This Day in Jewish History

1957: A Child Prodigy Turned Oscar-winning Composer Dies

At age 6, Erich Korngold played some of his creations for legendary composer Gustav Mahler, who declared the boy to be a genius.

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On November 29, 1957, composer Erich Korngold – who, like other artists, was very much in vogue in his day, later disparaged and forgotten, and more recently awarded a reconsideration and revival – died, at the age of 60.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born on May 29, 1897, in what is today Brno, in the Czech Republic (then Austria-Hungary), the second child of Julius Korngold and the former Josefine Witrofsky. When Erich was 4, the family moved to Vienna, where Julius became the music critic of the Neue Freie Presse.

Erich Korngold was truly a musical child prodigy, playing piano duets with his father at the age 5 and soon after writing musical phrases in his notebook. By the time Erich was 6, he was composing music at a level that his father took him to meet Gustav Mahler. Erich played some of his own compositions for the great man, who declared the boy to be a genius.

At Mahler's advice, Korngold then studied theory and orchestration for several years with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was also the principal conductor of the Vienna Volksoper. When Korngold was 11, the Vienna Court Opera, performed his ballet “The Snowman,” which was given a command performance before the Emperor Franz Josef in 1910. He also wrote a number of pieces for solo piano during this period.

By 1914, Korngold was writing operas, beginning that year with the one-act “Ring of Polycrates.” Since it was too short to suffice for an evening’s program, he supplemented it with another one-act opera, “Violanta,” a tragedy; the two pieces had their premiere in 1916 at the Munich Hoftheater, under the baton of Bruno Walter. At age 19, and almost overnight, Erich Korngold had become one of the leading figures in German contemporary opera. 

Although Korngold was drafted during World War I, he was assigned to a number of music-related duties in the rear, which meant he was able to continue his composition. It was during this period that he wrote “The Dead City,” a three-act opera that was to become his most well-known work, at least until he began composing for the screen. When it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, in 1921, “The Dead City” became the first German work to be performed there in the wake of the war.

Korngold continued composing operas during the 1920s, and also reviving and re-orchestrating several operettas by Johann Strauss II (the “Waltz king”). He also was commissioned to write a piano concerto for left hand and orchestra for Paul Wittgenstein (son of industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and brother of Ludwig), who had lost his right arm in the war. 

Robin Hood to the rescue

Korngold’s move to Hollywood preceded the arrival of the Nazis by several years: In 1934, the Austrian-born director Max Reinhardt invited him to California to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a film version of the play, Reinhardt’s first movie in America. During the four years that followed, Korngold began writing music that turned film scores into a genre of their own. His early work for the screen included the scores for “Captain Blood,” “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Korngold continued to divide his life between Hollywood and Vienna until 1938. He was fortunate enough in that year to have been invited by Warner Bros. to compose the music for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn. When the Anschluss took place, he was therefore in the U.S., and he decided to remain.  His family soon joined him in California, and within two weeks the Germans had seized all of his property. (His publisher had several people break into the composer's Vienna home to retrieve his manuscripts.)  

Korngold, who noted that “We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish,” would credit “Robin Hood” with saving his life. His score for the film won Korngold an Academy Award for Best Original Score. His other Oscar was for the music for “Anthony Adverse,” two years earlier, in 1936.

During the course of the war, Korngold resolved not to write music for the concert hall or the opera as long as “that monster in Europe” remained in power. Instead, he concentrated solely on film work, and donated part of his revenue from the 18 films he scored between 1934 and 1946 to helping refugees from Europe.

Korngold wrote his last original score, for the movie “Deception,” in 1946. By then, he longed to return to orchestral composition, and also to return to his birthplace. He and his family had their first look at post-war Vienna in May 1949; the following January, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted the premiere of his “Symphonic Serenade for Strings, Opus 39.” Plans for the staging of several operas also got under way. But despite initial enthusiasm among audiences and critics, Korngold’s return turned out to be unsatisfying. Aside from residual anti-Semitism he encountered, it also turned out that critics were no longer receptive to the romantic, lyrical style that characterized his work. Korngold returned to California.

Erich Korngold suffered a stroke in October 1956. A year later, on November 29, 1957, he died. Although by the time of his death, his music was considered largely passé, within a few decades, it began to undergo a resurgence. This was thanks in large part to the efforts of his son, George Korngold, a record producer (who died in 1987), and of Brendan Carroll, a Korngold biographer, who has helped to restore a number of original recordings of his work.

In 1947, when Jascha Heifetz premiered Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony, American critic Irving Kolodin commented that the lush piece was “more corn than gold.” By the 1970s, however, when Andre Previn conducted a movement from that concerto on British TV, he was able to note that the critic who wrote those words was long-forgotten, whereas Korngold was still remembered. That remark has only proved itself to be more true in the intervening decades.

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