Korngold’s Operatic Dreamscapes

By Larry WolffSeptember 8, 2019

Korngold’s Operatic Dreamscapes
ON MARCH 12, 1938, the Nazi army entered Austria and, without a firing a shot, annexed the country to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss. Though for decades after the war Austria maintained the public pose of having been “Hitler’s first victim,” in fact newsreels show the crowds in Vienna ecstatically cheering Hitler as he made his entrance into the city, speaking to the Viennese from the balcony of the palace of the former Habsburg emperors — while Viennese Jews were forced to their knees to scrub the city’s streets. On May 14, 1938, two months later, Warner Bros. presented one of the great Hollywood hits of the decade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, in brilliant Technicolor, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, in a grand premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who traveled from Vienna to Hollywood before the Anschluss to compose the score, carried off the Oscar that year for his music but, as an Austrian Jew, was unable to bring his trophy home to what had now become Hitler’s Vienna. He died in Los Angeles in 1957.

Korngold, born in 1897, began composing music as a child prodigy, was hailed as a genius at the age of 10 by Gustav Mahler, had his compositions performed by the Vienna Philharmonic when he was a teenager, and became famous for the opera Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), which was first performed in Hamburg in 1920, when Korngold was 23, before winning even greater renown with productions in Vienna and New York in 1921. Based on a Belgian symbolist novella about Bruges, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt centers on a troubled tenor protagonist, Paul, who becomes infatuated with a dancer, the soprano Marietta, who strongly resembles his dead wife. The heart of the opera — the consummation of Paul’s sexual relationship with Marietta, her blasphemous mockery of the relics of his dead wife, and Paul’s violent murder of Marietta — represents either a psychotic collapse or a very disturbing dream from which Paul either recovers or awakens to a healthier mental outlook (and lyrical tenorial composure) before the final curtain.

Korngold, though he came of age at the moment of modernist atonality, remained lushly late-Romantic in his musical style, working within the Austrian and German musical idioms of Mahler and Richard Strauss. He was also sometimes labeled the “Viennese Puccini” for the heightened emotion and agitated orchestration of his operatic work. The Puccinian affinity makes it all the more surprising that Die tote Stadt — which traveled to New York almost immediately in 1921 — has had to wait almost 100 years for its 2019 premiere in Milan at La Scala, the supreme temple of Italian operatic production.

This late arrival of Die tote Stadt at La Scala (where it was performed in May and June) is partly a matter of Korngold’s complicated reputation, dating back to his own lifetime. Though he was hailed as a youthful prodigy (and even compared to Mozart), the success of his early work was regarded skeptically by some, on account of the power and influence of his father, the leading music critic in Vienna. Subsequently, Korngold’s work was regarded with some disparagement by the disciples of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, true believers in atonal “12-tone” music, which was considered by many musicians and critics to be the only new music worth composing in the 20th century. Ironically, Schoenberg ended up in Los Angeles along with Korngold, both of them Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe. The crowning controversy of Korngold’s reputation involved precisely his work in Los Angeles, for the classical music world disdained film scores — even Oscar-winning film scores — as dubious achievements that disqualified a composer from being taken seriously. The composer of Robin Hood (among numerous other Hollywood films) would, ever after, find his operas, his symphony, his piano and violin concertos, his piano quintet and string sextet, all regarded with some suspicion.

At La Scala this spring, Die tote Stadt was also an American event, with the orchestra under the baton of American maestro Alan Gilbert, conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 2009 to 2017. Gilbert, age 52, had not even been born when Korngold died in 1957, and he comes to this music with the perspective of a 21st-century conductor who stands outside the controversies and snobbisms that enveloped Korngold during his lifetime. Die tote Stadt under Gilbert’s guidance emerged as very much a work of 20th-century modernism, with striking dissonances, fierce rhythms, and unusual percussive effects standing in for the bells of Bruges. It was also possible to hear certain stylistic phrasings from Viennese operetta — from Korngold’s childhood world — and some anticipations of his later American film music.

