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

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.