Mrs Jessica Duchen , Author of E.Korngold's biography
Mrs Duchen when
was the first time you heard the music of Korngold?
When I was
about nine years old, I used to love watching old movies on TV on
Sunday afternoons (in fact, I still do!). One of my favourites was
'The Sea Hawk' because
of its wonderful, wonderful music. But although the composer's name
had a whole credit to itself at the beginning, it came and went in
about two seconds and I could never remember
it. I forgot all about it until I was about 19, when a dear friend and
of mine mentioned Korngold's name, was astonished that I hadn't heard of
put on a record of the Pierrot Tanzlied from 'Die tote Stadt' for me to hear.
I was completely
bowled over. I bought the LP of the whole opera, listened to it the
whole way through
and cried my eyes out! It was only when I read the sleeve notes that I
realised this was
the very same composer who had written 'The Sea Hawk'.
What was the main reason for you to choose EW Korngold's life and music to
write a biography?
After my first
encounter with Korngold's music, I became passionate about it and
university dissertation on 'Die tote Stadt'. Thus I learned of his extraordinary
life, the fascinating
worlds he lived in, and the bizarre characters and events beyond his
dominated his life. I was astonished that no full-length biography of him
then existed. So,
when the editor of Phaidon Press's 20th Century Composers series approached
me a number
of years later to ask whether I would contribute a book to their list,
on the spur of the
moment I suggested Korngold. To my astonishment, the editor turned out to
be a fan and
thought it was a wonderful idea. I couldn't believe my luck!
Please tell me more about your research. Was it difficult to find information?
printed sources were Luzi Korngold's biography of her husband and Julius Korngold's
memoirs - but neither can be relied on 100%. Julius's book is really
not to be trusted
at all, even if you can decipher his very flowery 19th-century German!
My best fortune,
however, was to meet Korngold's elder son, Ernst, and his family, who
to their home in Portland, Oregon (sadly, the younger son, George, had died
years earlier). Ernst spent a very intensive few days talking to me, despite
the fact that he
was in poor health at the time; he died very soon after my book was published.
I also very
much enjoyed my time researching in Los Angeles. I rooted about in the Academy
and Motion Picture Sciences Library - a lovely place, full of useful and
I saw some of the film score manuscripts in USC. And I spent several extremely
happy days watching all the Korngold movies I hadn't seen before, in
the film &
TV unit of UCLA, on small reel-to-reel machines with screens about 10cm wide!
I also went
to Vienna, which I loved, although I found little actual information there;
thing was wandering about the old city, soaking up the atmosphere, using
to trace Korngold's footsteps through it - and of course, sampling
the kind of chocolate
cakes he loved so much!
Please describe the most touching moment when you wrote the biography?
occurred after the book was published. None of Korngold's operas have
staged in the UK, to this day. But 'Die tote Stadt' received its very first
in concert, in autumn 1996 - by an amateur orchestra, the very accomplished
Kensington Symphony Orchestra, at the South Bank Centre. The hall
out! And the reception was completely ecstatic. Everyone was crazy about
it! I was on
such a high afterwards that I phoned Ernst immediately to tell him about it
and to say that
I wished he could have been there to see it. I could hear then that he was
not well; and
that was the last time I spoke to him before he died.
Q Why do
you think Korngold was forgotten for so many years? Why did his music
wait so long for its revival?
writing big, emotional, romantic music through the late 1940s and
the trendy style that all the critics approved was atonality, serialism and
what is now
sometimes called the Plinky-Plonky school of music. His was the
style of another age.
The world had changed immeasurably during Korngold's lifetime - my theory
is that after
the horrors of the two world wars, the general 'collective unconscious',
if you like, simply
couldn't cope with beauty, grand-scale emotion, great-heartedness and optimism any
more. And while Korngold's style was very much his own voice, it wasn't a
voice that people
were willing to hear at that time. But that was only part of the story...
How significant was the influence of Korngold's film music technique over today's film
Sometimes people say that when they hear Korngold's operas, they can
film music. But the reason for that is because Korngold, along with Alfred
Herrman, Max Steiner and their colleagues, was largely responsible for
we now think of as film music! Korngold brought operatic and tone-poem techniques
into film music - using leitmotifs for characters and particular narrative threads,
for instance. Composers today still do this. And his flair for using
music to stir emotional
responses in the audiences - with rousing, dramatic fanfares, sweeping melodies
and many masterful imaginative strokes to create atmospheres of all types
- has had
a lasting effect. I think you can hear some of Korngold's fingerprints clearly
in the music
of John Williams, probably today's most successful film composer.
Do you think that the film scores he composed affected the fame of his classical
This is the other part of the story of why Korngold was so neglected
long. His success in film music made a terrible impact upon the attitude of
media chiefs - the people who wielded the power in the musical world. Audiences
always loved Korngold. But critics disapproved of him, turning their
noses up at
him because he wrote film music! It was a kind of double whammy. First, he
out of Vienna because he was Jewish. To save his skin and his family's,
he had to take
what work he could find in America, and he was fortunate indeed to be taken
up by Warner
Brothers. But then he was condemned for selling out - when he'd really
had no choice
whatsoever in the matter. Sadly, this story is very far from being rare
for its time. Consider
the lives of Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler, Berthold Goldschmidt... Fortunately,
with the current inclusive musical climate in which a wide diversity of
styles is accepted, we're now allowed to have some fun again, and Korngold
has been welcomed
back with open arms. It's just a pity he did not live to see it happen.
How difficult is it to be a composer biographer?
difficult indeed. First, however many years' work you put into your
book, you are never satisfied with the result. Perhaps the more work you
do, the more inadequate the final result is bound to feel. A biography is
a bottomless pit: the more you dig, the more there is to be dug! Secondly,
there's no money in it at all. To do it, you have to be rather a crazy,
obsessive type - like me!
What are your plans for the future?
Last year my
second biography came out, also in the Phaidon series - this time,
it was Gabriel
Faure, another great favourite of mine. Now I'm not in a great hurry to
musical biography, though I will certainly consider the opportunity should
I'm currently concentrating on my journalism - I contribute regularly to
BBC Music Magazine and Classic FM Magazine, among others. I enjoy having a
life away from the desk - spending time with my husband, seeing my friends,
going to concerts
and films and theatre, gardening, or whatever. And I've written a novel,
which I am
hoping to sell to a publisher in the not too distant future. Should this succeed,
I would be
more than happy to spend the rest of my life writing fiction. On the other
hand, the advantage
of biography is that truth is always stranger than fiction! Who could
ever have invented
a story like that of Erich Wolfgang Korngold?
Duchen in a freelance writer and founder editor of magazine
piano. She contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine,Gramophone
Music and other periodicals .