The Music Man

A Wunderkind in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna, Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold Created the Hollywood Sound

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | December 2007 / January 2008

Korngold and his wife Luzi aboard ship en route to Vienna in 1954 (Photos: Jewish Museum, Vienna)

The legends of Hollywood are full of stories about Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, the two Viennese composers who dominated film music for nearly three decades from its beginning with Steiner’s score for King Kong and Korngold’s minor masterpiece the Sea Hawk that was held on a par with Wagner.

Korngold the "serious" composer, Steiner the entertainer, they liked and respected each other.

"So Korngold, all your music has gotten a lot worse since you’ve been in Hollywood," Steiner teased him. "While mine has gotten a lot better.

"Of course!" said Korngold. "You have been steeling from me, and I have been stealing from you."

By most measures, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a fortunate man. Born into a world of music and privilege in the Jewish intelligentsia during the Vienna’s glory years, he was a child prodigy whose adoring father was also the leading music critic, who could open every possible door for his son.

At 11 Korngold wrote his first ballet performed at the Court Opera. At 13 he wrote his first full-length piano sonata, and many successes later, his opera Die Tote Stadt premiered in 1920 when he was 23 that made him, along with Richard Strauss, the most performed composer in Vienna.

In 1931 he followed director Max Reinhardt to Hollywood to arrange the film score for his Midsummer Night’s Dream, and after the rise of Hitler, stayed there to become the most successful composer in Hollywood.

So it is easy to understand the glow of pleasure and satisfaction on his and his wife’s faces as they stand on deck of the ocean liner that brought them back to Europe in 1954. Now they would at last be able to resettle in Vienna, and Erich Korngold could concentrate once again on writing the operas, chamber and vocal music he had set aside two decades before.

But nothing stays where you left it. The property was long gone – their town house turned into apartments, their country villa a refugee camp – but so was the world in which Korngold had belonged.

His post-Romantic style was now considered decadent, and tonal music condemned altogether to the sentimental dust heap of Nazi Kitsch.

"The critics slammed him, saying it was immoral to perform this music today," said Michael Haas, music curator of the Jewish Museum Vienna, where a first-ever exhibit on the Korngolds father and son opened Nov. 28, and will remain up through May18, 2008.

Acquaintanceships had gone cold:

"Grussi, Herr Doctor," a neighbor said. "so nice to see you again. And when are you leaving.?"

Even his neighbors were closed behind the changes that had passed in between.

His violin concerto, written for Jascha Heifitz was dismissed as "more ‘Korn’ than ‘gold,’ and gurus of the new a-tonal world condemned his music as "sounding like Hollywood." Except that it was Hollywood that sounded like Erich Korngold. It was his music that had created the range and flexibility of the Hollywood score, bringing the tools of opera to the screen, telling a story in sound.

He was a victim of his own success. The audiences knew his idiom so well, they had forgotten where it came from. So in the end, he was condemned for being himself.

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