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Inside the Music

Korngold and Old Hollywood

A photo of Korngold’s ID from Warner Bros., with his headshot on the left side of the card.
Erich W. Korngold's identification card from Warner Bros. Courtesy of Michael Haas of Forbidden Music.

On May 9-10, violinist Benjamin Beilman returns to the Minnesota Orchestra to perform Erich Korngold’s cinematically sweeping Violin Concerto with first-time guest conductor Elim Chan. The Violin Concerto, which draws on themes from four different films, has been a popular work with musicians and audiences since a resurgence in interest in Korngold’s music that started in the mid-20th century. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Erich Wolfgang Korngold, then there’s at least a small chance that you’ve heard at least one (of 23) film scores he composed for swashbuckling pictures like Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and 1938’s iconic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Though Korngold had a prodigious musical childhood growing up in Vienna writing music meant exclusively for the concert hall, it was his career in Hollywood—and his skillful knack for setting the scene through the luscious soundscapes of late Romanticism—that helped cement Korngold’s legacy as a pioneer in film music as we hear it today. But in the 1940s, after two Academy Awards and a host of nominations, he abandoned film work and returned to writing music meant exclusively for the concert hall. 

Why would an artist at the height of their powers turn that success away?

One of the chief factors is World War II. Before the war broke out, Korngold was still working on projects in Vienna, like his opera, Die Katherin, while also taking on contracts for films like Give Us This Night and Captain Blood (the film that would launch Errol Flynn’s career). Then, in 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria and Korngold’s home was no longer safe for Jewish musicians like himself. Suddenly, Hollywood offered the composer and his family a safe haven. 

The Vienna of Korngold’s youth was obliterated under Hitler’s boot. The destruction of the ecosystem that so deeply celebrated him as a standard-bearer in the vein of Mozart hit Korngold particularly hard, and he abandoned the forms that music took in his youth and dedicated his energy to scoring the silver screen.

It was as if he had taken a vow not to compose a single note outside the genre of film music for as long as the horror was raging throughout the world.

Luzi Sonnenthal Korngold, Erich W. Korngold’s wife

But after ten years of this steady work, the glitz and glamour of writing for the pictures began to fade. The hours were long and arduous, and, with the studio’s focus on profit over creative freedom, began to bankrupt Korngold of his expressive powers. Just as he had been trapped by the specter of war at the beginning of his Hollywood career, Korngold became trapped by the studios, now beholden to the steady—though not particularly generous—promise of an income to support him and his family.

With the end of the war came an opportunity to visit Vienna once again, but the scars ran too deep. Korngold's outdated musical aesthetic was criticized for lacking the harsh edge of expression some felt was necessary to make sense of the horrors of that war—present in Schoenberg’s atonal innovationsand prevented his reintegration into a barely recognizable homeland.

The Violin Concerto was one of the first works Korngold wrote after giving up film scoring. Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere in 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony followed quickly by performances in New York and Chicago. By all accounts, it was a flop. The concerto’s saccharine and sentimental mood, reminiscent of a world that had literally been blown to bits, was deemed “corny” and not relevant to prevailing musical attitudes of the time. In a New York review, critic Raymond Kendall was particularly harsh:  

Yet here we have music almost totally lacking in any real inventiveness or development.

Critic Raymond Kendall on Korngold's Violin Concerto

Despite these criticisms, the concerto is a popular staple in concert halls around the world today. It contains themes from the scores to Juarez, Anthony Adverse, Another Dawn and The Prince and the Pauper. Through the transformation of these themes, Korngold weaves together a unique musical journeyBeyond the vivid images of sweeping adventures it elicits, what is the relevance of Korngold’s one-of-a-kind Violin Concerto in our modern world? That, of course, is open to your own interpretation of this evocative score, bursting with the sounds of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  

See Benjamin Beilman conjure the sounds of Old Hollywood in the Korngold Violin Concerto in concerts May 9-10! 

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