Monday, April 26, 2021

Stuart & Friends, Part 2: Meet the Talented Mr. Korngold

Korngold in 1920
In Part 1 of this concert's post, you can read about the first three composers on the program – Zev Malina who opens the evening as a Young Artists Program performer playing a composition of his own, Schemin', an homage to Zez Confrey; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose Violin Sonata K.454 will be played by Alexander Kerr and Stuart Malina; and Ernest Bloch whose Suite hébraïque will be played by violist Michael Strauss and Stuart Malina.

This post will be about the one remaining composer on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold who'll be represented by two works: a suite from his 1918 incidental music for Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing arranged and performed by cellist Julian Schwarz with Stuart Malina; and his Piano Quintet in E Major written a few years later in 1921, in which Kerr, Strauss, Schwarz, and Stuart Malina will be joined by violinist Peter Sirotin.

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In 1918, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, all of 21 and back from service in World War I, was asked to compose incidental music for Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Later, he arranged a selection of movements to form a suite for violin and piano. Here is violinist Gil Shaham with pianist Andre Previn:

The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber” gives you an idea of Korngold's harmonic style (clearly courtesy of Richard Strauss but not in the sense of simple imitation) where there are many a slip between tonic chords. The most magical of these is at 2:54 where, for you music geeks, an expected resolution to tonic D-flat suddenly becomes a B-flat Major chord (with a D-natural), a moment worthy of applause in its own right. The “March of the Watch: Dogberry & Verges” contains delightfully comic stumbling through short accelerations and occasional dropping of a beat, painting the scene so expertly, one can imagine how, in 15 years' time, Korngold would find a home in Hollywood.

When you see the score for its most famous moment, “The Scene in the Garden” looks by comparison to the first two movements so harmonically simple as to appear naïve, but good grief, what incredible beauty! This suite's concluding “Hornpipe” offers a suitably lively ending.

Cellist Julian Schwarz performs his own arrangement of music from Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing.

While sources list it as composed in 1918-1919, the production didn't open until 1920 (which is often when some sources say it was composed). This had more to do with life in post-war Vienna. Keep in mind the long “Golden Age” of the Austrian Empire came to a disastrous and sudden close when the treaty ending World War I carved up an empire that (for better or worse) stretched from Northern Italy across the Balkans and from Prussia and Poland in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, becoming a mere land-locked “rump state” that we know as Austria today. The psychological impact of this can't be underestimated, not just the loss of territory but the demise of its Emperor, Franz Josef I, who'd ruled it for 68 years!

There were also practical matters, not just economical ones: the original theater went bankrupt and the production was taken up by the larger Burgtheater which had money in the budget to hire members of the Vienna Philharmonic to play the score Korngold composed for a chamber orchestra of 17 musicians intended to fit the original theater's small pit. The play – along with its music which consisted of 23 different numbers – was such a success, the run was extended but this became a problem since many members of the orchestra had other contractual commitments. So rather than hire a new orchestra, Korngold quickly arranged the entire score for violin and piano!

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Korngold at 13
Prodigy,” like “genius,” is a much overused word. Mozart is usually the Gold Standard by which prodigies are weighed and the comparison is only daunting when young performers and composers are already vulnerable enough to the normal pressures of youth. But yes, there's the good aspect of prodigyhood, considering Mozart wrote his first violin sonatas at the age of 6 – the one of this program was written at the ripe old age of 28; and there's the bad aspect of prodigyhood where Mozart and his sister were led around Europe by their enterprising father, Leopold, like a circus act, performing for the crowned heads of Europe and where people off the street could come view them perform Amazing Feats of Musical Genius for a fee.

No doubt Leopold comes off more the villain in this story than is accurate – regardless, he certainly fits the “stage-mother” prototype, viewed from our gender-equality age – and the arguments pro and con have filled books on the subject.

Not every child who starts playing the piano at 4 would be a “prodigy” unless they're playing concertos by the time they're 8. There is a fine line between that and being talented or precocious. And while we may worry about a young musician who's missed out on a “normal childhood” (whatever that is), keep in mind for the child who only knows this drive to learn, to study, to practice, to perform, to compose, to become a musician with hours spent in solitude, that for them, this is normal, this is what they do – and for them, playing the piano for an audience or making music with like-minded young friends is the equivalent of riding off on a bike with reckless (and hopefully wreckless) abandon or engaging in team sports. And it only adds another dimension to the worries any parent already has about their child.

So, like the first composer on the program – and in this case, I mean Zev Malina who started playing the piano at 4 and began composing at 11 – the last composer on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, had a ballet performed at no less a venue than the court of the Austrian Emperor in Vienna when he was 11; and who had among his earliest fans the likes of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. His first published work, the Piano Trio in D Major, was completed in 1910 when he was 13. Just before he turned 15, he began work on a Sinfonietta (which technically means “Little Symphony”) though the orchestration would take another year: it's in four movements and runs about 44 minutes (did I say “little”?).

By the time he was 18, he had written two one-act operas and saw both of them performed. It's important to note that he wasn't just writing these pieces – he was getting them performed and by high-powered conductors and pianists. Artur Schnabel was touring Europe with his Piano Sonata, Op. 2, shortly after it was finished; Mahler's assistant, Bruno Walter, conducted his operas in Munich. Felix Weingartner, one of the leading Viennese conductors of the day, premiered the Sinfonietta two months after it was completed.

