Has Korngold’s time finally come?

Has Korngold’s time finally come?


norman lebrecht

March 31, 2018

Reports from the Berlin Deutsche Oper production of Das Wunder der Heliane have been overwhelming. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s long-neglected opera has proved itself a musical and dramatic masterpiece on stage.

Quarter of a century ago, when Decca was casting a recording for its Entartete Musik series, few major singers wanted to touch a role they would never sing again and some were positively afraid of its demands.

Now, I suspect they will be queuing up for a chance to perform in it.

Michael Haas, producer of the Entartete Musik series, has written an essay on the myths and realities of Korngold.

The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema or is it l’art pour l’art – a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely ‘disposable’? 

Read on here.



  • Rob says:

    The famous and powerful aria Ich ging zu ihm was sung at the Proms a few years ago. Die tote Stadt is also amazing with it’s distinctive cascading harps, glockenspiel piano orchestration.
    Now how about Pfitzner’s Die Rose vom Liebesgarten ? A staple of Mahler’s at the Weiner Hofoper.

    • David Hilton says:

      Yes, the scene was performed at the Proms a few years ago by Renee Fleming with Noseda conducting. And recorded around that time by her on her CD entitled ‘Homage’, where she is joined by Gergiev and the Maryinsky Orchestra.

      And of course the entire opera was performed at the Festival Hall with Patricia Racette in the title role in 2007, Jurowski conducting.

      • EricB says:

        And it was given in Kaiserslautern a few years ago, in Freiburg (concert version) last summer, in Antwerpen (last fall)….
        The end of purgatory for Das Wunder ????
        We sincerely HOPE so !!!

  • RW2013 says:

    Fabulous performances of a fabulous work!
    It was filmed last night for DVD.
    Brian Jagde is sensational.

    • psq says:

      Agree on both counts. As for the production, there was no Regietheater that got in the way of the drama on stage.

    • EricB says:

      Indeed. Examplary on all accounts, musically, vocally and theatrically.
      I’m going for a refill tonight !

  • Michael Haas says:

    Thank you for the mention! I also wrote an additional article just focusing on “Das Wunder der Heliane” which some of your readers may find interesting: https://forbiddenmusic.org/2017/07/09/das-wunder-der-heliane/

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very interesting story….. but it seems that the tastlessness of both subject and music appeals to the tastelessness of our own time, with its indulgend ‘sexiness’ which is rather juvenile – probably shocking in old Vienna but, like Klimt, Schiele and Gerstl, only understandable against the background of a repressed, hysterical society.

      With such remnants of late romanticism around (aesthetics shared by Strauss, Schreker, Braunfels) it is understandable that Stravinsky decided to try the opposite:


  • David Rowe says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Norman! I will leave the philosophical reasoning to others, but have been noticing a significant trend regarding the headline question myself in recent years. As a manager representing chamber music performers for over 30 years, I can report that until 2013 not a single ensemble under my management carried a single work by Korngold. However, since then various ensembles have offered a number of works: String Quartets 2 and 3, String Sextet, Piano Quintet, and even the Suite for 2 violins, cello, and piano left hand. Not only have these works been offered, but when chosen (fairly often!) by presenters have been widely appreciated by audiences despite – or perhaps because of? – their relative unfamiliarity. Whatever the dynamic, I would answer your question with an unqualified “yes”!

    • Larry W says:

      It is both curious and encouraging to read this. Twenty-eight years ago this week, the Lyric Art Quartet recorded “Classical Hollywood,” which included Korngold’s 2nd String Quartet and works by Gerome Moross and Bernard Hermann. We were nominated for a Grammy.

  • Rich C. says:

    If Mahler called him a genius, that’s good enough for me!

  • John Borstlap says:

    The reason for Korngold’s delayed success in the opera house is simply that there is a need for new, effective works which cannot be fulfilled by contemporary works, because of the problems of musical language. Korngold, Schreker, Goldschmidt, Braunfels all stem from the time when writing effective opera music was still a living tradition, and rooted in the tonal tradition. When that was kicked away, nothing came into its place that could be as effective, in an expressive and lyrical sense, as the richness of tonal languages – the last meaningful explorations having been Strauss, Puccini, Debussy and Bartok.

