Once he had been touted as a wunderkind, the greatest musical prodigy since his fellow Austrian, Mozart. Later he would be revered as one of the pioneers of film music, a legend in Hollywood at the peak of its influence. Then he was derided as a half-forgotten remnant of a defunct Habsburg Vienna, simultaneously a sell-out and a has-been.
“Erich Korngold is an unusual figure,” says Leon Botstein, musical director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College. “He bridges the pre-WWI European scene from Mahler to Stravinsky, then he has part two of his career in which he is a vital part of American culture through the movie industry.”
That unique trajectory makes Korngold an unusually apt subject for the college’s annual Summerscape musical event, highlighted by the 30th annual Bard Music Festival with its two-week focus on a single composer and the world from which he emerged; it runs Aug. 9-18.
Korngold was born in 1897 in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic, but by the time the family had moved to Vienna in 1901 the child was playing four-hand piano pieces with his father Julius, picking out tunes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” by ear and improvising fluently at the keyboard on his own. Given that Julius was a protégé of music critic Eduard Hanslick and his successor at the prestigious Neue Freie Presse, Erich was uniquely well-positioned for a brilliant career. Julius’s life-long combativeness would eventually prove a handicap to his son, but that came later.
The boy performed his cantata “Gold” for Gustav Mahler when he was 12, with the composer acclaiming him as a “musical genius.” His piano sonata was performed across Europe by Artur Schnabel when Eric was 13 and at 23 his opera “Die tote Stadt (The Dead City)” premiered successfully in Hamburg and Cologne.
Then, regrettably, the wheels began to come off.
Botstein, who will conduct a performance of “Die tote Stadt” on Aug. 18, says of the opera, “Korngold’s music veers to the conservative even in its time. He veers toward Richard Strauss; he’s very different from [Ernst] Krenek” to whom he would be unfavorably compared less than a decade later.
When his next opera, “The Mystery of Heliane” opened in Vienna Korngold was roasted. “‘Heliane’ tries to scale the heights of tragic opera,” Botstein says. “His reputation as a prodigy and whiz kid was harmful as well as helpful. [The Viennese music community] may have thought it was time to take him down a few notches.”
He rebounded by moving sideways into light opera and operetta where he produced a decade’s worth of accomplished work. When theatrical giant Max Reinhardt approached him, he jumped at the chance to shift gears. In 1934 that choice would lead him to Hollywood, where Reinhardt was about to begin work on a film of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Warner Brothers.
Thus began Korngold’s highly successful second act. At Warner Brothers, he brought his gifts for sonority and drama to bear on such films as “Captain Blood,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Anthony Adverse” and “Kings Row.”
Asked about this second, ostensibly more commercial career, Botstein shrugs off any charges of philistinism against the composer.
“I’m allergic to snobbery,” the conductor says. “He finds a way of adapting the idea of leitmotifs, to the storytelling structure of the films being made at the time. He’s very successful at it. He goes beyond illustration so that the music becomes part of the storytelling,”
Working for Warner Brothers also saved Korngold’s life and that of his family. It meant that after the Anschluss they were able to escape Nazi-run Austria.
Sadly, when Korngold returned to Vienna after the war, he was treated with disdain, the victim of resentment by former collaborators and anti-Semitic prejudice. If his music was already considered old-fashioned in the late 1920s, it faced outright contempt 20 years later.
As Botstein notes, “Korngold never deviated much from a kind of romantic nostalgia for the role of the Viennese Jewish community. He felt himself an equal constituent of a civic culture. The enthusiasm of that culture for the Nazis should have come as no surprise, but it did.”
The Bard Music Festival runs from Aug. 9-18 on the college’s Annandale-on-Hudson campus. For information, go to https://fishercenter.bard.edu/bmf/.