The tenor role of the deeply conflicted widower Paul is so central to Die tote Stadt that at times the opera resembles a cantata for tenor voice. One recent advocate for this opera has been the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, whose highly unusual voice makes him an ideal interpreter of the role. Singing Paul requires the sweetness and lyricism of operetta, but at the same time the stamina to deal with a huge role and a massive orchestra. Vogt, a sensation in Bayreuth, sounds uncannily ethereal in his heroic Wagnerian roles, while harnessing that sound to incongruously powerful lungs and phenomenal breath control, which he partly attributes to his earlier career as a French horn player.

As Korngold’s Paul, awakening from his nightmare in the final act, Vogt offered a delicate lyricism, with pure and sustained tone, shifting into an almost waltzing 3/2 time, then into the daylight clarity of B-flat major, singing piano over pianissimo accompaniment led by the flute, “Ein Traum hat mir den Traum zerstört, ein Traum der bittren Wirklichkeit den Traum der Phantasie” (“A dream has destroyed my dream, a dream of bitter reality [has destroyed] the dream of fantasy”). The line moves gently up and down, touching high F and then high G at the “Traum” that was destroyed, and coming to rest on B-flat with the final syllable of “Phantasie.” There could hardly be a line of text more likely to betray Korngold’s world as Freud’s Vienna, where the principles of psychoanalysis, laid out in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, argued for dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious” and publicly presented, for the first time, the Oedipus complex. The libretto for Die tote Stadt was itself an act of Oedipal sublimation, the collaborative work of Korngold and his father Julius, the music critic, himself a man of roughly Freud’s own patriarchal generation. That Paul, in his dream, would discover sexual ecstasy and then murder his infatuation was almost textbook Freudianism. Freud himself, in 1920, the year of Die tote Stadt, was also thinking dark thoughts, publishing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which proposed the importance of the “death wish” in human civilization.

British director Graham Vick has boldly made Paul’s “dream of bitter reality” into a dream of the 20th century that still lay ahead, unforeseen but not undreamable: the nightmare of choir boys who suddenly turn into Hitler youths, of decadent entertainers who get beaten up by thugs, of men and women with suitcases being rounded up for deportation by policemen with armbands. None of this had happened yet in 1920, when Die tote Stadt had its premiere, but by the time Korngold was composing Robin Hood in Hollywood in 1938, his music was banned in Nazi Germany, along with that of every other Jewish composer, from Mendelssohn to Mahler. Vick’s production, which could seem overblown in its staging of Weimar decadence (Marietta as Sally Bowles) and Nazi brutality, was exceptionally well received at La Scala, where booing is otherwise very common. Italian critics were ready to declare Die tote Stadt the finest production of the whole opera season in Milan, as if the city had been waiting 100 years to give itself over to the dark musical dreaming of Korngold.

Flemish Bruges, the city of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, was the dead city of the title, but by the time Korngold presented Die tote Stadt, his own city of Vienna had also outlived its imperial glory. It was no longer the capital of the far-flung Habsburg lands after World War I, maintaining the palaces of the exiled imperial family as museum relics of a past that had become almost instantly remote by the 1920s. Los Angeles in the 1930s would offer Korngold his engagement with a true metropolis of the 20th century, from the moment he checked into the Chateau Marmont in 1934 to begin work on adapting Mendelssohn’s music for the Hollywood film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hitler had just come to power in Berlin, and with Mendelssohn about to be removed from concert halls in Germany (along with Korngold) as a Jewish composer, Korngold commented to an American reporter, “I think Mendelssohn will outlive Hitler.”

