Friday, January 16, 2009

Die tote Stadt countdown: the true, the false and the barking

Fabulous piece in today's Guardian from Tim Ashley, interviewing maestro Ingo Metzmacher about Korngold's Die tote Stadt, now fast approaching Covent Garden.
Music, by its very nature, is about the persistence of memory. "People remember," Ingo Metzmacher remarks. "We hear something, remember it and recognise it again. It's the memories in this piece that hold it together." Metzmacher, chief conductor of Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie Orchester and a radical interpreter of the 20th-century avant garde, is talking about Erich Wolfgang Korngold's opera Die Tote Stadt: he conducts its first - long overdue - UK staging at Covent Garden later this month. It was once very popular, taking the German-speaking world by storm at its simultaneous premieres in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. Korngold, the wunderkind son of a prominent Viennese music critic, was 23 at the time, and had produced something that touched a raw nerve with a generation struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe of the first world war. The opera is ultimately about how the past irrevocably colours our present and our future - and also has the potential to destroy us, both individually and socially, if we fail to release ourselves from its influence.


Next, mad props to our own Gavin Plumley, prime Korngoldista and super theatrical agent, who has devoted his blog Mr Norris Changes Trains to Korngold and Die tote Stadt this month. There is some seriously fantastic stuff on it, so get over there and read it now! Check out his Korngold page on Facebook, too...

Meanwhile, Norman Lebrecht produced an interesting effort in the Standard the other day - the paper is still more or less unaffected by becoming the latest plaything of an ex-KGB Russian billionaire... but there are a few howlers. "...a promising talent who had been touted as the next Mozart ever since Gustav Mahler gave him a ballet commission when he was a kid of nine." But Mahler didn't commission anything from baby Korngold, merely called him a genius and advised that he should study with Zemlinsky. And to suggest, as he does later, that DTS is about current affairs is a bit far-fetched, since most of the action takes place during an extended dream sequence. The parallel between Rodenbach's stagnant Bruges and post-WW1 Vienna is entirely subliminal - which is probably why it works.

As for Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph... though I admire Ivan most of the time, much of this article reads like the same old received opinion that has plagued Korngold since the 1940s, namely that there was something wrong with him for not being Schoenberg. "Don't expect apples from an apricot tree," was Korngold's own rebuttal of that charge. We've heard it all before, and will no doubt hear it many more times before February is out. As it happens, the two composers later became great buddies in Hollywood.

Korngold is not the first composer to be judged by what he wasn't, rather than what he was. Among others is Schubert, who has never been forgiven for not being Beethoven; Liszt, who some people seem to think should have been Chopin; and our darling Mendelssohn, who was in many ways a better composer than Schumann but committed the double-whammy error of being born Jewish and subsequently becoming a genuine, not just expedient, convert to Christianity, thereby rubbing everyone up the wrong way. Such judgments damage reputations, and quite unnecessarily: they blind the critic to whatever positive qualities an artist may be offering on his own terms, qualities which may need the critic to have enough imagination to accept a different perspective. Why should Schubert be Beethoven, when Beethoven could never have written Winterreise?

Incidentally, Ivan is also rather misguided when he suggests that Korngold couldn't be bothered to go to hear other people's music; he was, for example, mad about Stravinsky. His father was horrified when the wunderkind dared to enjoy a performance of Petrushka. Julius Korngold, perhaps the worst psychologist in the history of music criticism (which is really saying something!), was entirely responsible for holding his son EWK back from the dangerous new developments around him. Indeed, he wasn't even allowed to cross the road alone until well into his teens. And if he didn't go to as many concerts as his critic father, that was probably because he was busy composing or performing.

To suggest that he 'preferred to immerse himself in a fantasy' in Hollywood is also a false direction. Korngold wasn't a fantasist: he was one of the finest musical craftsmen of his day, which is why he did so well in the film world, and this ability to interact with another art form to such a degree is a sure indication that he must have had his feet relatively well on the ground. Frankly, if he didn't work as much as he should or could have, that was most likely because he was utterly depressed. And no wonder.