The Golden Age of Movie Music – Erich Wolfgang Korngold

This is the first in a series of posts concerning great movie music composers and related topics.

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Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in Bruno, Austria (now part of Czechoslovakia) on May 29, 1897.  His father, a doctor, was also a noted music critic in Vienna.  Erich was given the middle name Wolfgang after Wolfgang Mozart, and his brother, Hans, was given the middle name Robert after Robert Schumann.  Korngold was a child prodigy who began composing at the age of seven, and wrote his first opera at the age of 16.  He was praised by Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Giacomo Puccini.

His friend the German impresario Max Reinhart convinced him to travel to Hollywood to work on the music for the now-classic  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play which starred (believe it or not) James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck.  Korngold did not compose new music for the film, but adapted Felix Mendelssohn’s music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the movie instead.  After completing his work on that film he returned to Vienna for four months, and then returned to Hollywood to work on a movie operetta entitled Give Us This Night with Oscar Hammerstein II.

At a time when movie music composers scored many films each year, were given unreasonable deadlines, and were pushed relentlessly to work faster and faster, Korngold scored only 18 films in 12 years.  He could get away with this because he was so prized as a movie music composer that he was given the right to work at his own pace and to refuse commissions if he chose to do so – and he did.  Eighteen films in 12 years may not seem like much of an output, but those 18 included the music for Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  Any one of these scores would have made him a legend.  Korngold loved opera (two of his operas, Violanta and Die Tot Stadt or The Dead City, are occasionally revived), and composed for the films as though he was composing for an opera, so when you watch The Adventures of Robin Hood (number 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 film scores) or The Sea Hawk, remember that Korngold was essentially scoring them as though they were operas.  You especially get a sense of that in the action scenes, and the love scenes.

His music is very melodic, very lush, and very energetic.  It’s really symphonic in nature.  He captures the mood of the moment in his films very, very well.  I consider it to be the best movie music that has ever been created.

Korngold visited Germany in 1937, but was convinced to return to the United States because he was Jewish, and Jews were being persecuted.  If it had not been for the Nazis, Korngold might very well have remained in Germany, and would be known today as a composer of classical music and operas rather than movie music.

Back in the United States, he continued to write movie music until his contract with Warner Brothers ran out in October 1946.  He then attempted to revive his career as a “serious” composer, but the style of music he composed was no longer in vogue.

He died of a heart attack in Hollywood on Nov. 29, 1959 at the age of 60.

In 1936 Korngold scoreed a few passages of music for a movie with an all black cast called Green Pastures.  The remainder of the music was composed of Negro spirituals sung by a choir conducted by Hall Johnson.  Johnson spoke a number of languages including German, so he and Korngold got along well.  He also met the star of the film, Rex Ingram, who played “De Lawd.”

One day as Korngold and a number of others ate lunch in the Warner Brothers restaurant on the lot, Korngold noticed that no one associated with Green Pastures was present.  He was told that blacks were not allowed in the restaurant.  They, instead, ate in the Warner Brothers cafeteria – and that included Johnson and Ingram.  He immediately got up to leave, and when someone asked where he was going he replied, “I’m going down to the cafeteria to eat with God.”

In the 1970s, his son, George Korngold, produced many treasured albums of movie music for RCA – that of his father and many other great, early movie music composers.  Most if not all of those old LPs, which featured Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra, are still available on CD.  For an introduction to the classic early movie music composers those CDs can’t be topped.

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The National Philharmonic Orchestra, mentioned above, has a fascinating history.  It was formed in London in 1964 by Charles Gerhardt and Sidney Sax for RCA.  London was chosen in large part because of the huge number of orchestras and musicians based there.  Finding extremely talented personnel for the orchestra from the pool of musicians was quite easy.  The orchestra’s main purpose in the beginning was to record music for Reader’s Digest.  So, when you see a Reader’s Digest LP or CD listing the orchestra as the National Philharmonic Orchestra or the London Promenade Orchestra, you’ll know exactly what group it is.  I have run across a few Reader’s Digest recordings that don’t list the orchestra, but the orchestra was most probably the National Philharmonic.

Over the years it was used by other record companies including London Records and Columbia.  Conductors included Leopold Stokowski, Richard Bonynge (husband of opera’s super-soprano Joan Sutherland), and Ricardo Chailly.  Composers who conducted the orchestra included Michael Kamen, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Hermann.

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