The Bard Music Festival: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Trajectory
Second weekend (August 16-18, 2019)
Symphony in F#, Op. 40 (1947-52) performed by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein
Piano Sonata no. 3 in C, Op. 25 (1931) performed by Danny Driver
Miklós Rózsa, String Quartet no. 1 (1950)
String Quartet no. 3 in D, Op. 34 (1944-5) performed by the Jasper String Quartet
Film Score to “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)—excerpts performed by TON conducted by James Bagwell
Read Steven Kruger’s review of John Wilson’s recent recording of the Symphony in F# here.
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. His opera Die tote Stadt, performed on the last Sunday of the festival in a semi-staged performance, has long been a marginal part of the international repertory and arias from it show up on voice recitals with some regularity. Some of his chamber works have also received high-profile attention, and musician friends tell me how much they adore them, especially the Suite for Piano (Left Hand) and Strings, for their richly romantic, lyrical qualities. My response to such works may be minority opinion, or it might tap into a reason why Korngold the concert and opera composer remains a second-tier figure: I found the harmonies usually derivative (especially of Richard Strauss) and the melodies so sweet that exposure to multiple works can produce a cloying sensation. This was most egregiously apparent in the staged opera, one with a truly awful libretto, in which the characters expressed themselves with hyperbolic lyricism for hours on end to little dramatic effect. But it also eroded my admiration for works such as the string quartet, which was juxtaposed with that of another Hollywood composer, Miklós Rózsa. While Korngold’s opus was technically resourceful and full of romantic character, it felt familiar, as if almost everything in it had been heard before; it seemed made up of a lexicon of traditional tropes. Rózsa’s Quartet no. 1, on the other hand, was a bracing and original modern work, perhaps in the tradition of his compatriot Bartók, but a brisk, fresh statement that offered a compelling narrative arc with its own formal, folk-inflected voice.
Of greatest interest among the non-cinematic scores was the late Symphony in F-sharp minor (1947-52), a work composed after the Korngold’s post-war return to a Vienna in ruins, in hopes of reviving the pre-war career that had been interrupted by work in Hollywood and exile. The critical views of this symphony, cited in Amy Lynn Wlodarski’s excellent program notes and Festival book essay, portray it as failing to achieve the intended outcome: it neither reestablished the composer’s credentials as a serious contemporary voice nor seemed to speak to the historical moment in a compelling way. Korngold did not help his case when he declared that his music had nothing to do with historical events, and emanated from a sphere beyond the tawdry stuff of everyday life.1 My interest, however, was held by a quality in this work which contradicted both the critical consensus and the composer’s own aesthetic. Perhaps this quality pervaded the composition owing to an urgent need to communicate that made itself felt despite the composer’s conscious intention. What I refer to is a profound ambivalence, a conflict between a nostalgic longing for an unattainable romantic sensibility, one that pre-dated both world wars and was no longer available in its pure form, if it ever actually was in the first place. (It would take a lengthy discussion to explore whether this lost romantic sensibility ever actually existed in the form that it assumed in retrospect; the inclusion of Strauss’s Four Last Songs on the same program as the symphony proposed this question in a most vivid form.)
Contrary to those who found Korngold’s symphony outdated, I detected post-war angst (and even a post-modern stylistic clash) in that two distinct voices were vying for dominance: a nostalgic vision, and a fear that this was hovering out of reach, as expressed by a mordant main theme. The impact of the slow movement’s Brucknerian lyricism was modified in retrospect by a disturbingly drawn-out tragic coda that seemed deliberately to unbalance the movement’s formal coherence.2 Elsewhere, Korngold’s “progressive” voice came to the fore, a voice that could be heard in some of his other works that engaged with the earlier music of Schoenberg, not just with the obvious influence of Verklärte Nacht but also the Second Quartet, the First Chamber Symphony, and even the Five Pieces for Orchestra.3 At his best moments as a musical dramatist, such as in the third act of Die tote Stadt, parts of the Symphony, and in dramatic moments in the film scores, Korngold shows a mastery of post-tonal idioms and a keen understanding of their expressive power in both dramatic and “abstract” works.
The first movement of the Symphony in F-sharp opens in a way that strikingly recalls the beginning of Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto (1924), with plucked low strings, staccato woodwinds, piano and marimba in cluster harmonies setting up a desultory, off-beat pulse for a solo clarinet statement of the aspirational first theme, whose rising intervals seek but fail to achieve the higher octave, hardly the introduction to a grandly romantic escapist narrative. The theme gains intensity when repeated in unison strings but concludes on a downward, depleted trajectory. This is balanced by fast upward runs reminiscent of Stravinsky’s recent Symphony in Three Movements. The tightly logical development of this material continues to evade clear tonal definition, and in atmosphere at times approaches Shostakovich, especially in the grand peroration of the first theme by the horns with brass and percussion replacing plucked strings and percussion. It is only in the transitional theme that we hear the idealistic, Straussian tone which so pervades the pre-war, pre-Hollywood music, but which in this context feels like a futile longing for a lost world. This music is situated in the higher strings, in other words, without bass. But it is quickly framed by a return to the mordant material of the first theme, with an additional sinister air, as if to puncture any illusions.
