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Bard Music Festival 2019: Korngold and his World (REVISED)

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Korngold Composing
Korngold Composing

Bard Music Festival 2019: Korngold and his World (REVISED)
Full program here

Works discussed:
Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Sextet in D Major, Op. 10 (1914-16)
Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano left-hand, Op. 23 (1930)
Die tote Stadt (1920)
Das Wunder der Heliane (1927)

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.

This year we had Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), who was neither an important teacher nor a model for future generations. He was widely publicized and praised by established composers as an extraordinary prodigy while just entering his teens. His reputation began to slip away around the age of thirty. He became attracted by lighter music, i.e. operetta, which prepared him to adapt Mendelssohn’s score for a movie extravaganza after Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Hollywood Bowl. A few opportunities scoring musical films came his way, but he soon returned to Vienna to pursue his chosen career as an opera composer—traditionally the most prestigious genre for composers, one in which he had already earned success and failure. Warner Brothers tried to lure him back with a project he rejected, once he understood that it was an action film. He was finally persuaded to change his mind, just in time for him to escape Austria before the Anschluss. This also held up plans to mount his new opera, Die Kathrin, in Vienna, which had to be premiered in Stockholm in 1939, where it failed, viewed as retardataire. After a career of a little over a decade as a Hollywood movie composer, a genre despised in classical music circles, he returned to post-war Vienna to re-establish himself as a serious artist, and failed utterly to find support. His music was already considered old-fashioned in the 1930s. In the world of his brilliant youth, now physically and morally shattered, his late Romantic aesthetic seemed irrelevant, even offensive. (Larry Wallach discusses the problem of the Symphony in his own report on the festival.) He returned to Los Angeles, never to write anything of any significance until his death in late 1957.a

His retirement from the film industry in 1947 meant that he would not confront the changes in taste to which his contemporary émigrés in Hollywood had to adapt. A more angular style replaced the Romantic sweep of Korngold’s scores, and eventually jazz. Still, his influence lived on in movies, mostly costume dramas, which required that particular style. When John Williams lifted his famous Star Wars theme from Korngold’s theme for King’s Row, Korngold’s style came back and has persisted to this day, as Williams continues to work and the genre continues to make money. If Korngold exercised any musical influence, it was in Hollywood, and in part posthumously.

When considered as a composer of art music, Korngold appears as a poster child for musical conservatism. The lot of the conservative composer is not a happy one. Today, often viewed as cranks, they seem doomed to lurk in forgotten corners far away from the musical centers. Korngold’s own aesthetic testament1 seems a pathetic rant by one of these outliers. For over two centuries musical taste has been formed on a system privileging innovation, as embodied by Haydn and Mozart and their successor Beethoven, at least outside totalitarian societies like the Third Reich, and the Soviet Union, where conservative artistic agendas became official doctrine. The paradox is that most people listen mostly to music that was innovative a century or two ago, except for those who have a specialized taste for new music.

The primary problem Korngold presents—and it is a cause for concerned study rather than celebration—is that of conservative composers and their evolving position in musical culture, from rallying point in early 20th century Vienna to irrelevancy in the post-war years. Subsidiary to that, but important, are the problems of the prodigy and that of the artist who develops under the sway of an overbearing father. Korngold was already a public figure at the age of thirteen, when his ballet-pantomime, Der Schneemann (1910), received a widely-publicized private performance, followed a few years later by an enthusiastically-received public one in a revised version, orchestrated by his teacher, Zemlinsky. There followed two one-act operas (Der Ring des Polykrates (1914) and Violanta (1914), and a full-length opera, Die Tote Stadt (1920), all great successes, the last remaining his best-known and most often performed work today.

One reason for this success was the fact that he was the son of Julius Korngold, the most prominent critic in Vienna at the time. Trained in law, but also benefitting from a solid study of music, Julius became the assistant and protégé of Eduard Hanslick, the leading supporter of Brahms in the controversies surrounding Wagner. Although it is a fallacy to regard Brahms as conservative, since he was just as influential for Schoenberg and his group as Wagner—and we can still notice advance elements in his music—Hanslick became established as the leading conservative critic, and after him, Julius Korngold, who took over his post at the Neue Freie Presse. When Julius realized that his younger son exhibited extraordinary facility in the language of music, he became obsessed with promoting him and molding him in his own conservative image. It was Julius who was behind the éclat around Der Schneemann, and he continued make huge efforts to promote Erich Wolfgang’s work in later years. They also collaborated, writing the libretto for Die tote Stadt together under a pseudonym. Erich had a good-natured, pliant temperament and their conflicts did not lead to a final breach, but Julius was an extremely determined man. Nonetheless, he could not stop his son from marrying Luise von Sonnenthal, an actress and the granddaughter of the great actor Felix Ritter von Sonnenthal, director of the Burgtheater. Nor could he prevent Erich from pursuing his careers as an arranger of operettas or as Hollywood composer—work which he considered a total waste of his talents and all the work he, Julius, had put into developing them and publicizing them. Early in their relationship Erich went to Luzi (as she was called) rather than Julius for advice—not always for the better—and she also kept Erich in the protective cocoon his parents had given him. This seems to have encouraged a certain chronic naiveté and certain errors of judgment in later life.

