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ClassicsOnline Home » KORNGOLD, E.W.: Songs, Vol. 1 (Stallmeister, Schenker-Primus, K. Simon)
The precociously gifted Korngold followed in the footsteps of the great late romantic composers Richard Strauss, Mahler and Pfitzner, his unwavering commitment to refined melody, ravishing harmony and formal coherence earning him the reputation of a musical anomaly in the face of the rising avant garde. Yet these very characteristics now drive immense interest in his music, among which the varied songs on this album rank among his most intimate and imaginative small-scale works. This new Naxos series is set to reveal countless treasures, worthy to be heard beside those of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Songs • 1
If Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been born not in 1897 but about thirty years earlier, he and his music would have existed in exactly the same period as a generation of composers which is represented now by the names of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Hans Pfitzner, and he would probably have become one of its most important figures. For in his stylistic sphere Korngold is to be classed, without doubt, among these late- and post-Romantic composers and as far as his compositional ability and musical imagination are concerned he is second to none. In his own time however, Korngold was a musical anomaly, like a latecomer who tries to bring to fruition the late-Romantic style at exactly the same time as it is being forgotten about.
In this respect Korngold’s biography has some truly tragic features. The scion of a famous Jewish Viennese family and son of the notorious music critic Julius Korngold, at first he induced astonishment and amazement and was regarded as a compositional Wunderkind with early works of complete mastery; as a star composer he enjoyed a real triumph a little later with his opera Die tote Stadt. And yet in the years of his maturity there was no corresponding career as a ‘serious composer’; instead he was diverted into the realms of operetta adaptations and, later, film music. To that end he emigrated to the United States where he rode out the Nazi era and the Second World War and had to realise thereafter that he would not be granted a second chance in his old homeland. For although the old Korngold again produced concert music of absolute mastery—such as the famous Violin Concerto—he worked in post-war Europe as a man out of his time, whose notorious Romanticism arouses incomprehension.
Even in his output of songs, Korngold remained true to his own style. His conception of the song is oriented strictly to the Romantic ideal: an intimate, yet intense form with relatively simple singable melodies, in which the art lies more in subtle detail than in the expansive gesture. So Korngold sets himself against a trend of the late nineteenth century, which seeks to translate the song from its original intimacy into large-scale concert music and this is compositionally underpinned by a more sweeping form and more virtuosic and artificial handling of the voice—not for nothing do many composers talk no longer of Lieder but of ‘songs’. Korngold on the other hand, who never accepted this terminology, returns more or less to its original concept.
Unlike perhaps for Strauss and Pfitzner the medium of the song as a genre was not central to Korngold’s output, yet he always contributed to the song repertoire at regular intervals—especially after the completion of large music theatre works, almost as a small-scale counterbalance. So again and again throughout his complete catalogue of works are publications of from three to six songs, which in part are conceived as coherent cycles (Opp. 18, 27 and 29) and in part were subsequently collected together. Certainly most of the songs are typically occasional works, but ones which nevertheless are written with care and with an entrancing richness of ideas.
Songs of Youth: “Op. 5” and Op. 9
Without doubt Korngold was one of those few composers who achieve perfection at an early age, even in their youthful works—his first published works display an effortless certainty and technical mastery. This astonishing standard would be bestowed on Korngold’s early works, in spite of the fact that most of them (apart from the Six Simple Songs, Op. 9) were not cleared for publication but were only discovered in the Korngold family estate eighty years after they had been written. Here the youthful Wolfgang Erich shows himself to be an ideal song composer, who knows how to set the idea of a text musically and to clothe it in singable melodies. Korngold’s music is rooted in the Romantic tradition of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, whose music must have been omnipresent in his parents’ house; at the same time, Korngold was at his very best during this period, while in the choice of his musical methods (especially in his use of harmony) he emulates his contemporaries Mahler, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf.
A large proportion of the songs recorded here date from the years 1910 and 1911 when the thirteen- and fourteen-year old was planning a big cycle of songs to texts by Joseph Eichendorff, one of his favourite poets. Of the sixteen songs from this period he selected twelve for this cycle. But since the decision to publish his works resided with his father, in 1911 Erich presented a bound copy of the work to him as a Christmas present, furnished with the hopeful title “Songs Opus 5, if God and Father so wish”. But his father did not wish. To his very critical eye there was no virtue in the songs; perhaps also the notion of an Eichendorff song cycle seemed to him to be not prestigious enough or even outdated. Korngold’s Op. 5 actually became the Sinfonietta for orchestra, while the songs remained mostly unpublished. It was not until five years later that three of the songs (Nos. 1, 5 and 8) were published, together with three more recent songs, as Op. 9.