    • Player says:


    • The View from America says:


    • Cubs Fan - NRA member says:

      Agree, but there are modern operas that would be gratefully accepted by audiences if given the chance. Menotti, Prokofieff, Nielsen, Weinberger, Zemlinsky all wrote operas in a style not that far from Korngold. There are great tunes, lucid orchestration and plenty of chills and thrills. Our American opera companies have their needles stuck:: Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, Rossini…repeat. But this is good news – maybe more of the Korngold operas will get out there. And then, in my dream, Schmidt’s Notre Dame and Fredegundis, which are also cut from the same cloth.

      • EricB says:

        Don’t know Fredegundis, but can’t wait to see a (good) production of Notre-Dame. It only takes one curious opera director to start the “new trend” and soon we’ll see productions of Notre-Dame flourishing here and there… 😉 (like for Die Tote Stadt, Der Zwerg, Die Geszeichneten, the Meyerbeer craze, and now Das Wunder….).
        How about Delius’s Village Romeo & Juliet ???? Here too, garanteed success for the opera director who’ll launch the trend.

    • Frederick West says:

      Spot on Mr B! Whilst Das Wunder might have a rather loopy plot it still works. And thanks for mentiong his contemporaries, all of whom should be heard and seen more often.

    • David Hilton says:

      An extremely insightful and well-expressed comment, John. Though I would have added Janacek to Strauss, Puccini, Debussy and Bartok in your list.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, absolutely right. Janacek is great.

        • buxtehude says:

          And Gershwin.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Well…. only Porgy. And Bess.

          • Kevin Scott says:

            Not for nothing, but…

            Gershwin’s first major serious composition, apart from his 1919 Lullaby for string quartet, was his one-act opera “Blue Monday”, written for the George White Scandals of 1923, but withdrawn after one performance. This work, more-or-less a homage to Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” has since been performed and recorded in several orchestral versions (Will Vodery’s original and one by George Bassman).

            I do agree that had he lived, Gershwin would have composed much more serious works, but with John Borstlap saying Schoenberg would have remained on the other side of the fence, I’d like to point out that Gershwin was enamored with Schoenberg’s music (he helped produce the first commercial recording of his quartets with the Kolisch Quartet), as well as the music of his pupil Alban Berg, whose Lyric Suite and songs he deeply admired. My view is that Gershwin’s works would have become much darker with a dense, dramatic view, especially with World War 2, though he would not have forsaken his gifted lyricism. The composer closest to what I imagine Gershwin would have sounded like in the 1940s and 1950s is David Raksin who, by the way, studied with Schoenberg.

        • buxtehude says:

          This is like saying, OK, but only Carmen.

          I really didn’t think I’d need to remind you John that George lived only about 21 months from the time Porgy and Bess opened in New York (October 1935); he was dead at age 38.

          His “classical” phase had begun only in 1924, with the Rhapsody. Long stretches of the remaining years were consumed in returns to the shallows of Broadway musicals, for money reasons: he got relatively little support and plenty of scorn, too, by the way, for the the long-form music we celebrate today. And he was definitely committed to writing only that in future, when the calamity of his brain tumor struck.

          Otherwise we’d have from him a dozen operas and oratorios, plus symphonies concertos and chamber works for almost as many combinations of instruments as Martinu’s. He and Martinu by the way would have become great friends and competitors — Gershwin was already an important influence, from 1925 to his death in 1959 — and Korngold, who could have used such company in Hollywood, would have become part of that little in-group.

          Through the following decades the USA would have seemed a much friendlier environment for great composers, and I wouldn’t be the only one writing in at this remove to remind you that such a one as Gershwin once existed.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Surely Janáček, Szymanowski, Weill, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Britten also fulfil your criteria: effective, expressive, lyrical, tonal, and part of a living tradition. You make it sound as though Strauss, Puccini, Debussy, and Bartók gave way to nothing but Moses und Aron and Le Grand Macabre. If you will allow Salome and Bluebeard’s Castle, surely operas such as Riders to the Sea, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Billy Budd cannot seem too avant garde.