It is more common for child prodigies to fail to live up to their promise than to fulfill them. In his youth Korngold was routinely compared to Mozart. I found it interesting that Korngold’s precocity did indeed resemble Mozart’s in a seemingly intuitive grasp of harmony and voice-leading and the prevailing musical language of his times. Both also had to deal with controlling, protective fathers. Here Mozart came out better than Korngold, as least musically. My impression was that Korngold suffered from a persistent insecurity, which showed up after Die Tote Stadt and manifested itself in a tendency to over-compose, to add extra, unnecessary complications like extra voices, over-rich chords, and excessive length, for example Das Wunder der Heliane, the cello concerto, the Symphony in F#, and perhaps the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, but not always. The piano sonata Korngold wrote at age twelve and played for Mahler, earning his praise, shows a sure-footed avoidance of redundancies—breath-taking in Mozart’s early keyboard works, in which not a note come uninvited. Unlike Mozart and many acknowledged geniuses, Korngold was not a fast composer, even in Hollywood, where most scores, good and bad, were rush jobs. This attests to his seriousness as well as this insecurity, although he seems to have managed to avoid entirely discarding unsuccessful projects.

His next opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), to which he devoted several years of purposeful work, enjoyed only mixed success, and after that he resorted more popular kinds of music, above all, operetta, completing his late friend, Leo Fall’s Rosen aus Florida in 1928. The following year he collaborated with Max Reinhardt on an updated production of Die Fledermaus, followed by Walzer aus Wien at the Stadttheater (1930), Vienna, and another Reinhardt collaboration, Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena, in Berlin (1931), and another Fall adaptation, Die geschiedene Frau (1933), in Berlin. It was Max Reinhardt who brought him to Hollywood in 1934 for his film of Midsummer Night’s Dream. These theatrical adaptations show a distinct pattern, which helped prepare him well for his work in Hollywood, and well as his last opera Die Kathrin (1932), in which attempted to combine his own heady operatic style with that of operetta. However, it is important to note that he premiered one of his finest and more advanced works in 1930, the Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano left-hand, Op. 23 (Played at Bard by the Horszowski Trio, with Aaron Boyd, violin).

The Suite, which, I think, can serve as an introduction to Korngold’s music, belongs to an unrelated series of varied but substantial works written during this period of absorption in operetta, the Piano Sonata in C Major, No. 3, Op. 25 (1931) and the String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 36 (1933). Both of these are as richly composed as the Suite, but they turn in a jollier direction, with robust musical humor in the sonata and Viennese nostalgia in the quartet, including a spirited waltz in it final movement, showing his interest in bringing operetta and art music together in the salon as well as on the stage. The Suite is also nostalgic, but in a more inward way. Korngold had already anticipated the urwienerisch stylistic referents and the nostalgic treatments of them in his early Sextet in D Major, Op. 10, which he wrote at the age of seventeen (Played at Bard by the Parker String Quartet with Marka Gustavsson, viola Raman Ramakrishnan, cello). All four of these works share a common assurance, technical mastery, and economy, but they are distilled into an especially pleasing liquor in the Sextet and the Suite.

The Sextet, reflecting the Gemütlichkeit of Brahms’ youthful Sextet in B Flat Major, No. 1, Op. 18 (1860), proceeds from the engaging warmth of a Viennese Salon to a meditative, occasionally melancholic, or even pained slow movement, to a waltzing scherzo, to an exuberant finale. It is expansive, but never redundant. This is precisely the kind of music the Suite refers back to with even greater economy and mastery and a matured sense of time past and lost.

