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Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month: Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the Shaping of Film Music

If you have a pretty good idea about what Hollywood movie music sounds like, you may like to learn about Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), the composer who significantly helped develop film scores.

What made Korngold’s Hollywood music so successful? More than any other music used for film before, Korngold’s film scores were precisely tailored to their stories. His music created a deep emotional connection between the pictures, the narrative, and viewers. It provided an almost tangible dimension, because it made viewers not only see and hear, but feel what was going on. The music drew viewers into the story and made them experience what the characters were psychologically going through. Korngold’s music powerfully bridged the gap between fiction and reality.

Korngold was born in Brünn, Austria-Hungary, that is today Brno, Czech Republic, May 29, 1897. Korngold was a child prodigy. When he was four years old, he could play back any melody he heard, and by the time he was seven, started composing music. At age 9, Korngold played his own cantata titled “Gold” to Gustav Mahler, who stated that Korngold was a musical genius. Two years later, Korngold published chamber music, piano music, and completed his first programmatic piece “Der Schneemann,” a pantomime in two acts. It was such a brilliant work that in 1910, the Vienna Court Opera staged it with great success.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), bust portrait, facing left. Undated photograph in black and white. He is wearing a dark top. The picture is undated and the blog author estimates that it shows the composer probably in his late teenage years or early 20s.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), bust portrait, facing left. Undated photograph. Retrieved from //www.loc.gov/item/2005689510/

In addition to instrumental and chamber music, Korngold soon dedicated his skills to writing operas. As early as in 1914, he completed “Der Ring des Polycrates,” followed by “Violanta” in 1916. His most famous opera from 1920, “Die tote Stadt,” was performed in Hamburg and Cologne. Moreover, “Die tote Stadt” was premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera November 19, 1921. At the time, Korngold was 24 years old.

When history turned dark in Europe with the rise of Nazism, World War II and the devastating destruction of lives, arts and cultures, Jewish persons who were able to leave in time did so. Among them was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Fellow composer Max Reinhardt had encouraged Korngold to join him in Hollywood in the 1930s, and Korngold soon settled with his family in Los Angeles.

The movie company “Warner Brothers” recruited Korngold with an unusually generous contract. The contract asked him to write two movie scores per year for a salary that would be today the equivalent of around 500K, and he would even retain the rights to the music. By comparison, Max Steiner, who had written music to the movie “Gone with the Wind,” was composing many more scores per year, and had no rights to any of the film music he had written!

“Warner Brothers’” investment quickly paid off: Korngold immediately became a successful film composer. His first Academy Award nomination was for the music to “Captain Blood” (1935). One year later, he won an Oscar for the film score to “Anthony Adverse.” His best-known, Oscar-winning film score was for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). The music was so engaging that Warner Brothers even used it to promote the movie via radio broadcast! Listen here to the introduction of that 1938 radio feature:

Source of sound file: //tile.loc.gov/storage-services/media/recordedsound/Adventures-of-Robin-Hood_1938-05-11.mp3

Poster of Robin Hood Movie from 1938. Upper right corner shows Robin Hood with bow and arrow, wearing a green hat, behind him a pretty woman with dark hair. Lower left corner is dominated by a read triangle shaped shield with the writing: ROBIN HOOD with Errol Flinn. Bottom right corner has small print with further movie credentials including Erich Wolfgang Korngold for the music.

Poster for the original theatrical run of the 1938 American film “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Illustrator unknown. Distributed by Warner Bros., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2005, “The Adentures of Robin Hood” was included in the National Film Registry.

Korngold received more Oscar nominations in 1939 for “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” and in 1940 for “The Sea Hawk.” Korngold, who became a U.S. citizen in 1943, contributed to around 20 film scores during his time working for the film industry.

How did Korngold achieve this? Most notably, he minutely worked through the movie script and pictures to develop emotionally captivating music to match the narrative. He skillfully applied his well-developed techniques to create the atmospheric context. His music palette included a broad range of tools, rich orchestration, harmony and dissonance, contrasts of high and low ranges, soft and loud dynamics, brief dramatic or comical motives, varying instrument groups, as well as heroic sections and lyrical melodies.

