People have asked me before who my favorite film composer is. And I usually answer with “Jerry Goldsmith” or “James Horner” because it’s true, their scores rank among my absolute favorites. But…if I were to be completely honest, the film composer I love the most, above all others, is Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
If film music were a religion, Korngold would be a god, that is the influence his work made in the industry. And yet…for all that, there are many people who have no idea who this man is! I can understand that, since he passed away in 1957. His film score output is relatively small…but when you look at the scores he did, especially compared to his concert and operatic output, this man was a genius!
The composer at work
He truly was a genius, a prodigy in fact. The story goes that the young Korngold was brought to play before the great Gustave Mahler (1860-1911) and after hearing his piece the aging composer declared “A genius!” At one time, Korngold was the toast of Vienna, even performing before the Emperor’s Court. He loved opera, and his 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt made him an international success at the age of 23.
Korngold actually came into film music quite by chance. In the early 1930s, Warner Bros. needed an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s “An Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for a film based on Shakespeare’s play of that name. Someone brought up Korngold’s name, and he was invited to come to California to do the work. Intrigued, Korngold accepted, did the score and went back to Vienna. He was asked to do another score, Captain Blood (1935), again agreed, but then returned because another opera was nearing completion. Just at this time though, Hitler was rising to power (and keep in mind, Korngold was Jewish). Just before Austria was joined to Germany, Korngold received an invitation to score The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and the composer did not want to accept. He asked some of his friends and one finally told him to “take it as a sign from God and go!” So he went…and the next week Austria joined Germany and Korngold did not see his home again until after the end of the Second World War.
Since he had to reside in the United States for the time being, Korngold passed the years by working in Hollywood (he found it enjoyable work, as he saw great similarities between film and opera).
During the war years, Korngold composed: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); The Sea Hawk (1940); The Sea Wolf (1941); King’s Row (1942); and Deception in 1946. After 1946, Korngold did not write film music ever again.
At last, after the war, he was able to return home, but to his unending sorrow, he discovered that the times had changed greatly in the years he had been gone, and his music, once hailed as genius, was now considered old-fashioned and “boring.” The knowledge broke his heart, and he died in 1957 at the age of 60.
While in Hollywood, Korngold was treated as no composer has been, before or since. Because he was already a composer of such renown, he was allowed to, among other things, dictate his own contract. He could choose to score whatever films he wished, and however many (or few) he wished. And one of the biggest impacts came from Korngold’s request to have solo credit (meaning having only his name appear on the credit page for the music). This was unheard of at the time: go and look at the credits as they appear in any movie before The Adventures of Robin Hood and you will see, if the music is credited at all, it is one line in a page full of other credits. Korngold changed that.
And the reason Korngold is so special to me? It was by listening to his music, I mean really listening to it, that I realized that film music really could (and did) stand on its own, by its own merits. Listening to those film scores is what pushed me to specialize in film music, and I have never regretted it.
In the title of this post, I linked John William’s name to that of Korngold. I did this because William’s style has been referred to as “neo-Korngoldian,” meaning he writes in a manner similar to Korngold’s, but reinvented for this era. In fact, listen to Korngold’s overture for The Sea Hawk (1940) and then the overture for Star Wars (1977) and hear for yourself the similarities: a loud brass fanfare followed by a romantic melody in strings (it’s not a coincidence).
If you have a favorite Korngold score, I would love to hear about it! Have a great day!
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