The Suite begins in an entirely different vein, with a majestic prelude in dotted rhythms, recalling Bach clearly enough with a motif drawn from J. S. Bach’s Prelude in D Major in WTC I, followed by a fugue on an ominously drawn out subject. The setting is agitated and dramatic through much of its course with increasingly romantic, expansive phrases towards the end. Changes of texture show him trying to reconcile Bachian counterpoint with post-Romantic piano style. Still, one can’t help observing that the fugue is labored in comparison with his short bursts of counterpoint, often transitional, in his sonata-form works. The waltz which follows is pensive and bittersweet, spiced with unexpected harmonies nowhere to be found in the Sextet. The trio is more erratic and satirical in its crossing syncopations—a brilliant miniature in itself. A nervous “Groteske” follows with aggressive, anxious gestures in the minor, punctuated with sudden fragmentary outbursts of exuberance and ending in crazed agitation and open fifths bringing the rush to a halt. A yearning, occasionally grieving section follows, returning to the music of the first section. A meditative song movement follows, leading into a set of variations on an august, but tender theme, which soon become cheerful and open, followed by a harmonically shifting and ambiguous variation ending in the minor, and leading to an exuberant finale firmly rooted in the major. Although Korngold had clearly grown in subtlety, harmonic vocabulary, and command over the roughly fifteen years between the works, the continuity of his musical personality is intact—and this included a strong bond with his past. He most often looked there for ideas and solutions. Korngold’s post-romantic harmonies had grown into a style not at all out of place in an urbane, sophisticated setting, ca. 1930. His treatment of traditional form is born of a profound respect for the Viennese classic tradition rather than slavishness, laziness, or a lack of imagination.

Clay Hilley (Paul), Kirsten Harvey (Marie's "Ghost"), Sara Jakubiak (Marietta). Photo Stephanie Berger.
Clay Hilley (Paul), Kirsten Harvey (Marie’s “Ghost”), Sara Jakubiak (Marietta). Photo Stephanie Berger.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Die tote Stadt, Op. 12 (1920)

Bard Festival Chorale
James Bagwell, choral director
The Orchestra Now
conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
directed by Jordan Fein
designed by Stephan Moravski
lighting design by Mark Barton
costume design by Terese Wadden 

Cast
Paul – Clay Hilley, tenor
Marie/Marietta – Sara Jakubiak, soprano
Franz/Fritz – Alexander Elliott, baritone
Brigitta – Deborah Nansteel, mezzo-soprano
Juliette – So Young Park, soprano
Lucienne – Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, mezzo-soprano
Gaston/Victorin – William Ferguson, tenor
Count – Richard Troxell, tenor
Marie’s ghost – Kirsten Harvey ’17

As much as Korngold’s musical formation was rooted in the salons his father, as a major figure in the Viennese musical world, frequently haunted, he rightly believed that his true gift and his mission lay in the opera house. Maestro Botstein made a powerful case for this in the concluding evening of the Festival, which was devoted to Korngold’s most enduring work, Die tote Stadt. In this a man, Paul, living in the grim, severely Catholic city of Bruges, dreams that he has found a woman, the dancer Mariette, who resembles his late wife, Marie, whom he still mourns obsessively after a decade, to the point that she could seem to be her reincarnation. He pursues her, and they begin an affair. He finds her consorting with her theatrical friends in a evening of singing, dancing, drinking, and sex—much to his distress. He decides to take her to his house where she finds and amuses herself with a tress of blonde hair left by Paul’s wife. Appalled by the desecration, he strangles Mariette. After awakening from this nightmare, he finds that he is freed from his morbid obsession and can now begin life anew.

Georges Rodenbach
Georges Rodenbach

A concert performance of the opera in Boston a few years ago left me cold, and I forgot about it—only to be overwhelmed by this magnificent performance which brought all the skill and commitment needed to present the full stature of the opera. For some days afterwards I couldn’t break its spell, and I took the introductory speaker Sherry Lee’s advice and immersed myself in the brief novel from which it is derived, Bruges-la-Morte (1892), by the Belgian symbolist, Georges Rodenbach. Following the success of Erich’s one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta in 1916, the playwright and novelist Siegfried Trebitsch, a family friend, approached Julius and Erich with his translation of a theatrical treatment Rodenbach had made called Le Mirage. He called his German version Die stille Stadt. The novel, in which Rodenbach achieved greatness by narrating an eerie psychological study in sober, precise, mostly short sentences, creating a haunting sense of atmosphere with spare means. In this way he made the city of Bruges a central character. He also scrupulously avoided the supernatural in presenting the protagonist’s all-consuming absorption in the memory of his deceased wife. However, the play (which was accepted but never performed by the Comédie Française) required extensive adaptation. The internal narrative of the thoughts and imaginings of a largely solitary individual had to be presented in dialogue, and there is much of that between the protagonist, Paul, his housekeeper, Brigitta, and his best friend, Franz, a painter. Rodenbach also saw fit to bring on a vision of the dead wife just before the relationship between the widower and the dancer enters its final crisis. This is a passing, loving encounter, a reaffirmation of his devotion, and when he goes mad after strangling his mistress with his wife’s hair and asserts that not he, but the tress of hair did the murder, we are not inclined to believe him. In other words, Rodenbach did not transform his novel into a tale of the supernatural for the stage. 

