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
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
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
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:
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