Home » Uncategorized » Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the Captain Blood Overture

Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the Captain Blood Overture

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Erich Wolfgang Korngold (May 29, 1897 – November 29, 1957) was an Austrian-born American composer and conductor, who not only was a noted pianist and composer of classical music, but also  became one of the most important and influential composers in the history of Hollywood,  the first composer of international stature to write Hollywood film scores.  Korngold was born to a Jewish family in Brünn, Austria-Hungary (present-day Brno, Czech Republic), the second son of eminent music critic Julius Korngold. A child prodigy living in Vienna, he could play four-hand piano arrangements alongside his father at age five. He was also able to reproduce any melody he heard on the piano, along with playing complete and elaborate chords. By the time he was seven he was writing original music.  Korngold played his cantata Gold for Gustav Mahler in 1909; Mahler called him a “musical genius” and recommended he study with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Richard Strauss also spoke highly of the youth, and along with Mahler told Korngold’s father there was no benefit in having his son enroll in a music conservatory since his abilities were already years ahead of what he could learn there.

At the age of 11 Korngold composed his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), which became a sensation when performed at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910, including a command performance for Emperor Franz Josef.   He continued composing with great success throughout his teens.  He composed a piano trio, then his Piano Sonata No. 2 in E major, which Artur Schnabel played throughout Europe.  During these early years he also made live-recording player piano music rolls for the Hupfeld DEA and Phonola system and also the Aeolian Duo-Art system, which survive today and can be heard.  Korngold wrote his first orchestral score, the Schauspiel Ouverture when he was 14. His Sinfonietta appeared the following year, and his first two one-act operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, in 1914.  In 1916, he wrote incidental music to various chamber works and songs, including Much Ado About Nothing, which ran for some 80 performances in Vienna.

Korngold was active in the theatre throughout Europe while in his 20s. After the success of his opera, Die tote Stadt, which he conducted in many opera houses, he developed a passion for the music of Johann Strauss, Jr., and managed to exhume a number of lost scores.  He orchestrated and staged them using new concepts.  Both A Night in Venice and Cagliostro in Vienna are Kornfield re-creations, and it these works that first drew the attention of Max Reinhardt to Korngold.  By this point Korngold had reached the zenith of his fame as a composer of opera and concert music. Composers such as Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini heaped praise on him, and many famous conductors, soloists and singers added his works to their repertoires. He began collaborating with Reinhardt on many productions, including a collection of little-known Strauss pieces that they arranged and titled Waltzes From Vienna.  It was retitled The Great Waltz and became the basis for a 1938 British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and a film by the same name in the U.S, starring Luise Rainer. Korngold conducted staged versions in Los Angeles in 1949 and 1953.

Korngold completed a Concerto for Piano Left Hand for pianist Paul Wittgenstein in 1923 and his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane four years later.  In 1924, Korngold married Luzi (Louise) von Sonnenthal (1900–1962), granddaughter of actor Adolf von Sonnenthal, an actress, writer, singer and pianist, with whom he had fallen in love at age 19, and they had two children, Ern[e]st Werner and Georg[e] Wolfgang.   By 1931 he was a professor of music at Vienna State Academy.  He started arranging and conducting operettas by Johann Strauss II and others while teaching opera and composition at the Vienna Staatsakademie. Korngold was awarded the title professor honoris causa by the president of Austria.  After Max Reinhardt’s success in producing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the stage, using incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn, and due to the rise of the Nazi regime, he invited Korngold to Hollywood in 1934 to adapt Mendelssohn’s score for his planned film version.  Korngold would also enlarge and conduct the score.  The film, which was released in 1935, was a first for Warner Brothers studio, by producing a film based on a 400-year-old work of literary art. As a result of the score’s elaborate tailoring, the film and Korngold’s music left a strong impression on the film industry.  Korngold returned to Austria to finish Die Kathrin. He came back to Hollywood to score the film Give Us This Night, with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a film which introduced mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout and the Polish-born tenor Jan Kiepura, who had starred in several Korngold operas in Europe.