The actual second theme, a flute solo over static bass, seems like an elegy that acknowledges the loss of a world. The aspirational quality of the first theme is gently echoed with rising intervals that seem to also echo such late tonal reference points as Mahler’s symphonies (specifically the Seventh) and again Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. The unresolved dissonant harmony refuses to allow this wistful song to settle into any moment of comfortable stability and the section concludes with an ominous echo on the bass clarinet before the development that seems to be drawn from the corresponding moment in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, complete with threatening low piano figures. Hopeful and idealistic moments seem to intermingle with armies on the march, cinematic moments with heroic aspirations of horns and tonal gestures that fail to be authorized by stable outcomes.
If there is an artistic weakness in this powerful and skillfully unfolded skein of gestures and colors, it is its insistence on observing the symmetries of classical symphonic form.4 Unlike the modernists cited as influences here, the themes and gestures are treated as separable units, and the juxtapositions do not have the force of causality. Another way to say this is that the music divides itself into cues, like a film score, as if the editor had made cuts in the scenes and the composer followed. The result is that the juxtaposed moods do not add up to a compelling whole that would carry the listener forward in a unified narrative. The ending ebbs away in resignation, and in the final chord, drawn from the second theme, a “radiant” statement of the “key” in major in the high strings, is at first marred by the clarinet asserting two off-key notes, only to have them fade into a moment of “hope beyond hope.” In the collection of essays accompanying the Festival, Wlodarski describes this work as belonging to the category of “ruins,” parallel to Korngold’s experience of post-war Vienna. Contrary to received critical opinion, she asserts that the symphony was “too unsettling, too modern, for postwar Viennese audiences.”5
The scherzo projects an equivocal confrontation between light-heartedness and intimations of disaster, a heavy-handed humor with bitter undertones, as if Til Eulenspiegel were failing to bring off his practical jokes. This is followed by the type of inspiring horn theme often described in the film scores as “swashbuckling.” But it leads to no apotheosis, but rather a series of detached vignettes, some of neutral character and others verging on the sinister. The “images” appear in rapid succession, a cinematic montage. The trio is other-worldly, a confirmation of Wlodarski’s theme of “ruins.” It sheds the scherzando character and becomes a somewhat grim journey through a bleak landscape. The harmonic language is a fascinating mixture of fragments of tonality intermingled with complex polytonal overlays. The arrival at a purely tonal cadence seems like an anomaly parallel to the end of the first movement, a gesture of reaching for a kind of consolation which we have already understood to be illusory.
Overall, the symphony evinces great mastery of the tools of musical expression, and the opportunity to hear it was welcome; it certainly deserves to be heard again, however frustrating and equivocal its “message” may seem. Of course there were other works that deserved to be heard as well: Piano Sonata no. 3 in C major from 1931 is a real throw-back, utilizing a 19th-century language and built on a scaffolding of Beethoven references, including his Piano Sonata in D major Op. 10 no. 3 in the first movement the famous Menuet from the Septet in the third. The Rondo giocoso finale finds Korngold in a familiar mood: buoyant, even bumptious. This same mood finds its way into a number of other works heard in the festival, and is epitomized by the theme of Robin Hood and his Merry Men from the film score: Korngold started composing as a boy, and later in life, he did not forget how to express boyish energy and optimism. This finale also includes a parody of modernist dissonance, with passages in parallel sevenths. The work was performed with appropriate drive and enthusiasm by the estimable Danny Driver.
Written in America just at the end of World War II, String Quartet no. 3 in D major, Op. 34 is a more serious affair. Rather than using earlier composers’ music as springboard, Korngold uses his own (as he does later in the Symphony). This self-borrowing indicates that for the composer, film-music stands on the same high artistic plane as concert music. This practice enabled him to explore existing materials in more open contexts and frameworks, and the results are very interesting. The language of the first movement is more chromatic and volatile than in the earlier piano sonata. The lyric material at the beginning shifts moods and harmonies in a quicksilver fashion, with cadences to major chords suddenly turning minor, and slippery chromatic passages resolving suddenly into tonal clarity. There is more counterpoint more thoroughly developed, along with a serious, dark undertone. The turbulent second section, superbly scored for the strings, seems more conventionally dialogic, but as before, the harmonic material slides off the rails easily, and the development returns to further exploration of the opening, with scraps of Viennese lyricism touched on almost as teasers. Taken out of context, may phrases or gestures could plausibly come from the pen of Berg; but any impression of expressionist angst is dispelled by Korngold’s signature high-sucrose lyricism. The remaining movements are gesturally ingenious: the scherzo was inspired by watching the headlights of the cars of airplane workers, moving points of light, but this dry wit immediately becomes humid in a syrupy trio that draws from the film score of Between Two Worlds. The third movement also raids the film score pantry, this time from The Sea-Wolf, which provides a melancholy pseudo-folksong as subject to fairly conventional if highly atmospheric variations. It is the final movement that restores the intense seriousness of the conversation with added elements of aggression and dissonant counterpoint, traits that would resurface in the symphony.
