Viennese founder of ‘Hollywood Sound’ paid homage 50 years after his death
December 27, 2007
VIENNA, Austria (AP) ” Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart ” Korngold?
Countless millions have at least heard of the classical masters associated with Vienna. Not only the titanic trio of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms viewed the city at some point as their musical home.
So did Anton Bruckner, Joseph Haydn, Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert.
But a half century after his death, mention of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, another great musical son of Vienna, often draws blank stares here and elsewhere ” despite his legacy as the founder of the “Hollywood Sound.”
But in a small way, this year has been Korngold’s moment in a Vienna that is still recovering from the marathon musical and marketing excesses of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006.
The city’s Jewish Museum is devoting a major exhibition to the man whose classical career fell victim to a triple whammy ” a domineering music critic father, the advent of atonal music, and finally, the rise of Hitler that perpetuated his self-exile to the U.S.
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A sampling of his famed film scores was performed for the first time last month in one of the Austrian capital’s prestigious concert halls. And a film retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna’s musical “Wunderkind” of the early 20th century who, neglected at home, morphed into the creator of the Hollywood soundtracks that continue to set the standard.
It’s a tribute that may be 50 years late: Only a handful of his classical works remain popular.
But Korngold has established a huge musical niche ” and won two Oscars ” through nine works for film. They include genre-creating swashbucklers for Warner Brothers like “Captain Blood” (1935) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), in the lush operatic style that initially made his name.
Korngold himself saw no difference between his classical and screen writing, declaring: “Even if I wanted to, I could not write music below my own standards.” He called his screen music “operas without singing,” and experts consider his film compositions on par with much the world of “serious music” has to offer.
“Like Mozart, he wrote,” says composer and arranger John Mauceri. “It didn’t matter whether he wrote a concert, an opera, or light entertainment, he wrote the highest quality music.”
His symphonic creations for the screen ” and those of successors following in his footsteps ” have been enjoyed by millions more attuned to melodies from “Lord of the Rings’ than Ludwig van’s “Fifth.” And some of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters freely acknowledge the debt their industry owes the man who, while lionized by the movie moguls, suffered from the perception that his music was not taken seriously in Vienna.
“Anyone who works with music and film feels part of this historical line ” the golden years of what became known as the ‘Hollywood Sound,”‘ said Howard Shore, whose credits include scoring Tolkien’s “Ring.” Even now, “the compositional ideas” of writing music for film derive from Korngold and his contemporaries, the Oscar and Grammy winner told The Associated Press.
Mauceri, founder of Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, calls Korngold’s musical legacy “so important they tend to dominate our conversation” about the history of music in cinema.
“Millions of people … heard his music through the medium of film,” said Mauceri, who conducted the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna in a Nov. 29 death-day retrospective of Korngold works and contemporary film music at the city’s art deco Konzerthaus.
“When you hear ‘Harry Potter,’ and ‘Star Wars’ ” that’s something Vienna can be proud of,” he said.
And yet Korngold viewed his legacy as a tragic mistake ” the result of a promising “classical” career gone awry.
Recognized by age 10 as a musical prodigy, Korngold logged his share of early operatic and symphonic successes.
As one of the last proponents of sweeping German romanticism, he was at one point the most performed German-speaking composer of his era. By the time he was in his 30s, his works were played by some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and his most popular opera, “Die Tote Stadt,” was staged by dozens of major houses, including the Met in New York.
But with the rise of Arnold Schoenberg and other masters of atonality, detractors increasingly found his lush and sweeping melodies out of date.
Adding to his woes were the victims of his father, Julius, one of Europe’s most influential music critics of the day. Soloists and conductors savaged by Julius took their revenge on Erich, refusing to perform his works.
Sensitive and withdrawn, the younger Korngold retreated into the world of operetta, focusing on arrangements and adaptations that would soon be reflected in his Hollywood era. His first trip to Hollywood was in 1934, to work with Max Reinhardt on the film classic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Hitler annexed Austria four years later while Korngold was visiting the U.S. As a Jew, Korngold was unable to return home. But the composer steeped in Old World traditions never stopped yearning for his musical and emotional roots ” and for the city and continent that rejected him well past the Hitler era.
Still, Mauceri feels Vienna has made amends.
“There is a willingness (there) to accept that he is part of Vienna’s culture,” he said. “What is significant is that 50 years after his death, Vienna is ready to reconsider his assessment of him.”