Showing posts with label Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Show all posts

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Korngoldarama at Bard Summerscape

My report from my trip to the Korngold and his World festival at Bard Summerscape is now up at The Arts Desk, so here is a taster and a few more photos.




There could be no greater gift to any festival director than Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Where the exploration of his life, times and contemporaries are concerned, this composer is a veritable Spaghetti Junction for different strands of genre, development and fates. 


One of the most remarkable child prodigy composers in history, Korngold was the son of the music critic Julius Korngold. He studied with Zemlinsky (on Mahler’s advice) and enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame; his opera Die tote Stadt, premiered when he was 20, was a smash hit in the 1920s. Desperation to escape his father’s monstrous control-freakery also led him to work for some years in operetta. 

The stage is set for our symposium
With the Nazis’ rise to power he was fortunate, being Jewish, to move to Hollywood; he later credited Warner Brothers with saving his life and those of his family. He wrote relatively few film scores, but won two Oscars and was largely responsible for creating the sound that was long considered typical “film music” - the truth, of course, is not that Korngold sounds like film music, but that film music sounds like Korngold. In 1950, though, he attempted a comeback in Vienna, only to find that not only was his presence an unwelcome reminder of a shameful past era, but that his style was considered an anachronism. 

JD with Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music,
creator of Decca's Entartete Musik series and
fellow panellist at the festival

He died aged only 60 in Hollywood, believing himself forgotten. In the past few decades, changing times and evolving attitudes have allowed his distinctive voice with its emotional and melodic largesse to be fully appreciated on its own terms - often for the first time.

The Fisher Center at Bard, designed by Frank Gehry
Mix together the child prodigy years, the melting pot of influences; the splices of the serious and the ‘light’; the fading 19thcentury and horrifying development of the 20th; and the worlds of Mahler’s Vienna, 1940s Hollywood and shattered post-war Europe. There’s enough material to keep any festival going for probably a year...


A treasured souvenir - thank you to Michael Sirotta!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...


Guys, guys...wait...what.....



So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".


This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<. 



Monday, July 10, 2017

Golden sounds from a painful world



This is a big Erich Wolfgang Korngold year, marking both the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 60th of his death. Not that you'd know it from anyone's programming around here. But Michael Haas, director of research at the Jewish Music Institute's International Centre of Suppressed Music at Royal Holloway College, has just written a valuable article about Das Wunder der Heliane, the composer's fourth, largest and most controversial opera. (Read it here.)

Premiered in 1927, Heliane is a strange, mystical, dystopian tale of redemption through love. Our hero is a nameless Stranger who has been jailed for attempting to bring love to a loveless realm. Our heroine is Queen Heliane, the sole named character, wife of the cruel and apparently impotent Ruler. Heliane and the Stranger fall in love...

Ten years ago the opera received its only UK performance to date, in concert. It didn't go well. The Royal Festival Hall platform was too small to accommodate both the vast orchestra and all the vocal soloists, so the singers were placed in the choir above and behind the orchestra, but the less-than-ideal demands this created seemed challenging for all concerned. It was a pity, to say the least, because I was at the rehearsals and it sounded a great deal better. Those at the performance weren't to know that, though. The opera celebrates the sanctity of sexual consummation between people who really love one another, something you'd think would scarcely raise hackles. Yet one critic condemned the work for being blasphemous (yes, really) and dismissed it as "Entartete Musik": a nefarious Nazi-coined term that Korngold himself would have known all too well.



It's slightly sad to observe that the British, in tribal musical-taste terms, appear to have problems with Korngold that don't apply quite as universally elsewhere. In other countries his third opera, Die tote Stadt has become standard repertoire. In the UK, it has once more vanished into obscurity after one short run at Covent Garden. As for Heliane, it basically doesn't stand a chance in Brexit Island. Yet with wonderful irony, Haas points out some strong similarities between the scenarios of this opera and a recent UK smash hit: George Benjamin's Written on Skin.

I became interested in Korngold so long ago that I didn't know you weren't meant to like him. Back then, indeed, hardly anyone in this country had heard of him. One of my teachers - American - played me part of Die tote Stadt when I was about 19. I was hooked at once. A year later, deciding on a dissertation topic at Cambridge, I came across the LP of the Erich Leinsdorf recording on a table in Dr Derrick Puffett's rooms and mentioned my enthusiasm to him. Dr Puffett - who was one of the most acute and positively terrifying musical intellectuals in the faculty - encouraged me to go ahead with a study of the piece and offered to be my supervisor for it.