To return to the initial question of the trajectory of Korngold’s career, it appears that his work on film scores in Hollywood was not some kind of interruption of his artistic development, a caesura between more serious compositional activity, but on the contrary constituted the high point of his inspiration and in the application of his musico-dramatic talents. The concert devoted to Hollywood film music included suites from film scores by Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, and Dimitri Tiomkin, and excerpts from “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” accompanying the screening of matching scenes, complete with dialogue.6 Major chunks of the score were missing, including the music of the opening credits which supplies thematic material for many of the scenes shown, and is crucial for the recognition of the Merry Men who will appear in varied guises along with their theme. Also missing is the first and second banquet scenes and the music of Friar Tuck, Little John, and the humorous episodes of their meetings with Robin. It was pointed out in a panel discussion that Korngold scored 70 out of the 100 minutes of the film, about twice the average for its day. But what was heard/shown was enough to indicate the uncanny perfection with which Korngold matched music to image. Korngold’s ability to capture mood and character in incredibly condensed time-spans, almost as much as in early Webern, suits the rapid pace of film editing; and his ability to transform his material and work with a roster of dramatically significant motives gives large-scale coherence to a score that often lacks the luxury of continuous development. The discipline of film compelled a concision and pointedness that elevated the power of the music to the point where it takes over the film, elevating it far beyond what it would have been otherwise, a high-production-value costume drama.
In addition to indicating the transformative power of the score, TON’s performance revealed both its lavishness and difficulty—the musicians occasionally struggled to keep up with the film, which demands brisk tempos despite the punishingly elaborate brass parts (especially in the tournament music, which is bursting with Korngold’s over-the-top fanfares). The very complexity that was revealed in live performance points back to the amazing quality of the playing in the original sound-track. Although its dynamic and frequency range was severely compressed (as discussed in that enlightening panel) it is clear that the quality of the studio orchestra was spectacular. Korngold was later to complain bitterly about the shoddy performance his symphony received at its premier; his virtuoso orchestration technique assumed transcendental musicianship, which he received from those studio orchestras composed of the elite corps of European expatriate musicians.
Would the Bard Festival have celebrated Korngold absent his film scores? The panel discussion on the second Saturday was “Out of Hollywood: Sound Film and the 20th Century,” a topic that attracted unique interest and audience participation. Korngold’s greatest legacy has been the return of Hollywood to lavish full-orchestra underscoring, thanks to new developments in sound technology as well as to the advocacy and example of John Williams, whose debt to Korngold is spelled out in another article in the festival volume.7 The power of uniting the moving image with a score that makes no effort to conceal itself, that fuses with the other elements of narrative in a way that becomes a primary directive for audience emotional responses has constituted an enormously important and potent art-form in itself. It is time to question the assumption that music written for the elite audiences of concerts and operas is somehow categorically superior to that intended for popular, mass consumption. Korngold had no such reservations—neither should we.
- “…Korngold insisted that the work had nothing to do with ‘the terror and horrors of the years 1933-45’ nor the ‘sorrows and sufferings of the victims of that time.’” Wlodarski, “American and Austrian Ruins in Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp,” Korngold and His World, p. 168. ↩
- Wlodarski points out that this movement draws on scores to the films Anthony Adverse (1936), Captain Blood (1935) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). In all, they symphony reuses music from seven films. ↩
- Schoenberg’s presence as an influence was acknowledged by the program with the inclusion of his late, severely dodecaphonic “Fantasy” for violin and piano (1947). ↩
- This may work in a film score but only when justified by the plot structure. For example, in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” there is an opening narrative about “good” King Richard, underscored with a noble-sounding theme. When the King reveals himself to Marion at the inn, and in the final scene to all assembled, this theme returns, not as a recapitulation, but as a stabilized leitmotif, indicating the constancy of this king’s sense of justice. ↩
- This view rhymes with the fate of the writer and holocaust survivor-witness H. G. Adler, whose writings, both fact and fiction, went unpublished for many years following the end of the war, the German public being unprepared to confront those horrific realities. (cf. Peter Filkins, H. G. Adler, Oxford U. P., 2019). ↩
- Owing to technical problems, the dialogue was mostly incomprehensible, and the sound quality jarred with the live music. ↩
- Neil Lerner, “”The caverns of the human mind are full of strange shadows’: Disability Representation, Henry Bellamann, and Korngold’s Musical Subtexts in the Score for Kings Row” in Korngold and his World, ed. Daniel Goldmark and Kevin C. Karnes (Princeton U. Press, 2019) ↩