Like many great mysteries about creativity, no one can explain where genius comes from or what makes a prodigy. Mozart's example (for better or worse) inspired many would-be Leopolds to push their talented offspring into the Musical Firmament, Beethoven's father being one of them, only to be sadly disappointed.

In Korngold's case, much is made of the similarities with Mozart – after all, his middle name is Wolfgang. Yes, of course, that's a common enough German name (had it been Amadeus, it would've been more prescient), but what are the odds when you realize his father's middle name happens to be Leopold?

And who was Korngold's father? Julius Leopold Korngold just happened to be the leading music critic in Vienna during the first decades of the 20th Century and so one could argue, being a man of some artistic prominence, not only would he call in a number of favors from some of those he regularly reviewed, but that these same performers, conductors, and composers would be willing to curry a little favor by humoring the critic. However, listening to these early pieces, there's little to suggest cronyism here: many composers well into their careers would be happy to produce works as self-assured and well-crafted as those by this boy!

Plus, whatever strings he may have pulled behind the scenes as a proud father, Julius Korngold was no Leopold Mozart. Which is something to be said for Korngold's own mental if not creative health once he was no longer regarded as a prodigy and became just another talented composer.

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Which brings us to the last work on the program, this one a Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15.

Now, many composers have written piano quintets (the earliest one to remain in the repertoire is Schumann's), but few have caught the modern audiences attentions like those by (in this order) Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Shostakovich, and, probably a more distant fifth, Franck.

Korngold began his in 1921, finished it the following year, and premiered it in Hamburg in February of 1923 to great acclaim. It's in three movements, an expansive opening marked Mäßiges Zeitmaß, mit schwungvoll blühendem Ausdruck (in plain English, “Moderate Tempo with buoyant flowering Expression”); a slow movement, Adagio, a set of variations on one of four recently completed “Songs of Farewell,” marked Mit größter Ruhe, stets äußerst gebunden und ausdrucksvoll (which basically means “With greater quiet and always extremely controlled and expressive” which is better than the on-line translation I got of “extremely bound and out of print...”). There are moments in some of these variations that go so far beyond Strauss, you begin to wonder if he knew what Charles Ives was up to in New England. The finale is marked Gemessen beinahe pathetisch (Measured, almost pathetic) but that does not adequately prepare one for most of this exuberant conclusion, which at times could be marked Böse schnell (“wicked fast”) if such a direction would have occurred to him.

The complete Piano Quintet with score (Boris Brovtsyn & Clara-Jumi Kang violins; Gareth Lubbe, viola; Torleif Thedéen, cello; Eldar Nebolsin, piano)

While the forensic musicologist in me is tempted to point out the keen influences of Richard Strauss, the leading German composer at the time Korngold was writing – at least, the Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier – it's not a matter of mere imitation. Korngold has absorbed the harmonic slipperiness and the motivic gestures of Strauss, something many other German-speaking composers of the day failed to imitate so well, and combined them with a fluid sense of meter that is a world away from the changing meters of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a decade earlier. In Korngold's case, they form an expressive pulling of the musical rhythm, a kind of written-out rubato (stretching the tempo at spots), without drawing attention to itself. In the slow movement alone, there are some 54 meter changes in 12 minutes.

One of Korngold's trademark sounds is the “Gorgeous Slow Song” like the “Scene in the Garden” from Much Ado About Nothing. It predecessor would be “Marietta's Song,” the most famous moment in his opera, Die Tote Stadt, begun in 1916 but not completed until 1920 and which became one of the Great Hits of the 1920s. Here's a performance from the opera with score where you can also see this “flexible” use of changing meters that elevates the music's expressive flow, as well as those harmonic digressions I'd mentioned earlier (especially little chords like those in the accompaniment at 5:00 which are lovingly ripped off from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier of 1911).

I have heard excerpts from two other Korngold operas in my life, and each of them have been equally gorgeous lyrical highlights to the point I felt disappointed it's become a cliché. Regardless, there's no denying its beauty and there's also no denying as soon as you hear it you smile and know immediately, “That's Korngold!” I have met or heard many composers who have never really found "their own voice," and yet, when you listen to Korngold's Op. 1 Trio, here's a 13-year-old boy who has!

Korngold admitted, after he found success writing scores for Hollywood, he considered each film's script an opera libretto so he could write music to match the scene's action and its characters just as he would've done if he were writing an opera. Before the days of film, composers would write “incidental music for plays” to be performed from the pit of a live theatrical presentation. Korngold's move to Hollywood is an example of one composer adapting to modern technology,

It is a shame Korngold's career has been overlooked by those who dismiss him as a “film composer.” Granted, he was one of the most important musical voices that created that lush Hollywood sound so familiar for generations. Speaking of “flexible meters,” try marching to the opening fanfare of the Main Title music for his first swashbuckler film, Captain Blood introducing Errol Flynn; also try listening to this without thinking of John Williams!

To bring us full circle, if you heard Zev Malina's Suite for Orchestra in 2019, the composer specifically mentions how Maiden Voyage, the opening movement (the third to be composed) “is bold and heroic, influenced by the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and other post-Romantic composers.”

So a prodigy coming of age a hundred years ago is still influencing young composers coming of age today. 

Not a bad legacy.

Dick Strawser

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