The Korngolds agreed that Erich should write an opera after the play and hired Hans Müller-Einigen (he hyphenated his surname with that of a Swiss village he liked, Einigen), who had written the libretto for Violanta, to repeat his efforts for the new opera. They found his work unsatisfactory and decided to write the libretto themselves, under the pseudonym Paul Schott. (This was only made public after a 1975 revival of Die tote Stadt.) However strained their relations might have been at times, father and son worked brilliantly in adapting the play into an opera with popular appeal. The two most radical ideas, the device of the dream, which prevents the protagonist, now called Paul, from becoming a real murderer, and the second act, which makes Marietta more sympathetic as a free-wheeling bohemian rather than a calculating showgirl, were entirely Julius’s inventions.

[L–R] So Young Park (Juliette), Rebecca Ringle Karamei (Lucienne), Richard Troxell (Count), Will Ferguson (Gaston/Viktorin), Alexander Elliott (Franz/Fritz), CENTER: Sara Jakubiak (Marietta). Photo Stephanie Berger.
[L–R] So Young Park (Juliette), Rebecca Ringle Karamei (Lucienne), Richard Troxell (Count), Will Ferguson (Gaston/Viktorin), Alexander Elliott (Franz/Fritz), CENTER: Sara Jakubiak (Marietta). Photo Stephanie Berger.
Sherry Lee, in her brilliant introductory talk, pointed out that the most popular part of the opera during its first seasons was the second act, because of the merry commedia dell’arte-like singing and dancing in it—hardly a tribute to the refinement of their taste. Also, apropos of the dream, she observed that two works by Siegmund Freud that were relevant to Paul’s condition, Trauer und Melancholie (Mourning and Melancholy) was published in 1916, the year work on the opera began, and Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle) in 1920, when Die tote Stadt premiered. With this in mind the dream device is actually moving, rather than functioning simply as a theatrical device, and a tired one at that.2

The vision (Erscheinung = vision, hallucination) of Marie appears at the end of Act I (sung by the same soprano who sings Marietta), and she and Paul engage in a shortened version of the interchange in Le Mirage. Her voice continues to be heard as the curtain rises on Act II. Again, this is a dream-presence experienced by a troubled man, not a manifestation of the supernatural.

In the Bard semi-staged production directed by Jordan Fein, Marie’s “ghost” (as she is incorrectly called in the program. See above.) appears at the beginning and throughout the opera as a silent character, effectively portrayed by Kirsten Harvey (Bard ‘17). Nonetheless, this device and the mistranslation give the impression that Marie is a supernatural agent in the action. Whether she operates in reality or within Paul’s dream, it is not what Rodenbach intended in his novel or the play, nor is that what the Korngolds intended. She is here a phenomenon of the protagonist’s dreaming consciousness, as she was of his

The “set,” designed by Stephan Moravski, consisting of a forest of white music stands on white risers, was more effective than many in the semi-staged performances I’ve seen at Bard. It looked mysterious and ghostly, and it suggested the winding streets and canals of Bruges, especially, but not necessarily, in a musician’s dream. (Paul, like so many symbolist “heroes”, is a gentleman of leisure.)

The true impact of this memorable evening came from Maestro Botstein’s totally committed leadership of The Orchestra Now, who usually play impressively, but outdid themselves in Korngold’s sumptuous orchestral writing, and the memorable performances of the two lead singers, Sara Jakubiak as Marietta/Marie and Clay Hilley as Paul. Ms. Jakubiak is highly regarded for her mastery of 20th century roles in works by Schoenberg, Janáček, Prokofiev, Bernard Herrmann, and Korngold, as well as 19th century repertoire by Weber, Verdi, Wagner, and Humperdinck. Her singing and acting as the playful, artistic, promiscuous, larger-than-life Marietta was one of those unforgettable performances that showed a gorgeous big voice that was more than able to handle her roles with full control and a complete knowledge and understanding of their musical and dramatic content. She dominated the performance, as well a Marietta should. Clay Hilley, whom Bard-goers will remember vividly for his heroic effort in the brutal title role of Dvořák’s Dimitrij, was an equal match for her. As a Heldentenor, his brilliant voice with its rich core was able to sustain the difficulties of the Korngold’s writing with the necessary power, tempered by convincing, sensitive acting and artistic phrasing. Bard, as for this summer’s less-successful performance of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), chose to cast a Heldentenor in the lead role, although there was no thought of that at the time of the premieres. Although other tenors premiered the roles, the substantial lyric tenor, Richard Tauber, who failed at Wagner, was Korngold’s own favorite and the ideal type for these roles. Jan Kiepura, another matinee idol of opera, operetta, and cinema of the day, created the role of The Stranger in Das Wunder der Heliane with similar vocal tools. It reflects on the vocal arts of today that a Siegfried is necessary to cut through Korngold’s thick textures and orchestration. The rest of the cast served the opera well enough. Overall, this thrilling, all-absorbing performance showed why Die tote Stadt remains the only work by Korngold to keep a foothold in the operatic repertory, albeit a limited one.