For these and more reasons, Korngold was seminal in shaping the genre of film music. Research literature recognizes him and his contemporaries Max Steiner (1888-1971) and Franz Waxman (1906-1967), who shared a very similar personal histories and careers, as the founders of Hollywood movie music.

If this blog sparked your interest, you may enjoy listening to Paul Sommerfeld’s lecture on Korngold available from BARD or the Library’s Webcast Archives. You can download the hyperlinked NLS materials listed below directly from BARD. If you prefer to receive NLS Music Section materials by mail, or have any other questions, please contact us by calling 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or by sending us an e-mail at [email protected]

Post Scriptum in recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month: Additional famous Jewish film-composers include Ernst Toch (1887-1964), Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), Alex North (1901-1991), Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), James Horner (1953–2015), Phillip Glass (b. 1937), Howard Shore (b. 1946) and Danny Elfman (b. 1953).

Recommendations from the NLS Collection

Audio
#Declassified: In Search of Korngold. 2019. Library of Congress Music Division Lecture. (DBM04451)
Considered one of the most influential film composers for early Hollywood sound-film, Erich Korngold is arguably most remembered for his swashbuckling scores for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Yet his lyrical melodies, rich textures, virtuosic orchestration, and pronounced theatricality remain constant threads in all of his film scores–threads that continue to inspire composers in the present era, from John Williams to the late James Horner. Paul Sommerfeld, a reference specialist in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, demonstrates how Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s compositional techniques proved to be a powerful influence in defining the sound and style of music in Hollywood film. Examples from the film “Captain Blood,” in addition to Korngold’s own musical sketches, correspondence and other ephemera such as production stills and marketing materials, weave the story of how the sounds of classical Hollywood film music continue to shape our interpretations of film in the present.

Music by Max Steiner. The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer. (DB 100285)

An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble: Klezmer and Other Yiddish Music from New York. The An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble, renowned Yiddish folk singers Michael Alpert and Ethel Raim, tsimblist (hammered dulcimer player) Pete Rushefsky and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, celebrates the hundredth Anniversary of the historic An-sky Expedition. This 1911-1914 ethnographic expedition systematically documented the Jewish folk culture of dozens of communities in Ukraine and White Russia. It is named for its leader, Yiddish writer and folklorist Semyon An-sky, pen name of Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (1863-1920), who is best known as the author of the groundbreaking play “The Dybbuk. (DBM04300)

James Horner. My Heart Will Go On, from the Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox motion picture “Titanic.” Learn by Ear Series, for piano, performed and taught by Bill Brown. (DBM01754)

Braille
Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35. Violin part only. (BRM36909)

“Brownies.” For piano in bar over bar format (BRM00283)

Alex North. “Unchained Melody,” for voice and piano. From the Warner Bros. release Unchained. Single line and bar over bar formats. (BRM33803)

Ernst Toch. Five Times Ten Studies for Beginners, op. 59. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM25239)

Hanns Eisler. 7 Piano Pieces. For piano in paragraph format. (BRM21284)

James Horner. “My Heart Will Go On,” from the Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox motion picture Titanic.” For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM30015)

John Williams. The John Williams Piano Anthology. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM37657)

Philip Glass. Violin Concerto. (1987) Violin solo with piano reduction in single line and bar over bar formats. (BRM36805)

The Piano Collection. Bar over bar format. (BRM36688)

More Resources from the Library of Congress

Music Division, Paul Sommerfeld, #Declassified: In Search of Korngold. 2019. Video.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold collection, 1889-2008. Approximately 9,000 items. 97 containers. 45 linear feet. 17 microfilm reels. Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Finding aid.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1897-1957. Web Article.

Liebe Luzi!: Letters from the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Collection. Blog. June 24, 2020 Guest post from Music Archivist Dr. Stephanie Akau, published by Paul Sommerfeld.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (May 11, 1938). Added to the National Registry: 2005. Essay by Brendan G. Carroll (guest post).

An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble: Klezmer and Other Yiddish Music from New York. 2013. Video.

Jewish Song in America. Web Article.