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ClassicsOnline Home » KORNGOLD: Tote Stadt (Die)
By Michael Tanner
"This set from Naxos really does him [Korngold] proud....The result is addictive music, certainly when performed with this degree of loving care. Leif Segerstam has the measure of this idiom...the dancer Marietta..is exquisitely taken by Katarina Dalayman. Listen to this and you will be hooked on the work"
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Die tote Stadt
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the second son of the distinguished Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, himself the son of a well-to-do wine-merchant in Briinn (Brno) and a pupil of Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Julius Korngold had won the approval of Brahms and of Hanslick, assisting and then succeeding the latter as music critic for the Neue freie Presse. As a child Erich Korngold showed remarkable precocity and embarked on the study of composition at the age of six. His father was on good terms with Mahler and in 1906 the boy played by heart for him his new cantata Gold, while Mahler followed the score, exclaiming" A genius" , as the music continued. He advised Julius Korngold to avoid the Conservatory and allow his son to study with Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler's former teacher and brother-in-law of schoenberg, while Robert Fuchs was persuaded to give him lessons in counterpoint. The connection with Mahler continued and the Korngolds visited him in succeeding summers when he was at Toblach. In the summer of 1909 the boy played to Mahler a new Scherzo he had written and a Passacaglia on a theme of Zemlinsky. Mahler advised him to add a first movement to these pieces and make of them a sonata, the result of which was Korngold's Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor. By this time the boy's reputation had aroused wider interest from, among others, Engelbert Humperdinck and Richard Strauss, Nikisch and even Weingartner, whose appointment as successor to Mahler at the Hofoper had earned Julius Korngold's open hostility. In 1910 Julius Korngold allowed the private publication by Universal Edition of three of his son's compositions, Der Schneemann (The Snowman), Charakterstiicke zu Don Quixote (Character Pieces based on Don Quixote) and the Piano Sonata in D minor, for the exclusive use of musicians. The pantomime Der Schneemann was performed at the palace of the Baroness Nienerth at a charity gala in 1910, in the original version for two pianos. Six months later it was staged at the Court Opera orchestrated by Zemlinsky and conducted by Franz schalk, a performance sanctioned by Weingartner. In Munich, where with his father he had attended the first performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Korngold played his second piano sonata in the presence of Paul Dukas and Camille Saint-Saens, arousing their amazement and admiration. His Trio, Opus 1, written without the knowledge of his teacher, who had by some been wrongly credited with a large share in the composition of Der Schneemann, was performed at this time in Vienna by Arnold Rose, Mahler's brother-in-law, with Friedrich Buxbaum and Bruno Walter, and in 1911 his Schauspielouverture and Sinfonietta were played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and later by the Vienna Philharmonic. His one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta won immediate success in Munich in 1916, under the direction of Bruno Walter, and he later conducted them himself at the Vienna Court Opera. In 1920, the year of his operatic triumph with Die tote Stadt, staged in Hamburg and in Cologne, he made his debut in Vienna as an orchestra conductor, embarking on a career as conductor, pianist and composer that earned him official recognition in Vienna.
In 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood, where he continued an earlier association with Max Reinhardt, with whom he had collaborated on a Berlin staging of Die Fledermaus in 1928. In America he continued an earlier project, a film version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The annexation of Austria prevented his return home and he remained in Hollywood, composing film-scores for some fifteen films for Warner Brothers. For two of his film-scores, Anthony Adverse (1936) and Robin Hood (1938), he was awarded Oscars. In the 1940s he conducted the New York Opera Company in performances of operettas by Johann Strauss and Offenbach and in 1943 became a naturalized American. After the war he was able to give greater attention to compositions of another kind, with his Violin Concerto, introduced to the concert public by Heifetz, Cello Concerto and Symphony in F sharp major. He died in Hollywood in 1957.
There is no doubt that Korngold's association with Hollywood did little to further his reputation as a serious composer for the concert-hall or opera-house, in spite of the obvious quality of the music he wrote for Warner Brothers. His style, later romantic, in spite of the association of his name with that of Schoenberg in a popular poll in Vienna in 1926, where the two were described as the greatest composers then living there, again did little to endear him to critics eager for some fashionable novelty of musical idiom. He summed up his own career as first that of a prodigy, then an opera composer in Europe, followed by a period as a movie composer. At the time of writing, 1946, he determined to end his work as a Hollywood composer, although he had always striven to write for the cinema music that could stand alone, independent of the film for which it was composed.
It was the writer Siegfried Trebitsch, German translator of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, who suggested to Erich Korngold the novel Bruges la marte by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach as a possible subject for operatic treatment. Julius and Erich Korngold worked on the libretto themselves, Julius assuming the name of Paul Schott, suggesting a link with the music-publisher and avoiding, as a powerful and well known critic himself, the hostility that his participation might have aroused. The principal change in the operatic adaptation was to make the hero's murder of Marietta part of a dream, from which he wakens, to leave behind the grim dead city of his nightmare. Korngold began the work during his period of war-time military service as music director of an infantry band and the nostalgia and contemporary appeal of the opera lay partly in the circumstances in which it was written, as the war concluded in defeat and the dynasty on which Austria and its territories had depended came to an end. The composition was completed by August 1920, meeting the dead-line that Korngold had set himself, and first performed on 4th December that year in Hamburg and in Cologne. The composer was present at the former, where Maria Jeritza created the role of Marietta, with Aagard Oestvig as Paul and Richard Mayr as Fritz. The Hamburg performance was conducted by Egon Pollak, while that in Cologne was under the direction of Otto Klemperer, who had his own reservations about the work. Performances followed elsewhere, with Richard Tauber as Paul in Dresden and Maria Jeritza continuing her success in the work at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It remains the most successful of Korngold's works for the theatre, remarkable, too, in that the composer was barely twenty when he began the task of composition.
Technically the music makes use of key associations, allowing Marietta a key of five sharps and her dead counterpart, Marie, a key of five flats. There are motifs associated with Bruges, with love and with death, and a musical language that remains essentially tonal, avoiding the modernist elements that Julius Korngold so deplored. The interval of a fourth and its inversion have importance in their association with the dead city itself, while the descending chromatic scale of the death motif was to prove useful to Korngold in his later work for the cinema. Marietta's Lute Song won wide contemporary popularity, as did the pivotal Pierrot's Song at the heart of the work.
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KORNGOLD: Tote Stadt (Die)