Summerscape’s full production of Das Wunder der Heliane demonstrated that as well, although the production and performance fell short of presenting the work at its best.3

Das Wunder der Heliane Premiere: Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura in the Prison Scene.
Das Wunder der Heliane Premiere: Lotte Lehmann and Jan Kiepura in the Prison Scene.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Das Wunder der Heliane (American premiere; new production)
Libretto by Hans Müller-Einigen, after play by Hans Kaltneker

Sosnoff Theater: July 26, 2019 at 7:30pm; July 28 & 31; August 4 at 2pm; August 2 at 4pm

American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Christian Räth
Bard Festival Chorale
Conducted by James Bagwell
Set and costume designer – Esther Bialas
Choreographer – Catherine Galasso
Lighting designer – Thomas Hase
Projection designer – Elaine McCarthy

Cast
Heliane – Ausrine Stundyte, soprano
The Ruler – Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
The Strangers – Daniel Brenna, tenor
The Messenger – Jennifer Feinstein, mezzo-soprano
The Porter – Nicholas Brownlee, bass-baritone
The Blind Judge – David Cangelosi, tenor
Judge No. 1 – Derek Taylor, tenor
Judge No. 2 – Nathan Berg, bass-baritone
Judge No. 3 – Scott Conner, bass
Judge No. 4 – Richard Troxell, tenor
Judge No. 5 – Michael Hawk, tenor
Judge No. 6 – Kevin Thompson, bass

Christian Räth’s austere but by no means modest production, with sets and costumes by Esther Bialas, which seemed to go in two directions in translating the timelessness indicated by the opening stage direction in the libretto into stage-bound materiality, the medieval, suggested by the presence of a chapel next to the prison in the first scene, and science fiction, manifested in the protagonist’s orange jump suit, looking more like a space suit or hazmat outfit, the gurney he was bound to, and the scientific appearance of his jailers. (I wondered if he did not await vivisection.) The costumes of the chorus suggested the distant past, as well as the fountains or pools of the final scene of the opera. The entire production was facilitated logistically—and, I’m sure, financially—by wheeled scaffolds which, cleverly, could be recombined into different structures. Much of this was effective in itself, but overall what I saw on stage failed to nudge my sceptical mind over into the illusion necessary to make me believe in Hans Müller’s pretentious, empty mystery drama, while it slowly unfolded in Sosnoff Auditorium. And it was apparent that I was not alone in being left in my seat through the “Miracle”. In considering the starkness of the sets of the Hamburg premiere, it occurred to me that the fault of Räth and Bialas production lay in excessive detail and specificity. A bare set might have engaged our imagination more effectively.

Ausrine Stundyte (Heliane), Daniel Brenna (The Stranger). Photo Stephanie Berger.
Ausrine Stundyte (Heliane), Daniel Brenna (The Stranger). Photo Stephanie Berger.

Latvian soprano Ausrine Stundyte had the necessary vocal presence for the role of Heliane, as well as a pleasing warmth, which suits the character well, but her technique suffers from a wide vibrato which all-too-often dissolved into a wobble. This proved a constant distraction from her efforts to interest us in the pure, chaste, but irresistibly sensuous queen. Daniel Brenna, who sang creditably as Siegfried in the Washington production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, was a disaster as the stranger. He seemed either overtired or unequal to the physical challenges of the role, frequently losing his voice in the later scenes. The impressive bass-baritone Alfred Walker was the only leading cast member who seemed truly in command of his role, and he did sing with authority, power, and committed acting. Tenor David Cangelosi was impressive as the Blind Judge.

Whether one puts the words first or the music, one cannot not ignore the libretto as words, concept, narrative, or action, and I found this so off-putting, that I perceived the actions and words on stage only as an irritating distraction from a more positive aspect of the opera—and a guilty pleasure at that—Korngold’s lush orchestral score, played with enthusiasm, energy, and expressiveness by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein in what was obviously a labor of love for him.

