Korngold Returns to Austria

by Troy O. Dixon

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) returned to Austria in 1949 following his decade-long exile in the USA where he wrote primarily film music in Hollywood.  Hoping to restore his former career as an opera and concert music composer, his dreams were ultimately destroyed, mirroring the empty shells of bombed and burned-out buildings in post-war Vienna.  Life in his Austrian homeland had changed as a result of the war, and musical life and musical trends had moved on as well, leaving him behind.  After an unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate a former life, Korngold returned to Hollywood broken-hearted, believing himself to be a forgotten-composer.

But with the Salzburg Festival 2004, his return to Austria – or at least his music’s return to Austria – may finally happen.  Spread throughout the Festival concerts between 24 July and 26 August were various performances of some of his works, both well-known repertory pieces, as well as some perhaps lesser-known compositions.  And if the warm and sunny afternoons of the city of Salzburg during this writer’s stay were any indication, the performances of his works were sure to bring enjoyment.

On 24 & 25 July, Salzburg violinist Benjamin Schmid inaugurated Korngold’s musical presentations with a performance of the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.  Appearing for the first time as a soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic – and also with Seiji Ozawa – Schmid strove for a new interpretation of the popular work, emphasizing his preference for “…the subtle inner-tones, the search for the shadow of Vienna – always with a longing for Vienna – that speaks continually in this work.” [author’s translation from the “Salzburger Nachrichten” newspaper, published Saturday, 24 July 2004]  With the rumor of the work being released in the future on CD, those unable to attend the live performance may yet be able to experience and evaluate his interpretation.

Two weeks later on 12 August, joined by Hanna Weinmeister, Quirine Viersen and Silke Avenhaus, Schmid gave an electrifying performance of Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand), Op. 23.  While the scherzo middle movement may have seemed somewhat faster than perhaps preferred by some audience members, Korngold’s biographer Brendan Carroll and several members of the Korngold family in attendance agreed the performance of the work was one of the best to date.  And evidenced by the ecstatic applause of the audience in the Mozarteum that night, applause that brought no less than four curtain calls for the ensemble, many more must be in agreement.

Filmmakers from the BBC Productions were on hand for the performance – as they were for the concerto performance – filming for a documentary about the return of Korngold to Austria, with an apparent focus on Benjamin Schmid.  The cameras were again present three nights later at the Salzburg premiere of Korngold’s masterpiece opera, “Die tote Stadt,” in a brand-new production by renowned director Willy Decker, in collaboration with the Vienna State Opera, the Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam and the Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona.  Willy Decker, who garnered international attention with the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s “Pollicino” in Montepulciano in 1980, focused his approaches to staging in realizing the psycho-dramatic storyline of Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” in an outstanding production.

On a warm and sunny late afternoon on 15 August 2004, several dozen people gathered in Max Reinhardt Platz for a pre-show lecture about the opera, hosted by the American Friends of the Salzburg Festival, and moderated by Jay Nordlinger, music critic for the National Review, the New Criterion, and the New York Sun.  Here Dr. Juergen Maehder (Prof., Freie Universität Berlin) presented an hour-long lecture discussing the context of the opera.  Dealing primarily with the background of George Rodenbach, his novel “Bruges la Morte” upon which “Die tote Stadt” is based, the symbolist movement at the time of the novel’s conception, and general elements of operas composed at the time, the lecture gave a broad perspective of the opera’s context.  Disappointingly – perhaps due to time constraints – the talk provided little illumination on the specifics of Korngold’s opera itself.  Nevertheless, attendants were receptive and supportive of the efforts of the Society.

Yet any apparent shortcomings of the pre-lecture were quickly forgotten with the impressive and stimulating production presented immediately thereafter.  Director Willy Decker succeeded in blending the opera’s setting of fantasy and reality using the simple visual trick of a “stage within a stage,” and by effectively utilizing the set elements to define the real world and the dream world. 

Beginning in the reality of Paul’s room, he collapses into a chair and falls asleep, at which time, by backlighting a scrim curtain, a smaller second stage appears above and behind the sleeping protagonist, thereby inviting the audience to witness the pictures in his mind.  For the following scenes, by skewing and slanting the floor and ceiling of the room of Paul’s reality, the audience is made to realize the entire performing stage now replaces that initial, smaller stage.  Each major scene is demarcated by a shift in the now warped perspective, providing similar yet different backdrops for the fantasy world as Paul’s dream unfolds.  Scenes reflecting passages from the Rodenbach novel float by, until the end when, by realigning the room’s surfaces, the audience is brought back with Paul into the room of his reality for the close of the third act.  The stringent, minimal scenery and props, the constant barrage of the Marie image, and the staged action all effectively instilled a sense of the protagonist’s mental state – his addiction to a lost love.  Acoustics of the hall notwithstanding, which made the singers difficult to hear at times above the sounds of the orchestra, the production was a success bringing a never-ending series of curtain calls from an overwhelmed audience.  The reception after was also deemed a success by those in attendance.  (And if you missed this performance in Salzburg, the production is touring the continent throughout the next year.)

In the Orpheus Foyer in the Kleinen Festspielhaus where the opera was staged, Festival attendees were treated to an exhibition of Korngold memorabilia and archives.  Among the biographical synopses and stories on the walls that served as educational backdrops were treasures that included the autograph-manuscript of the suite “Much Ado About Nothing,” and several autographed letters and sketches.  Also on display were the original sketches by Alfred Roller of the stage sets for the 1921 premiere of “Die tote Stadt” at the Vienna State Opera, on loan to Salzburg by the Austrian Theater Museum in Vienna.  Truly a “…visual accompaniment to the sounds being heard…” [Salzburger Nachrichten, 24 July 2004]

Fifty years later, will this finally be Korngold’s return to Austria?  With the continuing rise of interest in Korngold that began in the 1970s, will his music finally be here to stay?  If the production of the opera and presentation of the Suite, Op. 23, were any indication, the performances of the Symphonic Serenade in B-flat Major, Op. 39, and Symphony in F-sharp Major, Op. 40, were surely events to be remembered as well.  And memorable performances and productions demand repeating – don’t they?

 

A list of the works presented at the Festival include:

  24 & 25 Jul 04      Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; Vienna Philharmonic, Seiji Ozawa (cond.); Benjamin Schmid (soloist)

26 Jul 04      String Quartet in A Major, Op 16; Wiener Kammerensemble

1 Aug 04      David Frühwirth (violin) recital; incl. Song of Heliane from “Das Wunder der Heliane,” Op. 20; Much Ado About Nothing, Op. 11, suite for violin & piano

10 Aug 04      Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15; Die Reihe

12 Aug 04      Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand), Op. 23; Benjamin Schmid, et. al

15 Aug 04      “Die tote Stadt” premiere

20 Aug 04      Symphonic Serenade in B-flat Major, Op. 39; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

26 Aug 04      Symphony in F-sharp Major, Op. 40; Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna