Erich Wolfgang Korngold Overview
by Hal Jackson
Recently we've been printing a lot of letters in Film Score Daily,
and reactions to movies recently released. Well, here's something completely
different: a short overview of one of the first and greatest composers
for the movies, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957):
Despite his enormous influence, many film music fans and newcomers to
the genre seem unfamiliar with the scores of Erich Korngold. His influence
on film music has been staggering, and what follows is a brief synopsis
of his life, career, and impact on film music.
The son of feared music critic Julius Korngold, Erich was a child prodigy.
At the age of ten, his composed the pantomime "Der Schneemann,"
which was orchestrated by his teacher Zemlinksy. (Zemlinksy orchestrated
the work). His father had an enormous influence on his compositional style,
oppressing the more modern trends in music. His renown as an opera composer
reached its zenith in the 1920s. His most famous opera is perhaps "Die
Tote Stadt" (The Dead City).
Brought to Hollywood in 1934, Korngold did musical arrangements for
the film "A Midsummer Nights Dream." Up through 1938, he travelled
between Hollywood and his home in Austria, working on such films as CAPTAIN
BLOOD, ANTHONY ADVERSE, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. During the assignment
for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), the Nazis took over his house
and confiscated his property. His son George (who was to become a well-known
record producer) was with him and his wife in Hollywood at the time. His
other son Ernst managed to escape Austria at the last possible moment.
While his house had Nazi troops staying there, an agent from Erich's music
publisher snuck into his home and smuggled out his important manuscript
scores and sent them to Erich in hollywood.
During the war years, Erich Korngold almost exclusive composed film
music for Warner Bros. His own neo-romantic idiom, an innovation in the
early 1900s, seemed dated after the close of the war. His own symphony
in F-sharp, dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was his supreme statement
in the tonality of music. He never embraced the modern trends being heard
by the postwar composers. The quality of the films he was offered was declining,
and he ultimately retired from films, only to return in the early 1950's
as a technical advisor for a Wagner biography. His own attempts to revive
interest in his music seemed to fail. His violin concerto was attacked
by some critics as a "pure Hollywood concerto"; some performances
of his operas were under-rehearsed, and the planned premiere of his symphony
fell through due to the death of the conductor who was to perform it. In
the end, it has been said he died of a broken heart as much as the stroke
and the cerebral hemmorage that killed him.
Most of Korngold's film scores from 1935-1940 were the "swashbuckling"
pictures. Film such as CAPTAIN BLOOD, ROBIN HOOD, and especially THE SEA
HAWK, contain some of the most memorable music written for film. Erich
composed all of his scores sitting at a piano at Warner Bros., and did
not use any of the technical devices such as click tracks and other visual
aids. His own approach to the films was largely operatic. A good example
of this is in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. Criticized for not using authentic source
music of 1600s England, Korngold replied, "The characters speak the
English spoken today. Why should the composer use 'thee' and 'thine' if
the dialogue doesn't?" His approach to scoring these films was largely
theatrical. Most of his later films were drama pictures such as KING'S
ROW, DEVOTION, and DECEPTION. Music from these pictures has been released
on compact disc.
The typical Korngold score features a wealth of melodic material, sumptuously
orchestrated. Contrary to popular opinion, Hugo Friedhofer was not the
only orchestrator used by Korngold. Milan Roder, Ray Heindorf, and Simon
Bucharoff were other orchestrators used by Korngold. Most of Korngold's
film scores reside at the USC Warner archive, and can be studied there.
According to Stewart Ng, who works at the archive, many of the original
orchestral parts still exist there, as well other items such as piano/conductor
scores (condensed versions of the full score).
Korngold's influence is particularly evident in the scores of John Williams.
While their styles do differ, such films as STAR WARS and SUPERMAN bear
the Korngold insignia of large themes and thick orchestrations.