Book Review: Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Fifteen years after its first publication, a biography of the composer is translated into German

Top Stories | Matthias Wurz | June 2013

"The genuine artist creates at a distance from his own time, even for a time beyond," wrote the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold in October, 1955, in the foreword to the book Faith in Music by protégé Ulric Devaré.

It was, in fact, Korngold’s last published essay, written as a reflection on his life as a composer across the upheavals of the 20th century:

"The true creative artist does not wish to recreate for his fellow man the headlines screaming of atom bombs, murder, and sensationalism found in the daily paper. Rather, …he will know how to take and uplift him into the purer realm of fantasy."


The child prodigy

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, born on 29 May, 1897 in Brno as the younger son of fierce Neue Presse music critic Julius Korngold, was a Wunderkind and shooting star of the declining Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At the tender age of nine, Korngold had played one of his compositions for Gustav Mahler, who, after hearing the aspiring musician, famously exclaimed: "A genius!"

At 13, Korngold became a household name when his two-act pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), orchestrated by Alexander von Zemlinsky, was premiered by the Vienna Court Opera on 4 October, 1910. By 1920, the composer had just completed his third opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which would lead him to international recognition, reaching an unprecedented zenith of fame at such an early age.

But the 1920s were years of change in music with the arrival of atonality and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which Korngold never applied in his work. So he left for Hollywood, to write first for Max Reinhardt and then under contract for Warner Brothers, a true musical "Romantic", who is credited with creating the Hollywood sound. Once he had made his name during the 1930s and 1940s as one of the Dream Factory’s greatest film composers, he approached the end of his life with the knowledge that his compositions were no longer sought after by the public.


The first Korngold biography

Yet it was neither an American nor an Austrian, but the U.K.-based researcher Brendan G. Carroll, who, after meticulous research of some 40 years, brought about the most substantial, eloquently written biography: The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. First published by Amadeus Press in 1997, its German translation was finally made available by Vienna’s Böhlau Verlag in November 2012.

The beautifully designed 480-page hardcover book includes 53 spectacular photographs, taken at all stages of Korngold’s life – from boyhood to the maturing composer – complementing Carroll’s moving text. Among others are lively production and rehearsal pictures of Max Reinhardt’s film A Midsummer Night’s Dream made in Hollywood in 1934 – a collaboration that had introduced the 37-year-old Austrian opera composer to a new artistic world that he himself would shape in the coming decades, together with fellow Austrian Max Steiner.

Yet, Carroll met resistance at first; the composer’s older son was sceptical when writing about his ability to handle a Korngold bio-graphy: "How could a young man, resident in Liverpool, the nest of the Beatles, possibly know more then the composer’s son about a Viennese composer, whose career ended in apparent dismal failure?" wrote Ernst W. Korngold in the foreword to the book.

"Should I give him access to the composer’s correspondence, even though most of it was in German and the young man had no knowledge of German?"

The best thing, Ernst W. Korngold concluded, was to stay out of Carroll’s way, and judge the aspiring musicologist by the result, which resulted in "an amazing chronicle of a young man [Erich Wolfgang Korngold], handicapped by a wilful father and the forces of the Third Reich, told without undue sentimentality and with a sense of humour [...]", which its author, "undoubtedly shares with my father."

In fact, the German translation, published as the first volume of Böhlau’s Schriften series, is the only version currently available for sale. The English original has been out of print for a long time, and despite an online campaign and petition for a reprint in 2006, its publisher has not reissued the book.

At Böhlau’s presentation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Das letzte Wunderkind in November 2012, the book’s translator and series editor, Prof. Gerold Gruber, stressed the importance of an accurate yet beautifully crafted edition: "I was aiming to stay as close as possible to the original, thus preserving the idioms and pictures used in English. What took most of the time was finding the German equivalent."

This was indeed an accomplishment, as the German translation retains the persuasive narrative style of the English original. For the same reason, all English-language sources quoted, such as letters or memos of film productions Korngold was involved with, are retained in the original.

Although this is a distinctly academic biography, including an extensive catalogue of works and discography, it is nevertheless a compelling and worthwhile read for anyone interested in a moving and sympathetic portrait of a composer who not only shaped the "Hollywood sound", but also won over the musical establishment as a very young man.


See Korngold Exhibit at the Jewish Museum


Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Last Prodigy 

by Brendan G. Carroll

(transl. by Gerold Gruber)

Böhlau Publisher (2012) 

pp. 480


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