When Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto was first performed, in 1947, one critic declared it was “more corn than gold,” but since then, it has become one of the best loved late-Romantic concertos, as rich as sacher-torte and emotional as a full moon on the horizon.
The Phoenix Symphony will perform the concerto this week with English violinist Chloe Hanslip, sharing the program with an odd version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” not in the familiar orchestration by the French Maurice Ravel, but in an alternate version by Sergei Gorchakov, a Soviet-era composer who wanted to make the familiar concert piece sound “more Russian.”
“He puts a little dollop of sour cream in his version,” says Michael Christie, Phoenix Symphony music director.
But if there’s sour cream in this “Pictures,” the Korngold concerto is all whipped cream. “Mit Schlag,” as they say in Vienna.
Korngold came by his rich taste honestly. He was born in 1897 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his music was first played in Emperor Franz Joseph’s Vienna when the composer was just 11 years old. Korngold was a prodigy, and he absorbed the culture of fin-de-siecle Vienna like a sponge.
It was the time of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg. New ideas and the last over-ripe fruiting of Romanticism mixed to create early Modernism.
Korngold was just a kid when he was hailed by Mahler as a “musical genius,” and recognized by Richard Strauss and Alexander von Zemlinsky, the young Korngold developed a style of orchestral music that was highly complex harmonically and orchestrally. Lush is the word.
His music and his operas were performed frequently, but in 1934, he was seduced by Hollywood, and then, when Hitler came to power, the Jewish Korngold felt he could not return to Europe and spent the next 10 years writing some of the best and most famous movie music ever penned, including that of the 1938 Errol Flynn “Adventures of Robin Hood.”
He won two Oscars, was nominated many times more, and, along with Max Steiner and a few others — most of them émigré Jews — created the Hollywood movie-music sound that still prevails in film. There would be no “Star Wars” music if it had not been for Korngold and his ilk.
But he felt underappreciated as a movie composer. No one took him seriously as a concert composer, and after World War II, he gave up film scores and began writing music for the concert hall once again. The Violin Concerto was one of the first pieces he wrote for that.
If Korngold brought symphonic music to films, he also brought film music to his concerto. It is made up of melodies originally used in scores for such films as “Juarez,” “Another Dawn,” “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”
But the soaring opening melody of the concerto, which runs over two octaves in just five notes, may sound vaguely familiar from TV, not movies.
When composer Alexander Courage wrote the theme music to “Star Trek,” he must surely have had Korngold’s concerto in mind, at least subconsciously, as he wrote the music, and the similarities, both melodically and harmonically, immediately spring to mind on hearing it.
Both pieces of music express an expansiveness, a reaching out to the mythic and larger cosmos.
“It has everything you could want in a piece tremendously emotional and emotive,” says Hanslip, speaking from her home in London.
“But the second movement is my favorite,” she says. “It is so painful and nostalgic.
“And the last movement is so much fun to play.
“I tend to do a lot of Romantic 20th century pieces,” she says.
“Perhaps it’s a forgotten part of the 20th century, but not all the music is painful to hear,” she says.
The Korngold concerto is gorgeous, but it is also short.
If Romanticism has a fault, it is that sometimes the music tends to go on rather a bit. Symphonies can last an hour and a half.
But Korngold’s concerto lasts barely more than 20 minutes.
Perhaps he learned something in Hollywood about showmanship.
“He knows how to leave you wanting more.”