The Trial Scene: [Background]: Nicholas Brownlee (Porter); [Foreground L–R]: Nathan Berg, Derek Taylor, Scott Connor (Judges); David Cangelosi (Blind Chief Justice); Ezra Quinn Lombino Steinman (Child); Alfred Walker (Ruler); Daniel Brenna (Stranger); Kevin Thompson, Richard Troxell, Michael Hawk (Judges); Ausrine Stundyte (Heliane). Photo Stephanie Berger.
The Trial Scene: [Background]: Nicholas Brownlee (Porter); [Foreground L–R]: Nathan Berg, Derek Taylor, Scott Connor (Judges); David Cangelosi (Blind Chief Justice); Ezra Quinn Lombino Steinman (Child); Alfred Walker (Ruler); Daniel Brenna (Stranger); Kevin Thompson, Richard Troxell, Michael Hawk (Judges); Ausrine Stundyte (Heliane). Photo Stephanie Berger.
The vocal parts tended to consist of long, drawn-out lines, or often declamation, with held notes at the end of the phrase—an indication that Korngold took the libretto seriously and wanted us to hear the words and take them in; these phrases are particularly difficult for modern-day singers to hold, hence the irritating wobble that raises its head in all the performances I have heard. I was not the only one to perceive these words as utter twaddle. In brief, in a nameless totalitarian state at an undetermined time period, a young man known as The Stranger (or Foreigner, as Ralph P. Locke suggests) has been apprehended for preaching a gospel of happiness and love. The Ruler of the country, as he is called, is a very unhappy man whose queen has refused to consummate their marriage with him: therefore happiness is forbidden in the land. The Ruler has condemned The Stranger to death. After he is left alone in his cell, the Queen, Heliane, the only named character in the opera, has decided to visit the cell in order to comfort him in his last hours.4s As they exchange lofty words, specific comforts occur to him, one after another. He asks her to uncover her hair and to allow him to caress her ample tresses. She agrees. Then he asks her to show him her feet and to allow him to kiss them. Again, she complies, and he takes his pleasure of her feet. Finally he asks for everything in between, and she disrobes entirely. Off go the rest of her attire—nudity avoided on stage by an attractive two-tone gauzy thing. The Ruler enters finds them together in this state and decrees that Heliane will stand trial for adultery. Act III consists of the trial, led by The Blind Sword Judge (Schwertrichter), who turns out to be her father. The act—the most convincing and absorbing of the three—culminates in a private conversation between Heliane and The Stranger, who, in an ecstasy of passion, grabs a dagger from her and kills himself. The Court decide that if Heliane can effect his resurrection, she will prove her purity and her innocence. In Act III, which begins with a chorus of the oppressed People, she fails at first, confessing that she did love The Stranger. The crowd, whose expectations for a miracle are disappointed, demand that she be burnt alive. The Ruler restrains them, offering to free Heliane, if she will surrender to him in bed. She rejects his offer and he turns her over to the the crowd, who lead her to the stake. A thunderclap accompanied by dazzling light interrupts the proceedings, and Seraphic Voices proclaim: “And they whom love has caused to sink away shall rise again!” The Stranger’s body rises up from the bier as a celestial figure. Heliane rushes into the arms of her beloved. In a rage, The Ruler plunges his sword into her breast. The Stranger banishes The Ruler, whose power is now broken, and blesses the crowd, for whom he foretells a new and joyous life of happiness and freedom. The scene has now become a day of celestial beauty, adorned by a snowfall of flower petals. United in unwavering love, The Stranger and Heliane, whom he has awakened from the dead, rise up to heaven to enjoy an eternal spirit-life together. This nonsense was frequently enriched with references to Heliane’s natural chastity and purity, among many other tags filched out of context with out understanding from works by Richard Wagner, above all Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Tannhäuser. Vapid slogans about love like the one quoted above were projected on stage, making matters even worse.

Luzi and Erich Korngold.
Luzi and Erich Korngold.

