Violin Concerto in D (Korngold)

…music should be melodic, wohllautend (well-sounding), and conceived in the heart…

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Program note
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Violin Concerto in D, op. 35

Moderato nobile
Romance (Andante)
Finale (Allegro assai vivace)

Korngold was born in the Czech city of Brno, then called Brünn and part of Austria. The son of the later famous Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, young Korngold was mentored by Gustav Mahler, and took lessons from Alexander Zemlinsky, quickly developing his prodigious natural talents. He was only 13 years old when, in 1910, his Piano Trio, shortly to be published as his Opus 1 in the prestigious Austrian imprint Universal Edition, received its first Vienna performance by an eminent trio that included Bruno Walter (piano) and Arnold Rosé (violin). Rosé (Mahler’s brother-in-law) already knew the work of this young prodigy, for two months earlier he had led the Vienna Court Opera orchestra in the premiere of Korngold’s ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann (The Snowman, to the composer’s own scenario). Richard Strauss, who had also composed his first published work at the age of 12, responded with a much-quoted appreciation of the ‘boy genius’, reprinted even half a world away in Adelaide, in the Advertiser of 27 May 1910:

The first feeling I had was one of awe and apprehension, succeeded by a fervent wish that so precocious a manifestation of genius may have an opportunity for normal development. What assurance of style, mastery of form, individuality of expression…it is all genuinely astounding.

Mature success came with the operas Violanta (1916), and, above all, with the 1920 psychodrama Die tote Stadt (The Dead City, to a libretto by the composer’s father, Julius), which within a year of its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne had also been performed at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, winning the admiration of two notable composer colleagues, Puccini and Berg. Largely due to Die tote Stadt, by the early 1930s Korngold was being described as the ‘Viennese Puccini’, and by some as a ‘great hope of German music’.

But Korngold was Jewish, and Die tote Stadt, along with the rest of his music, would be banned by the Nazi regime. So rife was the spirit of anti-semitism, even in free Europe, that his Die Kathrin was derided by a Swedish reviewer in 1939 as ‘that emigrant Jew Korngold’s disgusting opera’. Perhaps unwittingly, Korngold’s personal salvation came early on, when in 1934 director Max Reinhardt first lured him to Hollywood, to arrange a score out of Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for his Warner Bros film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (starring the young Mickey Rooney as Puck, and Olivia de Havilland as Hermia). For the next four years until Hitler’s annexation of Austria forced him into permanent exile, Korngold commuted between Warner Bros’ Hollywood studios and his home in Vienna, remaking himself as arguably the most acclaimed movie composer of the 1930s. He won his first Oscar for the score of Anthony Adverse (1936), and his second for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), presented to him at the award ceremony by Jerome Kern. Probably his most famous and characteristic score of all was that for the swashbuckling romance The Sea Hawk (1940) starring Errol Flynn.

Almost inevitably, his American movie scores did little to further Korngold’s reputation as a serious German composer and conductor, a point of particular conflict with his father, Julius, who nagged Erich relentlessly to return to the opera and concert stage. And sadly, on one occasion when Korngold did so, producing this Violin Concerto for first performance early in 1947, the New York reviewer Irving Kolodin could not pass up the opportunity for an easy dig, describing the result as ‘more corn than gold’.

Curiously, according to one version of the story, it was Korngold’s anti-Hollywood father who suggested that his beautiful title music for a forgotten Errol Flynn adventure, Another Dawn (1937), might make a good opening theme for a violin concerto. Having long ago promised such a work to violinist Bronislaw Huberman, Korngold began sketching the concerto on a trip back to Vienna in summer 1937. Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was new at the time, dedicated to the memory of the young Manon Gropius, daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, who had died recently of polio, and there is a fleeting tonal echo of Berg’s open-string initial gambit in Korngold’s concerto. Korngold would go on to dedicate his concerto, after completion in 1945, to Manon’s mother, by then herself a Hollywood refugee, and recently widow of Korngold’s friend, the novelist Franz Werfel.

After the arching opening from Another Dawn, the first movement moves on to a second idea borrowed from the love theme for his score for the 1939 film Juarez, based – fittingly for the concerto’s dedicatee – on a novel by Franz Werfel. With this second theme, the movement first comes fully into the ‘nobile’ of its initial tempo direction, before continuing through a closely worked development towards its fullest realisation in the virtuosic coda. Korngold’s Oscar-winning score to Anthony Adverse supplies the main melody for the luminously scored second movement, though the central section, marked ‘misterioso’ was new and remained unique to the concerto.

The virtuosic third movement is based on the puckishly athletic jig theme from Korngold’s 1937 score for The Prince and the Pauper, the skittering 6/8 melody also transformed in several briefly intervening brass-laden orchestral tuttis into a rambunctious 2/4 American hoedown that momentarily seems to naturalise Korngold into the musical world of his new fellow countrymen, Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.

Almost a decade on from its inception, Korngold was still saving the first performance of the concerto for Huberman. But the violinist was repeatedly unable to commit to a suitable date, and a new friend, Jascha Heifetz, eventually gave the premiere, to warm response, in St Louis (with repeats in Chicago and New York) in February 1947. Contrary to a warning attached to an earlier Hollywood refugee violin concerto, about which its composer Arnold Schoenberg reportedly said: ‘I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire’, Korngold advised listeners in his own original program note: ‘In spite of its demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated rather for a Caruso of the violin than for a Paganini.’ In the concerto, as he testified elsewhere, Korngold remained faithful to his aim ‘that music should be melodic’, ‘wohllautend’ (well-sounding), and ‘conceived in the heart’.

Graeme Skinner © 2010
Reprinted by permission of Symphony Services Australia

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