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    Korngold’s ‘Tote Stadt,’ one century later

    Original caption: Head and shoulder portrait of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), German composer now in Hollywood. Photo shows Korngold at twenty-two when he had sensational success with his opera "Wozzek." (He wrote his opera "The Snowman" when he was 12.) Photograph, 1919. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
    Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

    When Odyssey Opera performs a keenly anticipated concert version of Korngold’s opera “Die Tote Stadt” next week, it will be, strange to say, the first Boston performance of a once enormously popular work that premiered in 1920. The question of why it took nearly a century for this significant score to arrive here is natural to wonder, and not so simple to answer.

    Which is also to say it requires peering into the dense fog of history, politics, biography, and musical fashion that has always clouded the fascinating, enigmatic career of Erich Korngold.

    Make that Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In this case, we may as well begin with the composer’s middle name, chosen in tribute to Mozart, because this story begins with the fact that Korngold was also one of the most celebrated composer-prodigies in the history of music. At the tender age of 10, he was pronounced a genius by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. Strauss admitted “the greatest astonishment.” Puccini declared him the great hope of German music. Saint-Saens, age 75, could only stammer in amazement and grab hold of the young boy’s hand. Sibelius noted in his diary: “a young eagle.” The conductor Arthur Nikisch raved, “My God, to think of all the treasures that this genius will give to the world.”


    In retrospect, there is something poignant in the profusion of praise the young Korngold elicited from the various gods of late Romanticism during the twilight years of music’s long 19th century — and not only because these men must have heard in Korngold’s lyrical gifts the promise of a modern extension to their endangered musical estates. Despite those incontestable gifts, his concert-music career never delivered on its early promise. Even his most ardent champions may never fully agree on why.

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    Korngold’s biographers tell at least part of the story. After an auspicious run of early successes including a first-class string sextet and, completed at age 23, his sumptuously scored “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”), Korngold’s optimistic voice lost its way amidst the edgier and more brittle “new objectivity” of the interwar years. His early career was both aided but also (probably more so) hampered by being the son of the powerful Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, whose attacks on leading composers of the day effectively closed many doors for his own son, helping to distance him from the mainstream of contemporary music.

    By the early 1930s, Korngold was spending the bulk of his time orchestrating and adapting Johann Strauss Jr. operettas, and in 1934, the Austrian director Max Reinhardt persuaded him to begin composing for Hollywood. When the Nazis annexed the composer’s native Vienna in 1938, Korngold (of Jewish descent) took refuge beneath the palms, just a short walk from the Warner Brothers studio. From that perch, he went on to help usher in the golden age of Romantic film scores, with nearly two dozen to his credit, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Seahawk.” Nor of course was Korngold’s lavish sound a passing fancy in Hollywood’s ear. John Williams’s iconic score for “Star Wars,” for instance, is unthinkable without Korngold’s music for “Kings Row,” written some 35 years earlier.

    For much of the 1930s, Korngold tried to keep up his concert-music career in parallel with his film scoring, and partly for that reason kept blithely returning to Vienna between projects. In Brendan Carroll’s essential biography, among the more surreal images conjured is that of the composer and his father, in the summer of 1937, researching the legend of Robin Hood in the public libraries of Vienna.

    Once Korngold’s American chapter began in earnest, his writing for the concert hall was largely put on hold. In their American exile, some German artists doubled down on their artistic legacy — “Where I am, is Germany,” Thomas Mann famously declared while continuing his literary production, as if to wrest the mantle of German high culture away from the scene of its degradation. But Korngold took a different tack: He pledged privately to cease writing concert music altogether until Hitler was gone, a curious example of so-called “internal exile” combined with actual displacement. At least for a while, Hollywood work seemed to suit him. One fellow émigré icily remarked that Korngold had been a Warner Brothers composer long before he scored his first film.

    Christian Steiner (left)
    Meagan Miller and Jay Hunter Morris will sing the lead roles in the concert version of the opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

    When the war was over, it was largely too late for Korngold’s concert-music career. The contemporary world had set off in a very different direction, and the lushly nostalgic, gold-dusted idiom of this “Viennese Puccini” seemed hopelessly old-fashioned, even — especially — in postwar Vienna. In 1950, Korngold’s opera “Die Kathrin” received its local Viennese premiere, a performance that had been postponed by 12 years because of the war. It was savaged.

    Korngold’s reputation has seen its ups and downs since then, but his body of work — which also includes string quartets, a violin concerto, and a formidable symphony — never really disappeared. By now, “Die Tote Stadt” has been performed in opera houses around the world. In fact, with the fading out of certain ideologies of musical progress, nearly his entire output has been getting a fresh listen, together with other early-20th-century composers dreaming of alternate paths — neither Schoenbergian nor Stravinskian — into music’s future.

    The opera has a libretto written by Korngold and his father, adapted from the Belgian symbolist Georges Rodenbach’s novel “Bruges la Morte.” In the opera, set in late-19th century Bruges, a man named Paul is haunted by the memory of his dead wife, Marie, and falls in love with her likeness, a dancer named Marietta. In a dream, the tormented Paul strangles Marietta, only to awaken and realize he must leave his wife’s memory behind.

    In Odyssey’s upcoming concert performance, the demanding lead roles of Paul and Marie/Marietta will be taken up by two singers in their local debuts: Jay Hunter Morris, who made headlines a few years back for stepping in on short notice to sing Siegfried at the Met, and Meagan Miller, who made her Met debut last season as the Empress in Strauss’s “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose will conduct.

    Reached last week by e-mail, Rose stated that it was time for local opera fans to encounter this lavish yet neglected score. “I hope Boston audiences will come out to hear in person the magnificence of the Korngold sound,” he wrote. “In Jordan Hall it should be simply electric.”

    Jeremy Eichler can be reached at