Erich Korngold, String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 34

January 23, 2021

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 34, 1945

Erich Wolfgang Korngold The Austrian, Jewish composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was arguably one of the very last European Romantics. Born in Vienna just before the turn of the 20th Century, the son of a prominent music critic, Korngold was soon identified as a startling child prodigy and proclaimed the Mozart of a new age. While still very young, his music astonished some of Europe’s finest Avant-garde composer including Mahler, Strauss and Puccini. At only 11 years old, his ballet "The Snowman" became a sensation. His first published opus was sophisticated piano trio from his 12th year. The noted pianist Artur Schnabel championed Korngold’s second piano sonata composed when he was merely 13. One success after another propelled Korngold forward as a composer as well as a conductor of first-rate opera and other stage works as he also managed to become a professor at the Vienna State Academy. A poll taken at the time asked the Viennese public whom they considered to be the most famous composer of the day. The answers were split between Korngold and his older compatriot, Arnold Schoenberg. Yet while Schoenberg was already far along into his own modern, revolutionary twelve-tone music, Korngold remained, for the rest of his life, within the orbit of tonal, Romantic music after the fashion of Mahler and Strauss while nonetheless showcasing his own original voice.

Between the profound influences of Hollywood and World War II, Korngold’s life would undergo an extraordinary twist of fate. Max Reinhardt, Viennese theater producer, impresario and one of Korngold’s colleague established a brilliant career of his own in the American film business and, early on, invited Korngold to the U.S. to compose film scores. A nascent art form within a young but burgeoning industry became a fantastic vehicle for Korngold who became famous all over again as one of the founding fathers of film score composition winning multiple academy awards over the span of some 16 films between 1933-1947. One of them saved his life. On his second trip from Vienna to Los Angeles in 1938, Korngold composed the award-winning score for The Adventures of Robin Hood staring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. While engrossed in Hollywood, Hitler annexed Austria, occupied Vienna and ultimately unleashed Kristallnacht. The consequences could have been devastating for him, but Korngold remained safely abroad. He stayed in the U.S., eventually became a citizen, visited Vienna after the war (where sadly, he was no longer acclaimed), and died at home in Los Angeles in 1957 at the age of 60. Not long after his death, Korngold became a small footnote in the history of cinematic music deemed, particularly because of his work in Hollywood, unworthy of mention in any history of more “serious” concert music. With the release of an album of film score highlights by Warner Brothers in 1973, the world rediscovered Korngold and his reputation for both film and abstract concert music has only appreciated. Several of his works are now in the standard repertoire.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold Korngold’s third and last string quartet dates from 1945, just a few years before he retired from his film career as he returned, in his final years, to composing once again the fine concert music of his youth. It is expertly crafted chamber music in a classic four-movement design with music that is entirely characteristic of Korngold’s musical imagination. As Schubert and Mahler, among others, reused their songs for more elaborate concert works, so Korngold here repurposes music from at least three of his prior film scores. The lyrical middle section (e.g. the “trio”) of the second movement scherzo is from Between Two Worlds. The haunting slow movement (positioned third) is based on a love scene from The Sea Wolf and the lively finale is based on a theme from the film Devotion. The first two movements seem to feel the most “modern” with their chromatic and occasionally dissonant tendencies while the final two movements inhabit exhibit more of the late Romantic style of Korngold’s original pre-war context. Throughout, one senses Korngold’s sensitivity to theme, motive, rhythm, color, texture and dynamics all in the service of compelling dramatic narrative well suited to film scores and abstract concert music alike.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.