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Vienna honors yet another composer

Erich Korngold brought music to Hollywood in film scores, his 'opera without singing.'

December 28, 2007|George Jahn | Associated Press

VIENNA -- Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart -- Korngold?

Countless millions have at least heard of the classical masters associated with Vienna. Not only the titanic trio of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart viewed the city at some point as their musical home.

So did Anton Bruckner, Franz Joseph Haydn, Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert.

But half a century after his death, mention of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, another great musical son of Vienna, often draws blank stares here and elsewhere -- despite his legacy as the founder of the "Hollywood Sound."

But in a small way, this year has been Korngold's moment in a Vienna that is still recovering from the marathon musical and marketing excesses of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in 2006.

The city's Jewish Museum is devoting a major exhibition to the man whose classical career fell victim to a triple whammy: a domineering music critic father, the advent of atonal music and, finally, the rise of Hitler that perpetuated his self-exile to the U.S.

A sampling of his famed film scores was performed for the first time last month in one of the Austrian capital's prestigious concert halls. And a film retrospective was dedicated to him.

It's a tribute that may be 50 years late: Only a handful of his classical works remain popular.

But Korngold established a huge musical niche -- and won an Oscar -- through nine works for film. They include such genre-creating swashbucklers for Warner Bros. as "Captain Blood" (1935) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), in the lush operatic style that initially made his name.

Korngold himself saw no difference between his classical and screen compositions, declaring: "Even if I wanted to, I could not write music below my own standards." He called his screen music "operas without singing," and experts consider his film compositions on par with much that the world of "serious music" has to offer.

"Like Mozart, he wrote," says composer and arranger John Mauceri. "It didn't matter whether he wrote a concerto, an opera or light entertainment, he wrote the highest quality music."

His symphonic creations for the screen -- and those of successors following in his footsteps -- have been enjoyed by millions. And some of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters freely acknowledge the debt their industry owes the man who, while lionized by the movie moguls, suffered from the perception that his music was not taken seriously in Vienna.

Mauceri, founder of Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, calls Korngold's contributions "so important they tend to dominate our conversation" about the history of music in cinema.

And yet Korngold viewed his legacy as a tragic mistake -- the result of a promising "classical" career gone awry.

Recognized by age 10 as a musical prodigy, Korngold logged his share of early operatic and symphonic successes. As one of the last proponents of sweeping German Romanticism, he was at one point the most performed German-speaking composer of his era.

But with the rise of Arnold Schoenberg and other masters of atonality, detractors increasingly found his lush and sweeping melodies out of date.

Adding to his woes were the victims of his father, Julius, one of Europe's most influential music critics of the day. Soloists and conductors savaged by Julius took their revenge on Erich, refusing to perform his works.

The younger Korngold retreated into the world of operetta, focusing on arrangements and adaptations that would soon be reflected in his Hollywood era. His first trip to Hollywood was in 1934, to work with Max Reinhardt on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Hitler annexed Austria four years later while Korngold was visiting the U.S. As a Jew, Korngold was unable to return home.

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