interesting because of their cultural position in their own time. Saint-Saëns, Chávez, and Rimsky Korsakov fall into this category. The audience keeps on growing. It’s obvious that we share a broad interest in western art music, but the way in which the individual composers are presented is exploratory, and, given the presence of musicians and musicologists, bound to take a controversial course. I always leave not only knowing something I didn’t know before, but with a profound new insight, and, most important of all, questions to mull over during the months that separate us from the next Bard Festival.
After attending the fully staged performance of Korngold’s opera Das Wunder des Heliane and the concerts of the second weekend of the Bard Korngold Festival, I arrived a distinct sense of the shape of the composer’s career trajectory and of the development of his unique musical sensibility, one which I suspect the festival programmers might not have hoped to suggest. To the extent that Korngold’s name is familiar, it is owing to his powerful, compelling, and influential Hollywood film scores. The unique, invaluable Bard Music Festivals usually aim to take us beyond and behind the headlines associated with its central figures and to give us a means to re-evaluate them in a more nuanced way, in the context of their less familiar works as well as those of their contemporaries. In the case of my encounter with Korngold, however, the result was a strengthening of the general view that this composer was born to compose film scores.Up to now, Korngold’s non-film music has not been completely neglected.
Korngold did not live to see his symphony achieve popularity, as many know. It premiered in serial-minded Vienna in 1954, poorly rehearsed, and immediately sank into oblivion as a holdover from the past. Korngold himself died just a few years later of heart disease. Nearly twenty years then passed before Rudolf Kempe discovered orchestral parts in the Munich Philharmonic’s score library and revived the work for a new era. This awareness wasn’t totally Kempe’s doing. A generation of college students had grown up in the meantime watching late-night swashbucklers featuring Korngold’s Hollywood scores. These audiences fell in love with the spirit of his music. It was Errol Flynn, you might say, who got young people interested in Korngold, and film score conductors like Charles Gerhardt who then followed apace with the music on LP. Today, John Wilson occupies a similar space in British musical culture, bringing to life for concert audiences music originating in film and television.
With the extraordinarily high standards of conservatory graduates today, performances of Wagner’s music dramas have fled beyond the precinct of the very largest opera houses, and we may well forget how difficult it was only a couple of generations ago to cast and stage Tristan und Isolde at, say, the Metropolitan Opera, which once had to cast one Tristan per act, when the billed tenor was indisposed, and the two available replacements were also under the weather. Already by then the aging devotees of Flagstad and Melchior grumbled about just how far their standards would have to sink, before they stopped going to hear Wagner in New York. I still hear that today from long-time Wagnerians.