Unfortunately, exactly what it was that aroused the displeasure of the composer’s father has not come down to us. From a purely musical perspective, however, these songs are irreproachable: they display a wonderfully musical sensitivity, unerring characterization, compositional imagination and formal proportion. Rather, a particular stylistic unity is detectable: while some of the songs are set in a simple and traditional way, such as No. 6 Aussicht (Outlook), No. 9 Der Friedensbote (The Messenger of Peace) and, in spite of several harmonic refinements, No. 7 Die Sperlinge (The Sparrows), elsewhere the young composer dares to make interesting experiments. The piano movement in No. 2 Winternacht (Winter Night), with its remarkable open parallel fifths is almost impressionistic, thereby expertly evoking the concept of a wintery wasteland. No. 4 Abendlandschaft (Evening Landscape) unsettles at first with its unusually dissonant soundworld which is absorbed only with difficulty into the real key. And a particularly special case is Vesper (not incorporated in Op. 5) in which Korngold not only represents the evening bells realistically, but uses different time-signatures at the same time, a device which evokes a quite strange state of uncertainty, which is a trenchant characterization of the text.
But the most convincing songs are those in which Korngold experiments with a middle course between tradition and fantasy. To this category belong the wonderful Vom Berge (From the Mountain) (No. 10) as well as the three songs of Op. 9. Impressive for instance, as in Nachtwanderer (Night Wanderer) (No. 8 or Op. 9/2) is a persistently recurring descending figure in the piano part, which represents the nocturnal rider or, as in Schneeglöckchen (Snowdrops) (No. 5 or Op. 9/1) which alternates consistently not only between three- and four-time, but also between major and minor, thereby generating an atmosphere which fluctuates between melancholy and cheerful apprehension. Of the three newer songs in Op. 9 Das Heldengrab am Pruth (The Hero’s Grave at Pruth) (No. 5, after Heinrich Kipper) of 1916 stands out above all for the delicate arabesque-like figures in the piano part (paying homage to Debussy) which bring alive the vision “of the little garden” described in the text. No more masterful or imaginative songs have ever been composed.
Songs of Maturity: Opp. 22, 27, 29 and 31
The seventeen (or sixteen) songs of these four works have no direct connection with one another. The three songs Op. 22, from 1928/29 to texts by Eleonore van der Straten and Karl Kobald, are clearly occasional pieces which Korngold produced after finishing his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, perhaps as a “serious” counterbalance to the operetta adaptations of this time. On the other hand Op. 27, from 1933, is a self-contained cycle with the title Unvergänglichkeit (Immortality), after four poems by Eleonore van der Straten, which date from the period of Korngold’s last opera Die Kathrin. Opp. 29 and 31 came into being during his American exile and are the only English-language songs by Korngold (to texts from plays by Shakespeare), which were composed between 1937 and 1941—the period of his first great film scores.
At the same time, when listening to these songs one after another one can detect a continuous development towards even greater simplicity. Korngold’s customary inclination towards an ideal of song-writing is strengthened more and more in the song compositions of this period; while Op. 22 still contains some elements of artificial complexity, the Shakespeare songs follow in the direction of folk-songs (comparable perhaps with Copland’s Old American Songs. This can be clarified in several aspects:
Technically the stock type of through-composed song dominates Op. 22. Although it is not in verse form, in all three songs Korngold harks back from time to time to the first line of the melody, which is then developed differently; as a result there emerges a barely perceptible coherence which almost borders on the strophic. This method is developed further in Op. 27 so that a sort of strophic song with variations emerges, in which the verses are slightly altered. The second song definitely belongs to this category; it repeats the first section twice in varied ways. In the Shakespeare songs strophic form predominates and Korngold alternates between exact and altered repetitions of the verse.
Harmonically Korngold leaves us in absolutely no doubt that he has no intention of abandoning tonality, even though there are moments in Op. 22 when he appears to be on the verge of doing so. The second song in particular includes tonal layers and episodes of the sort which with other composers prepared the way for atonality—but not so with Korngold. In Op. 27 there is already much more harmonic clarity, which at times extends into occasional simplicity—which does not mean that there are not also harmonic effects of great refinement, such as the remarkable juxtaposition of major and minor in Op. 29 No. 1.
Melodically Korngold excels in writing very natural, almost regular melodies, which seem to be in a sort of state of oscillation, such as in Op. 22 where Korngold works extensively with changes of metre—even though one is hardly aware of it. Yet even these calculated irregularities disappear noticeably in Op. 27, so that in the Shakespeare songs classical regularity is avowedly to the fore. Likewise Korngold gradually reins in his predilection for using large intervals, so that in Opp. 29 and 31 they scarcely appear.
Should the impression be given that the Shakespeare songs contain somewhat naive simplicities, that charge should be energetically repudiated. In spite of all the folksong-like traits and intentional simplicity Korngold writes here with the same sure-footed refinement and compositional ability as in other songs. On the contrary one must even admiringly assert that Korngold understands here how to achieve the maximum impact with the greatest economy of means in such a way that even a Mahler could not have done it better.
English translation: David Stevens
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