Magazine article The Spectator

Knowingly Oversold

Magazine article The Spectator

Knowingly Oversold

Article excerpt

Film music, once a dirty word, is now high praise. When Miklos Rozsa was Radio Three Composer of the Week recently the presenter's hype was so upbeat as to cause wonder at what he could possibly say for Beethoven or Wagner. And in this, his centenary year, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hollywood's most celebrated working musician, seems poised for a niche in the pantheon of modern masters.

Abjured or admired, the quality film music requires, beyond the tunefulness, accessibility, atmosphere-creating which go without saying, is exactness in connoting. Film-music, in those heady days with their surging symphonic scores, had to issue explicit instructions on how the viewer should react - this is anxiety, danger, relief, rejoicing, love, a happy end. Such tropes aren't exactly unknown to previous music, obviously; especially in opera and in the projection of drama, character and self that fuels late romantic symphonism. What's needed for King Kong Robin Hood, King of Kings, and thousands of others, is for the musical message to be large, lurid and unmistakable. Rozsa's backing for Mowgli's narration in The Jungle Book sets out some basic moves with delightful slickness - the svelte panther, the chuckling bear, the gliding serpent, prominent among a large supporting case of cliches. And Korngold, who after his early exposure as a prodigy had seen his operatic double-bill at the age of 19 and enjoyed vast success with Die Tote Stadt at 23, shows the same gift for demonstrative verisimilitude, on a grander scale. The climax of his European career, the super-degenerate Miracle of Heliane, came in 1927 at the ripe old age of 30. Hollywood was waiting.

Something is wrong with his serious music. Those useful German words kitsch, schmaltz, ersatz - all apply. It's difficult to define just how Korngold's operas, possibly the most accomplished ever written in terms of technical prowess and sheer-silk finish, are unmistakably all three - trash, lard, imitation - in plain American, tacky; in plain English, tat. But what's wrong with it is right for Hollywood where he flourished like the green bay-tree.

Korngold and Rozsa were supreme wizards of this newest profession, with its roots in the old European high culture that they consistently strove to retain. And in view of the claims now made, for Korngold's serious concert-works in particular, I've been exploring them with keen curiosity. There are two main aspirants. The Violin Concerto (1945) uses material from his filmscores, the Symphony (1947-52) doesn't, though its idiom is similar. An idiom surprisingly unbeholden to his Austrian origins. In the Concerto, though I discern a glaring quotation from the slow movement of Mahler's Fourth, the accent when the music is sensuous, is French with a Slavic tinge; when vigorous it is cheerfully American, in cowboy-breakfast-cereal mode. The three movements grow steadily in quality. The first (sources, Another Dawn and Jaurez) alternates lushness with pyrotechnics, both equally stereotyped: the juxtaposition produces no tension and the final impression is desultory. The lyric second (Anthony Adverse) presents decorative melodisation rather than melody, against a high-cholesterol background shimmer with plenty of vibraphone. …

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