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From boy genius to swashbuckler composer


This Saturday, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge will mark the 75th anniversary of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with screenings at noon and 4:45 p.m. Director Michael Curtiz’s archetypal swashbuckler was the beneficiary not only of Errol Flynn at the peak of his insouciant charisma, but also of what remains one of the greatest of film scores, by Austrian émigré Erich Wolfgang Korngold (pictured).

Korngold was a late-Romantic prodigy. His father, Julius, was a music critic, and friendly with Gustav Mahler; upon hearing a cantata that 9-year-old Erich had composed, Mahler pronounced the boy a genius. Through his teens, Korngold went from success to success, culminating in his opera “Der tote Stadt,” premiered when he was 23. But after that, his career plateaued. (His “Robin Hood” score would recycle music from his first flop, a large-scale, Straussian tone poem called “Sursum Corda.”)


Max Reinhardt, the legendary theater director, invited Korngold to Hollywood to arrange Mendels-sohn’s music for the 1935 Warner Bros. production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Korngold continued to write film scores for the next few years, shuttling between Hollywood and Vienna. He had just returned to work on “Robin Hood” when the Nazis took over Austria. Korngold settled in California, but stopped composing for the movies less than a decade later.

Someone once asked him why.

“When I first came here, I couldn’t understand the dialogue,” he answered. “Now I can.”

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.