[Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1897-1957, bust portrait, facing left], [n.d.]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
It is not surprising that the remarkable melodic gifts of Austrian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, heritor of the late Romantic musical traditions of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, should manifest itself in a significant number of compositions for the voice. Indeed, vocal works form the core of Korngold's œuvre, in which are represented at least five full-length operas, seven song cycles, and additional compositions featuring the voice.
Korngold's interest in the expressive facility of the voice was evident from his very first compositions. His earliest known work, composed at the age of nine, and titled Gold (unfortunately now lost), was scored for solo voices and piano; the work subsequently earned the admiration of composer Gustav Mahler, who, as a result, recommended a course of study for the young Korngold with noted composer Alexander Zemlinsky. Within a few years, Mahler's pronouncement would be echoed by the leading composers and musicians throughout Europe, and the young Korngold hailed as a prodigy.
In 1934, Korngold was invited to Hollywood by opera producer Max Reinhardt, a former colleague of the composer in Vienna who had since emigrated to the United States and had begun to apply his talents in the film industry, to supervise the music to be used in a film version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The acclaim with which Korngold's ingenious approaches to the myriad technical problems posed by the medium were met served to establish his reputation in this genre, and earned him a contract with Warner Brothers studios. The composer was to contribute original musical material to at least twenty films within the following twelve years; the scores for two of these films, Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), were honored with Academy Awards. In these scores, Korngold frequently employed a unique, even operatic approach to composition through the use of brief musical themes, or Leitmotiven, to represent the film's various characters. The association of a specific film character with a specific musical theme allowed great flexibility in depicting a character's general nature and mood at a given moment, as well as imparting to the character a psychological depth which could not be expressed through purely visual means. Korngold's inventive approach to the creation of film music resulted, according to biographer Brendan G. Carroll, in the creation of "richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate" scores that were literally and figuratively "symphonic" in scope; this approach has defined the genre even to our day.
Perhaps seeking a respite from his intensely focused work on his large scale Symphonic Serenade for string orchestra (op. 39, 1947-48), Korngold began work on a set of songs which were eventually published as the Fünf Lieder (Five Songs, op. 38), for medium voice and piano. Based on poems from disparate sources (of twentieth century German poet Richard Dehmel; of nineteenth century German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff; of the American screenplay writer Howard Koch, who had collaborated with Korngold on the film The Sea Hawk of 1940; on an anonymous old English verse; and even on a German translation of a sonnet of William Shakespeare), the set was completed quickly, although some of its musical material may have been composed earlier. The cycle, dedicated to soprano Maria Jeritza (the creator of major roles in three of Korngold's operas), was given its première performance in Vienna on February 19, 1950 by soprano Rosette Anday and the composer at the piano. The Fünf Lieder was to be the last of his eight song cycles, and with the exception of the Sonett für Wien (op. 41; 1953) for mezzo soprano and piano, his last vocal work
- Carroll, Brendan G. The Last Prodigy : A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1997.