Some years later I had the chance to write a short biography of a 20th-century composer and suggested Korngold because I was fascinated by his life story. A child prodigy in Mahler's Vienna. His appalling relationship with his father - what composer could be unlucky enough to be the son of a powerful critic? The rise of the Nazis; the controversies his father caused; the split in musical style of the times. The escape to Hollywood; Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis; and the attempted, but hopeless, return to Vienna. What a life. What an emblem of the 20th century.

One didn't imagine things could get worse still for Korngold's reputation after all that. But I can't begin to tell you about the quantity of flak I've taken over the years simply for liking this composer's generous-spirited and lavishly beautiful music and finding his story worth telling.

Not all music is for everyone. Composers' voices speak to us, or don't. There are some unfortunate souls who don't like Brahms. There are a few very popular composers to whose music I'm fairly allergic; some whose language I have grown into and come to love with the years (notably Bartók and Boulez); others, like Monteverdi, who stand out like Mount Ararat amid flatlands of other stuff that possibly is considered more interesting than it really is. It isn't a matter of life or death if you don't happen to get along with a particular compositional personality.

But I do think you need to pause for thought, now and then, and look at where our cultural conditioning comes from and, to some degree, how our tastes might be formed.

Another example: I'm still struck by the ease with which some dismiss Mendelssohn as glib, shallow and too happy. His apparent ease of style came from obsessive hard work and continual revision; as for too happy, he worked himself first into the ground and then into a premature grave. Those criticisms were actually deliberate anti-Semitic slurs promulgated against him as the Nazis attempted to poison public opinion over the most popular violin concerto in Germany, prior to banning it. Yet their "arguments" can still sometimes be heard in concert hall foyers, repeated almost as if by rote. Evidence of Mendelssohn's working patterns, his life and intellectual breadth of knowledge, his emotional state, and so forth, all go against such a judgement. But few stop to consider what they're saying and why.

Korngold had the luck to find himself exiled in Hollywood, rather than being murdered in a concentration camp after Hitler's Anschluss, which would almost certainly have befallen him had he been in Vienna on 12 March 1938. Nevertheless, his world was destroyed, his colleagues killed or ruined and his career in Europe torn to shreds; and his family and friends who survived did so by the skin of their teeth. Because he did survive, because he was therefore one of the "lucky" ones, his story is generally portrayed as one of good fortune. But having your life, livelihood and reputation shattered by racism, dictatorship and war is, if you think about it enough, not very "lucky" at all. Korngold died too young - 60 - and it's clear that his death was hastened by the stress resulting from his historical fate.

The hideous situation faced by those in such a position - any refugees and oppressed peoples, born in the wrong place at the wrong time - is still brushed aside by the millions of more fortunate majority-population individuals who have no clue what others have been through, yet who are themselves no different except by virtue of luck.

It appears that even today we can't cope with the fact that Korngold landed up in Hollywood, even though that was the only way he and his family could survive the destruction of their own world and make ends meet in a new one. The ugly fashion of today's ugly world is to bash refugees. It's still happening to Korngold.

Fortunately, though, there are people who love his music. Many are actual musicians. Many of them are violinists who fall in love with the concerto and related pieces. Here's Nicky Benedetti and friends:



Heliane is being performed several times in Europe this year and next. The Volksoper in Vienna has already done it, about six months ago, and now those eager to see it can go to:

Freiburg, concert performance on 22 July
Flanders Opera, Antwerp and Ghent, 15 September - 10 October;
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, March 2018 (starring Sara Jakubiak and Brian Jagde)

Maybe see you there.


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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What killed Erich Wolfgang Korngold?

The manuscript of 'Gold', Korngold's cantata written in childhood and shown to Mahler
Michael Haas, author of the book Forbidden Music - about the generation of Jewish composers murdered, obliterated or exiled by the Nazis - was curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna of a fabulous exhibition about Julius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold several years ago. He has now posted on forbiddenmusic.org a very substantial essay entitled The False Myths and True Genius of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, lavishly illustrated with both visual and aural material.

It is wonderfully written and the story emerges powerfully with all its complex, baffling and ultimately tragic elements in sharp relief. Did Korngold die too young because of the stress caused by his own sense of "irrelevance"?

Do give it a read. And a listen.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Anniversary joy: Korngold plays Korngold



It's Korngold's birthday (118) and how better to celebrate than listening to him play his own music? This is the 'Pierrot Tanzlied' from his most popular opera, Die tote Stadt, recorded in 1951 during the composer's optimistic yet short-lived attempt to return to Vienna after more than a decade of exile in Hollywood. He makes the piano sound like a couple of full orchestras. Enjoy.