Korngold - Viennese Master or Hollywood Icon

 Korngold - Viennese Master or Hollywood Icon

ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD (1897 - 1957) – It was a real tossup whether to list Korngold here [under Germany/Austria] or in the United States. Korngold was born in Vienna, was quite a child prodigy, and built a major career in Austria and Germany up to the rise of the Nazi party. He brought his family to America and settled in Los Angeles [actually Pacific Palisades] where he built an equally impressive reputation as a top-flight film composer. So great were his film-scores that he now holds an esteemed position along with Prokofiev at the zenith of the genre. However, Korngold, having experienced the accolades of the Austrian musical intelligencia in the pinnacle of the times, sought, but did not receive, similar approval from American serious musicians. This seemed to be an irritant with him that he could not quite resolve. To that end, he composed his only symphony, the Symphony in F-sharp minor (1947-‘52), that he hoped would bring their approval. The symphony received its premiere over Austrian Radio in October 1954 but was poorly rehearsed and performed. Response to it was also tepid. In 1959 Conductor Dimitri Metropolis embraced the work, saying he had been searching for “the perfect modern work” which he felt Korngold’s symphony epitomized, and scheduled performances for the 1960-‘61 season, [N.B. the date of Korngold’s death] but Metropolis himself died before the proposed performances. Twelve years later Rudolf Kempe finally gave the concert premiere of the symphony in Munich where it was warmly received. There have been several notable recordings, one being with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra. This was the recording that introduced the work to me, and I have a special warm spot for that recording.

The Symphony in F-sharp minor is remarkable right out the gate for the key it is written in. There just simply aren’t many symphonies in that key: the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony, and the Dora Pejačević F-sharp minor are prime examples. [See Dora Pejačević for a discussion on the subject.] So, we have a home key and related keys that pose special challenges to the transposing woodwind and brass players in particular, and string players in general. That’s like 90% of the orchestra! Why did Korngold choose that key? We can only speculate. I would guess it was because the nature of themes has a particular quality in those keys that Korngold sought out for this score. I don’t think it was because he was aiming to have his symphony identified with a rare and difficult key signature and thus more easily remembered.

The symphony is in four movements with the Scherzo movement second and the Adagio movement third. It is dedicated to the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom the composer much admired. Generally, Korngold avoids any obvious heart-on-your-sleeves Hollywood-isms, choosing instead a slightly acerbic harmonic language in keeping with the taste of the times. The large musical structures required of symphonic music give Korngold a challenge, and one senses from time to time his having to stretch muscles unused for a very long time. This is especially evident in the first movement but not a factor by the time we reach the splendid slow third movement.

It seems, this score is particularly pliant to varied interpretive approaches, falling prey especially to hard-driving conductors who push tempos and emphasize the cutting punctuations of rhythmic figures, particularly in the first movement. On YouTube, search out the André Previn/London Symphony Orchestra interpretation which is sensuous, mellow and nuanced, allowing for the special savoring of particularly unctuous soaring themes in the violins. There are a number of recordings of the F-sharp Symphony on YouTube to listen to if the work has personal appeal. [Since writing this, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hans Welser-Möst conducting, recording has been uploaded to YouTube. The fabled sound of the PO, miraculously reconstituted here, brings out a particularly poignant aspect of the score, redolent of great times caught at their zenith, and perhaps just a little past as they begin to slip ever so slightly. The slow third movement especially benefits from the limpid sensuousness of the PO sound.] And, while you are at it, I also recommend a listen to the Korngold Violin Concerto (1945) with Gil Shaham, Previn and the LSO. The principle theme of the concerto is taken from a famous Hollywood film, imparting to the concerto a particularly laden cultural and historical patina that is just scrumptious. Some would say it is pure kitsch, but I find Korngold sidesteps the issue and delivers what all the handful of great violin concertos deliver: the “Big Theme,” that unforgettable melody that sings in your mind long after.

