The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Article excerpt

Brendan G, Carroll. The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press (an imprint of Timber Press), 1997. 464 pp. ISBN 1-57467-029-8 (hardcover).

Fifteen or twenty years ago such composers from the German-Austrian cultural milieu of the early twentieth century as Ferruccio Busoni, Franz Schreker, and Alexander Zemlinsky were usually mentioned in footnotes if at all. Recordings and reprints of scores are now increasingly available; performances have become more frequent, and the scholarly literature is no longer limited to a handful of items. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is another composer from that milieu whose time seems to have come. In his case, recognition goes beyond the scholarly community because of his reputation as a composer of film music. An example of how Korngold's life and music are now reaching audiences not conversant with music scholarship is the announcement in late 1997 of an American show entitled "Korngold-He Haunts My Heart: A Tale of Vienna and Hollywood."

Research on Korngold's life and music has to date been mostly associated with Brendan G. Carroll, whose 1975 dissertation was on Korngold's opera, Violanta. He then contributed the Korngold article to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and in 1983 was instrumental in founding the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Society (Paisley, Scotland). The next year, he published a short monograph.entitled Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-Î957): His Life and Works (Paisley: Wilfion Books, 1984; 2nd impression, 1985). Over the years, he has also contributed liner notes to recordings of Korngold's works. The Last Prodigy seems to have been his life's work. Carroll has spent the last twenty-five years doing research, writing letters, and conducting interviews with friends and associates of the composer. During that time, however, other scholars were beginning to demonstrate that the Viennese composer was increasingly considered worthy of scholarly investigation: indeed, since 1987, more than ten theses or dissertations have been completed, mostly in England and Germany. In 1996, Jessica Duchen-whose thesis on Die tote Stadt was completed at Jesus College (Cambridge) in 1987-published an abundantly illustrated monograph about the composer, directed at a general readership, as part of Phaidon Press's 20th-century Composers series.

Carroll's biography of Korngold is based on 300 hours of taped oral history involving musicians, actors, writers, and others-even the composer's governess-as well as the reminiscences of Korngold's two sons, Ernst Werner (1925-96) and Georg (1928-87). The book, which begins with a foreword by the elder son, also relies heavily on two sources: first, a short biography written by the composer's widow, Luzi von Sonnenthal (1900-1962), and published as Erich Wolfgang Korngold: ein Lebensbild (Vienna: Elisabeth Lafite und Osterreichischer Bundesverlag, 1967); and second, the memoirs of his father, the celebrated music critic Julius Korngold (1860-1945), issued as Die Korngolds in Wien: der Musikkritiker und das Wunderkind (Zurich: M&T Verlag, Edition Musik & Theater, 1991). The correspondence between father and son, amounting to "many thousands of letters," is used extensively, although the recently discovered correspondence library from Korngold's home in Vienna (some 2,000 letters) will have to wait a second edition of the book to be taken into account. While working on the book, the author had privileged access to Korngold's music while assisting in the preparation of the "serious" musical manuscripts for deposit at the Library of Congress in 1980. (The scores and parts, including original sketches, for the film music written for Warner Brothers are located in the Library of the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.)

The book comprises twenty-four chapters grouped into the following six sections: "The Early Years: 1897-1913"; "A Born Opera Composer: 19131918"; "The 'New Music' and the Aftermath of War: 1919-1923"; "The New Dark Age-Hitler's Rise to Power: 1924-1933"; "From Vienna to Hollywood: 1934-1944"; and "The Return to Absolute Music: 1944-1955. …