In 1935 Warners asked Korngold if he was interested in writing an original dramatic score for Captain Blood. He at first declined, feeling that a story about pirates was outside his range of interest. However, after watching the filming, with a dynamic new star, Errol Flynn in a heroic role, alongside Olivia de Havilland, who had her debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he changed his mind.  After he accepted, however, he learned that he needed to compose over an hour of symphonic music in only three weeks. The short time frame forced him to include about ten percent of the score using portions of symphonies by Franz Liszt. And not willing to take credit for the entire film score, he insisted that his credit be only for “musical arrangement.”  Captain Blood became an immediate hit, with an Oscar nomination for the score.   As Korngold’s first fully symphonic film score, it marked a milestone in his career, as he became the first composer of international stature to sign a contract with a film studio.   It also launched the career of Flynn and gave a major boost to de Havilland’s, who did another seven movies with Flynn. Korngold scored six more films starring Flynn. In addition, Captain Blood opened the way for other costumed, romantic adventures, which hadn’t been seen since the silent era.

After scoring Anthony Adverse, another Warners picture, this one starring Fredric March and Olivia de Havilland, for which Korngold was awarded his first Academy Award, Korngold’s career in Hollywood developed quickly.  In 1938, Korngold was conducting opera in Austria when he was asked by Warner Brothers to return to Hollywood and compose a score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.   Before Korngold began composing the score, Austria was invaded by Germany and annexed by the Nazis. His home in Vienna was confiscated by the Nazis.  And because it meant that all Jews in Austria were now at risk, Korngold stayed in America.   Korngold noted that the opportunity to compose the score for Robin Hood saved his life.  It also gave him his second Academy Award for Best Original Score.  Other scores include Juarez (1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).   The Sea Hawk (1940) was Korngold’s last score for swashbuckler films, all of which had starred Errol Flynn.  In scoring The Sea Wolf (1941), based on a story by Jack London, Korngold’s film career went in a different direction.

Kings Row (1942) was followed by The Constant Nymph (1943), Between Two Worlds (1944), Devotion (1946), Of Human Bondage (1946), Deception (1946), Escape Me Never (1947), Adventures of Don Juan (1948, unused score), and Magic Fire (1956). For Magic Fire, he was asked to adapt the music of Richard Wagner for a film biography of the composer. Korngold wrote some original music for the film and is seen during the final scenes in an unbilled cameo as the conductor Hans Richter.  In 1943, Korngold became a naturalized citizen of the United States.  Overall, he wrote the score for 16 Hollywood films.  During his years scoring films, he still composed some non-film works, such as Passover Psalm, Opus 30, for chorus and orchestra (1941); Tomorrow When You Have Gone, Opus 33, for chorus and orchestra (1942); and Prayer, Opus 32 for chorus and orchestra (1942).  In 1946 he composed an opera, Die Stumme Serenade, which he recorded privately hoping to attract interest in making a full production.

Around the time World War II in Europe drew to an end, at this stage in his career Korngold had grown increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood and with the kinds of pictures he was being given, and he was eager to return to writing music for the concert hall and the stage.  Since World War II prevented him from returning to Europe, he stayed in the U.S. after retiring from film composing in 1947. He spent the last ten years of his life composing concert pieces, including a Violin Concerto, a Symphonic Serenade for strings, a Cello Concerto and a Symphony. At the time of his death, he was working on his sixth opera.  Korngold died at his home in Toluca Lake, California, aged 60, on November 29, 1957. He lived a few blocks from Warner Brothers Studio, where he worked. He was survived by his wife, two sons, his mother Mrs. Josephine Korngold, a brother Hans Korngold, and three grandchildren.[67] His remains were interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The following work by Erich Korngold is contained in my collection:

Captain Blood (1935): Overture.

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