About this Recording
8.223384 - KORNGOLD: Piano Works

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in E Major, Op. 2 • Marchenbilder (Fairy-Story Pictures), Op. 3 • Aus der Musik zu Viel Lärmen um Nichts, Op. 11 (From incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing) • Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor


Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the second son of the distinguished Viennese music critic Julius Korngold. As a child he showed remarkable precocity, and embarked on the study of composition at the age of six. His father was on good terms with Mahler and in 1906 the boy played by heart for him his new cantata, Gold, while Mahler followed the score, exclaiming“a genius”, as the music continued. He advised Julius Korngold to avoid the Conservatory and allow his son to study with Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler’s former teacher and brother-in-law of Schoenberg, while Robert Fuchs was persuaded to give him lessons in counterpoint. The connection with Mahler continued and the Korngolds visited him in succeeding summers when he was at Toblach. In the summer of 1909 the boy played to Mahler a new Scherzo he had written and a Passacaglia on a theme of Zemlinsky. Mahler advised him to add a first movement to these pieces and make of them a sonata, the result of which was Korngold’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor. By this time the boy’s reputation had aroused wider interest from, among others, Engelbert Humperdinck and Richard Strauss, Nikisch and even Weingartner. In 1910 Julius Korngold allowed the private publication by Universal Edition of three of his son’s compositions, Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), Charakterstücke zu Don Quixote (“Character Pieces based on Don Quixote”) and the Piano Sonata in D minor, for the exclusive use of musicians. The pantomime Der Schneemann was performed at the palace of the Baroness Nienerth at a charity gala in 1910, in the original version for two pianos. Six months later it was staged at the Court Opera orchestrated by Zemlinsky and conducted by Franz Schalk, a performance sanctioned by Weingartner, who had replaced Mahler at the Court Opera and whose relationship with Julius Korngold was one of considerable hostility. In Munich, where, with his father, he had attended the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Korngold played his Second Piano Sonata in the presence of Paul Dukas and Camille Saint-Saëns, arousing their amazement and admiration. His Trio, Opus 1, written without the knowledge of his teacher, who had by some been wrongly credited with a large share in the composition of Der Schneemann, was performed at this time in Vienna by Arnold Rosé, Mahler’s brother-in-law, with Friedrich Buxbaum and Bruno Walter and in 1911 his Schauspiel-ouverture and Sinfonietta were played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and later by the Vienna Philharmonic. His one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta won immediate success in Munich in 1916, under the direction of Bruno Walter, and he later conducted them himself at the Vienna Court Opera. In 1920, the year of his operatic triumph with Die tote Stadt, staged in Hamburg and in Cologne, he made his debut in Vienna as an orchestral conductor, embarking on a career as conductor, pianist and composer that earned him official recognition in Vienna.

In 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood, where he continued an earlier association with Max Reinhardt, with whom he had collaborated on a Berlin staging of Die Fledermaus in 1928. In America he continued an earlier project, a film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The annexation of Austria prevented his return home and he remained in Hollywood, composing film-scores for some fifteen films for Warner Brothers. For two of his film-scores, Anthony Adverse (1936) and Robin Hood (1938), he was awarded Oscars. In the 1940s he conducted the New York Opera Company in performances of operettas by Johann Strauss and Offenbach and in 1943 became a naturalised American. After the war he was able to give greater attention to compositions of another kind, with a violin concerto, introduced to the concert public by Heifetz, a cello concerto and his Symphony in F-sharp major. He died in Hollywood in 1957.

There is no doubt that Korngold’s association with Hollywood did little to further his reputation as a serious composer for the concert-hall or opera-house, in spite of the obvious quality of the music he wrote for Warner Brothers. His style, late romantic, in spite of the association of his name with that of Schoenberg in a popular poll in Vienna in 1926, where the two were described as the greatest composers then living there, again did little to endear him to critics eager for some fashionable novelty of musical idiom. He summed up his own career as first that of a prodigy, then an opera composer in Europe, followed by a period as a movie composer. At the time of writing, 1946, he determined to end his work as a Hollywood composer, although he had always striven to write music for the cinema that could stand alone, independent of the film for which it was composed.
The Piano Sonata in E major, Opus 2, had so impressed Saint-Saëns that he had left his seat at the back of the room to stand over Korngold while he played and when the performance was over had held the boy’s hands, deeply moved by what he had heard. The harmonic and melodic idiom of the four movements is by no means derivative and the sonata is a work of assured maturity, allowing a listener to ignore the fact that its composer was only thirteen. The seven piano pieces that make up the Märchenbilder, Opus 3, were written in the same year, 1910, fairy-tale pictures, a form that had appealed to Schumann, translating into musical terms well known figures from the world of the Brothers Grimm. Three piano pieces are drawn from incidental music for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, written in 1919. The first sets the scene where Hero prepares for her wedding, the second, in the manner of a grotesque funeral march, marks the appearance of the Watch, led by the constable Dogberry and Verges, and the third provides music for the dance with which the play ends.

The first of Korngold’s piano sonatas, completed in 1909 following Mahler’s advice and published privately in 1910, is in three movements, the first complementing the original Scherzo, with its gently contrasted Trio, and the final passacaglia, using the traditional form of variation with some originality. It must remain a matter of wonder that such a work could be written and played by a twelve-year-old.

Keith Anderson

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