To hear the Symphony in F-sharp minor go to

            YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1h-k8YezmQA – BBC Philharmonic, Edward Downes conductor

To hear the Violin Concerto go to

            YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC4dwtTRzrY – London Symphony Orchestra; Gil Shaham violin, Andre Previn conductor


Korngold, at the tender age of fifteen composed the Sinfonietta (1912) for large orchestra. It is a wonderful romp through the absurdly over-ripe Viennese high romantic style of just before World War I, when the thick schlagsahne of Der Rosenkavalier was everywhere in that great capitol city. It is a truly remarkable achievement for even the most gifted of child prodigies, of which Korngold is assuredly a prime example. If your taste runs to the general period, you will find much to savor in this score. Should you have an aversion to things over-sweet, I can but say this adolescent’s tastes were discriminating and he, too, steers clear of the layered frostings of his elders – just enough to be fun without setting the pallet on edge. It is in four movements:

1. Fließend, mit heiterem Schwunge (Flowing, with cheerful motion)

2. Scherzo: Molto agitato, rasch und feurig (Quickly and fiery)

3. Molto andante (Träumerisch) (Dreamy)

4. Finale: Patetico - Allegro Giocoso

Evident from the first chord is the facility with which the far-ranging harmonic idiom unfolds accompanied with an equally precocious mastery of orchestration in all its complex coloristic detail. More subtle is the youth’s firm grasp of musical structure and an intuitive understanding of ways to bend it for expressive purposes. Moving swiftly over the first movement, very much characterized above, and the second Scherzo movement, whose middle section, skillfully sets up the psychological impact of the next movement, we arrive at the third slow movement which has all the earmarks of being the heart of the symphony. The subtitle of the movement, “Dreamy,” says it all: the movement is ethereal, magical, enchanting in its unfolding. The tenderness of the expression belies the tender age of the composer, as we are swept up into the unfolding of a theme that wends its way deeper and deeper into the heart. I can’t help but marvel at the wide range of expression inherent in that melody. And then we come to the last movement. Feeling we have already heard the best of this young mind, we hope to be rushed through to a short-and-sweet finish. Instead, we are given a complex series of revelations, each rising in brilliance beyond its predecessor, until we are given at the end a breathtaking transformation where the real heart of the symphony is. I’ve listened to this movement by itself many times; and, I must say, it is a marvel how the themes evolve through the movement, building successive peaks to the very end. There is nothing quite like it in the repertory. Much as I admire the Symphony in F-sharp minor, it’s the Sinfonietta I keep returning to for that amazing Finale, but also for the seductive sounds of that storied era which was, even then, slipping through everyone’s fingers.

The premiere of the Sinfonietta was given in November 1913 with Felix Weingartner conducting. Korngold dedicated the score to him in gratitude. The music was a great success and led to many performances throughout Europe and even made its way to America.

To hear a recording of the Sinfonietta go to

            YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cUikaZsx1w – Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor ?


Film composers don’t usually make good concert music composers, whereas the reverse seems to produce better results. Music for film is a truly collaborative art. The musical element must be subservient and supportive to the drama unfolding on-screen. The rule-of-thumb is: if you are aware of the background music, then the composer has failed at her/his job. That old dictum doesn’t work with me because, for good or ill, my first focus is ALWAYS music. Film composers create bits and snatches of material to establish mood and place, suggesting to the intuitive movie-goer how they are to feel at any particular moment toward the dramatic situation and toward the particular characters caught up in the drama. In the hands of a truly gifted artist, the results can be of the highest art; and those that miss the mark don’t really count. Korngold, with a solid background in composing concert music and (especially) opera, brought this experience to stellar focus in his film music. His example set the standards for a generation of film composers following him – composers such as James Horner [Titanic, Avatar], Lee Holdridge [The Beastmaster] and John Williams [Star Wars]. These composers have experienced increased success in the concert hall where the music’s ties to the visual element is precisely the reason why it is attractive to our more visually-oriented contemporary audiences. Orchestras around the world are increasingly programming subscription concerts of film music with accompanying projections on the basis of its popularity with new, younger audiences. The San Francisco Symphony has been doing this now for a number of seasons with considerable success. Film, and its sister Computer Games, has become a major career-choice for up-and-coming young composers and will lead, I am sure, to startling developments in the concert-hall experience. We have Korngold to thank for this.


Excerpted from On the Symphony in the 20th Century by Jerré Tanner - a book surveying over 250 symphony composers and their works composed in the 20th century, many of them forgotten and no longer performed, that are worthy of the discerning listener's attention.