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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.

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