Los Angeles was the city where Korngold outlived Hitler, reimagining the whole genre of film music in the New World while the Nazis banned his classical compositions back in Europe. One of the champions of Korngold’s music has been John Mauceri, conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra from 1991 to 2006, who has programmed and recorded Korngold’s film scores and classical pieces as complementary halves of a unified and coherent life’s work. In 1938, the forest encounters of Robin Hood had the percussive forward momentum of Mahler’s marches, while Robin Hood’s love for Lady Marian was tuned to the strings of a Viennese operetta. The Hollywood figure with whom Korngold’s music has been most closely associated was Errol Flynn, not just in Robin Hood but also in Captain Blood, where Flynn played a notorious pirate, and in The Sea Hawk, where he portrayed an Elizabethan sea captain in the age of the Spanish Armada. In all three films, it was Korngold as composer, working with director Michael Curtiz (himself a Habsburg Jewish émigré in Hollywood), who made Flynn into the swashbuckling hero of the 1930s. Robin Hood’s freedom-loving resistance to tyranny in medieval England was almost surely intended by Curtiz and Korngold as a commentary on tyranny in Europe in the 1930s. Unfortunately, Korngold’s spoken English was not quite up to the tongue-twisting pronunciation of “swashbuckler,” which he allegedly mispronounced as “Schwanz-buckler,” with Schwanz being the German word for “tail” or, more vulgarly, the male genitals.

There was nothing swashbuckling about Die tote Stadt. Instead, Italian commentators on the La Scala production noted the cinematic connection to Alfred Hitchcock, with Paul’s obsession over the resemblance between two women perhaps anticipating the plot of Vertigo (1958). If there’s a Korngold film that stands closest to the spirit of Die tote Stadt, it’s probably Kings Row (1942), which depicts the twisted mental disorders that lie just beneath the surface of small-town America. Korngold’s music for that film helped make a movie star out of the young Ronald Reagan, and a Kings Row orchestral suite was performed as part of Reagan’s inaugural celebration in 1981. Korngold received further attention this summer in the Hudson River Valley when Bard College put him at the center of its summer festival, including also a rare staged performance — the American premiere, actually — of his less successful opera of 1927, Das Wunder der Heliane (“The Miracle of Heliane”), the musical parable of a totalitarian state. Here, the tenor is a spiritual redeemer, and the soprano undertakes the miracle of bringing about his resurrection.

The most famous piece of music in Die tote Stadt is the haunting aria, self-consciously old-fashioned, that Marietta sings in the first act — her “lute song” — as she supposedly accompanies herself on the antique instrument. The Armenian-Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian gorgeously executed the breathtaking leap up to high B-flat on the word “Abend” (evening), floating that note in the unique 18th-century acoustical space of La Scala. That storied venue has witnessed the whole history of the soprano voice, from the premieres of Bellini’s Norma in 1831 and Puccini’s Turandot in 1926 to the fabled 1950s, when Maria Callas reinvented the entire Italian soprano repertory.

Marietta’s song was thrilling at La Scala, but hearing it performed in the context of the whole opera, one realizes that it is not a soprano aria but a duet, for the tenor participates, begs her for a second verse, and then joins her in the leap to B-flat when it comes around a second time, marked with a fermata to allow them to linger on the note. The same music returns in the concluding scene of the opera, when Paul has awakened from his dream and Marietta has disappeared: the key shifts to B-flat as Paul sings, “A dream has destroyed my dream.” Finally, a new level of quietude is established by a chord for the winds and brass playing quadruple piano (pppp), the signal for Paul to return to the principal melody of Marietta’s song. He is now all by himself, alone on stage, looking toward his new life, accompanied by lute-like harps and pizzicato plucked strings: he launches the sustained high B-flat through the opera house on the word “Leben” (life). Vogt could not have made the note sound sweeter. Korngold’s strange modernist masterpiece, with an old-fashioned song at its heart, was composed when Korngold and the 20th century were still young, fervently dreaming, but very well aware, in Freud’s Vienna, that dreams may reveal our darker selves.


Larry Wolff is a professor of European history at NYU and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. His books include The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon and the forthcoming Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe.


Banner image: Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt in performance of Die tote Stadt at Teatro alla Scala. Photo by Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano.


LARB Contributor

Larry Wolff is a professor of European history at NYU, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He writes about the history of ideas, culture, and music, and his most recent book is The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!