Alas, Erich and this time, his wife, Luzi (not Julius, who vigorously disapproved of the marriage) let us down in accepting an unpublished mystery drama from the publisher of the deceased poet, Hans Kaltneker (1895-1919) and engaging the hack Hans Müller-Einigen (whom Erich and Julius had fired from Die tote Stadt) to adapt it into a libretto.5

Hans Kaltneker
Hans Kaltneker

Kaltneker, a well-connected youth in Viennese theatrical, literary, and publishing circles, had died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. He was recognized as a promising, but unfulfilled writer of an Expressionist bent. An acolyte of Wagner, he was especially enthusiastic about the idea of redemption as expressed in Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal. As a teenager he wrote a Tristan drama. This—and other influences from sources like Roman Catholicism, especially Meister Eckhardt, Dostoevsky, and others—inspired a trilogy of expressionistic mystery dramas about redemption written in a burst during his last year of life, Die Opferung (The Sacrifice), Das Bergwerk (The Mine), and Die Schwester (The Sisters). In the latter, which he considered to be his masterpiece, a young lesbian woman has an affair with her sister, much to the distress of her family. Thrown out of the house, she tries a career as an artist, but her impatience leads her away from that into bad company and a decadent dissolute life, graphically shown on stage in a scene set in a homosexual nightclub. Her next step is prostitution, and the outcome of that is syphilis. Her redemption came to her as she sat in a police station. In Die Opferung a young man in a high-minded relationship with an actress of notorious morals happens to witness the execution of a murderer. He decides that he must redeem all humanity by killing his beloved, a deed to which she willingly submits. Just before his own execution, a wise Dominican counsels him, showing him the path to redemption.

Kaltneker’s ecstatic fantasies show both their idealistic and their lubricious sides in the risible strip tease in The Stranger’s jail cell in Act I, not without the debasing hand of Müller, who seems not to have understood much of Kaltneker’s poetry and translated it into prosaic, literal-minded verse for singing. Nonetheless, if you listen to Heliane’s words to the Court in Act II, recounting the silly encounter in the cell, as sung by Lotte Lehmann, who created the role, you will immediately fall under her spell and be moved. Few singers of today can spin out long phrases as she could or project the emotional essence of an aria so directly.

My distaste for Das Wunder der Heliane comes from its dramatic content, and I was able to respond to the music, while recognizing that its late Romantic gush and over-ripe scoring are indeed vulgar. If we are to take the opera more seriously, we must get beyond, if possible, the trashy “Sacroporn,”as Richard Taruskin so tellingly calls it 6 of the libretto and the sensual excesses of the music.

Das Wunder der Heliane was a success in the beginning, perhaps more with the public than among critics, but its Berlin premiere had problems, and its fortunes diminished after that. In the end Korngold felt he had failed. Andreas Giger provides an account of the Heliane’s review history, as well as the other factors that led to the decline of Korngold’s career as serious composer in the Viennese tradition.7 He had tried what he regarded as the high road, avoiding the popular elements he included in Die tote Stadt and failed. He was surely unaware that what he created in Heliane was, because of its empty pretension, solemn kitsch, but he was wounded by the opera’s waning reception. If he was driven by a craving for success more than by whatever it was that drove Beethoven or Brahms, it fit well into the competitive opera world of the 1920s. The future of opera was much discussed at the time, and the more prominent German and Austrian composers were trying new solutions, from jazz to the political, to the allegorical, sometimes with singular success. Therefore, if the high road had not served him, he could go to the people. Operetta already appealed to him, and his previous work was not entirely divorced from it. In concentrating on operetta almost immediately after Heliane (e.g. Rosen aus Florida, 1928), he set a new path, or one could say, started a new career. Following his association with Max Reinhardt, Korngold achieve huge success in just a few years, with two versions of their production of Die Fledermaus playing at the same time, as well as Eine Nacht in Venedig, Rosen aus Florida, and finally the Strauss pastiche, Walzer aus Wien, which was also a hit in Paris, London, and New York. British Gaumont made a film of it, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Waltzes from Vienna (aka Strauss’ Great Waltz). Some call Die Kathrin, begun in 1932, a cross between opera and operetta; others call it an operetta, tout court. Operetta brought him great success. He was so much in demand, he had time only for the solo and chamber works mentioned above.

Korngold’s next career began in 1934, when Max Reinhardt brought him to Hollywood for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At the Bard Festival, people of notable learning or expertise freely exchange views on subjects that have been defined in an academic or artistic forum, but in the end, I’ve heard many people admit that what we’re actually talking about is whether we like something or not. However, there is some objectivity in the statement that Korngold is the slightest composer yet to occupy the focal point of a Bard Festival. He never stopped believing that the art of music, however high it might soar, existed to please people, and that aesthetic was in his bones…or, rather, his heart. In comparison with Die tote Stadt, as seductive as it is, Puccini seems like a giant. Saint-Saëns began his career as a Wunderkind, but his intellectual stature and the scope of his musical work was vast. Some look down on Liszt for his vulgar display pieces, but his best work is truly great. A state of immersion in childlike, inchoate sexuality was Korngold’s lodestar, even when he indulged in overflowing sexuality or kinkiness…all with a musical technique of impressive sophistication. His natural quasi-innocence may have actually made that accessible to him. Korngold’s vision of sexual relations often recalls the experience of a young boy who catches a glimpse of his parents in bed through a carelessly unsecured door. One is tempted to question whether it was possible to be innocent in early twentieth-century Vienna. The trend of the period was to besmirch innocence even when the writer, composer, or artist could only achieve it with coarseness or vulgarity. We see this as much in the operas of Schreker and Krenek as in Kaltneker-Müller-Korngold. Richard Strauss, after setting a “bad example” in Salome, went on to a high sentimentalization of innocence in Der Rosenkavalier.

Beyond this, in observing the responses of others as well as my own, it became clear to me that Korngold’s music, as accessible as it is, doesn’t reveal itself on first hearing, even though it begins to cloy after only a few. This reminds me of something Alan Walker said at a previous Bard Festival in support of Liszt’s Faust Symphony, urging his audience to familiarize themselves with it by listening to a good recording over and over again (18 times, he suggested, recommending Beecham’s) until one has penetrated the surface. I found that everyone I spoke with, including myself, liked Korngold’s music better after a second listening, most notably, the Symphony in F#. On the other hand, I have yet to find someone who found a great revelation in this: they merely liked or tolerated the music somewhat more. The real Korngold-lovers, I think, enjoy a long-term relationship which may or may not grow over-ripe in the end.

Korngold is a useful subject for the festival, because he is an example of a coddled prodigy who was born into circumstances that limited his possibilities, especially because the artistic conservatism in which he was brought up made it next to impossible to adapt or break through. Confronted with a block or a failure, he instinctively looked backwards for a solution. The comforting world of operetta served him well for five years, but it doomed his attempt at a Viennese comeback in the late 1940s, when Die Kathrin struck audiences as even more old-fashioned than it did at its premiere in 1939. His overwrought Symphony in F#, Op. 40 (1947-52) was the battleground for his by now confused ambitions. The charming, wistful Symphonic Serenade in B Flat, Op. 39 he wrote just before it shows none of this struggle and is formally as perfect as the Suite, Op. 23 discussed above and thoroughly winning. (But just compare it to Strauss’ Metamorphosen!) Korngold’s own limitations blocked his career more than any external force. Ironically, even the Nazis, who put a stop to his career in Vienna, actually helped him by keeping him in a musical specialization 8 that suited his talents well and enabled him to be a pioneer of sorts, bringing him success and a good living, and postponing the debacle of Die Kathrin for over a decade. Even his failed return to Vienna after the war was the result of circumstances beyond his control. A major heart attack limited his forces, and his expectations, fomented by his stellar youth, led him to believe that old material and old-fashioned new creations would lead him back to the path of success. That was his tragedy.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Larry Wallach will discuss Korngold’s movie music and the symphony in detail in another article.

  1. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, “Faith in Music,” Korngold and his World, ed. Daniel Goldmark and Kevin C. Karnes, Princeton and Oxford, 2019, pp. 255-9.
  2. It is known that Freud and his work, which was already identified as literary, was often the topic of Viennese dinner-party conversations at the time. Hence the Korngolds need not have harbored a specialized interest in psychology to be acquainted with Freud’s latest publications.
  3. For a more enthusiastic assessment of the opera in a recent recording, see Ralph P. Locke’s review. See also Michael Haas’ thoughts on a 2017 production of Heliane at the Vienna Staatsoper.
  4. Szymanowski’s far superior opera, Król Roger, has a similar plot, independently conceived contemporaneously with the composition of Heliane, in which a similarly disruptive outsider, a Shepherd, is protected by the Queen against a despotic King. The issues at stake are in Szymanowski’s case more real and more interesting.
  5. For a discussion of Müller’s treatment of Kaltneker’s lost original, using quotations from it made by scholars before its mysterious disappearance, see Lis Malina, “dem armen toten Dichter darf kein Unrecht geschehen,” O Fortuna – Musikalische Glücksverheißungen, ed. Europäische Musikforschungsvereinigung Wien, 2016, also http://www.exilarte.at/downloads/lis_malina_heliane.pdf, accessed 12/4/2019.
  6. “The Golden Age of Kitsch,“ Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, Berkeley, 2008 pp. 241-60.
  7. Andreas Giger, “A Matter of Principle: The Consequences for Korngold’s Career,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 545-64
  8. I have very much enjoyed exploring Korngold’s film scores by watching the movies, but I will leave the discussion of that to Larry Wallach.
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Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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