      • John Borstlap says:

        You are right. There is enough in the last century to provide new thrills – but they all are rooted in earlier aesthetics, which is their redeeming feature. I forgot to mention Prokofiev’s operas, because I don’t like their cynical overtones, but they are equally important and effective. There have been more performances recently of Prok’s operas in the west.

        • Bob Jones says:

          The Los Angeles Opera did Love for Three Oranges during one of the company’s earliest seasons. It was interesting but not something I’d love to see/hear again.

        • Lynn says:

          “There is enough in the last century to provide new thrills – but they all are rooted in earlier aesthetics, which is their redeeming feature.”

          I would add Hindemith’s “Cardillac” and “Mathis der Maler”

    • David R Osborne says:

      Yes, of course. Korngold is one composer from the first half of the 20th century whose work has been criminally neglect, and not just his operas- I think someone else mentioned his wonderful chamber music.

      But this is definitely not the time to be calling holus-bolus for revivals of ‘neglected’ work from the era. Most of the composers mentioned in this thread, (exhibit A Hans Pfitzner!), played a big role in the early part of music’s decline, because their work was by and large lacking in inspiration, dreary, academic, joyless and to be frank 2nd rate.

      Let’s not allow the people at the top, music’s programmers and decision-makers, yet another excuse to postpone what must be their first priority, that which they have failed at for so long: Identifying and introducing works created in our time, that connect with audiences in a meaningful way.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, but what about the lack of operatic talent today? Composers don’t dare to pick-up ‘older’ aesthetics, fearing to be labelled ‘conservative’, and in case they would explore such possibilities – comparable with new figurative painting and new classical architecture which is already an accepted option elsewhere – they lack the craft and the imagination to produce effective opera music. It’s not something like a tap you open at will and there’s good music coming out of it. And thus, what you see / hear, often is a pop-infested world music melange that is forgotten the moment it is heard, or the production is dominated with visual elements to cover-up musical poverty.

        • EricB says:

          The problem is that geniuses such as Korngold don’t come in twenties every century, and the vast majority of today’s composers have about a tenth of the genius and competences of a Korngold… and they have to compensate lack of true inspiration and craftsmanship with cheap tricks (visual, or staging).

          • buxtehude says:

            Yes and the discovery of geniuses will be ever more constrained because the role of “composer” is niche, obscure, not-aspirational as it used to be and the need for music-making in the home completely vanished by 1960 and with it the need to participate in music, including learning to read it and understanding how it can be put together.

            But I agree with John and things should get better when the current gate-keepers are replaced, somehow… It could turn out that the breakthrough of a single person could start a trend…

        • David R Osborne says:

          Somehow I have a hunch they’re out there right now John. Maybe even finding strong support from many within the opera houses, but as yet the power of the avant-garde police is too strong, the risks too great…

          • John Borstlap says:

            The irony is that there is nowhere an avantgarde police officer to be found, no party comitee member is checking the programming plans of opera houses, there is no instruction manuel providing guidelines for new works to be included in the season offerings. It is not necessary: the barrier is in the programmers’ heads, having been internalized, after having been educated somewhere in the eighties or nineties and having absorbed conventional wisdom. Stepping outside a paradigm is extremely frightening, you may become the laughing stock of the profession and loose your job – which is all imaginary of course, but these are the real fears in the back of their heads. Once the programmer of an important German orchestra told me that he much liked the music, that is was very good on all accounts, but that it did not reflect contemporary concerns – not enough dissonances and misery and confusion and electronic gadgets and the like. So they prefer to inflict misery upon audiences, who need to be instructed about the evil of the world, and become politically and socially aware of the state of society and forget for a moment that they are bourgeois fogeys who need a thorough spanking. The patronizing attitude towards audiences, who are supposed to pay for their tickets and thus support the art form, is breathtaking – but they don’t realize it.

  • minacciosa says:

    It is fantastic to see the world finally coming to terms with Korngold’s surpassing accomplishment. It takes persistence and repetition to establish “new” and worthy works on the opera stage and performances of this present caliber have been years in the making. Still, we should not forget to look closer to home, for there are gems to be found. The operas of Nicolas Flagello are serious, psychological and cathartic. He was actually a kind of American Korngold in his ability to incorporate heartrending melody within an advanced, tonally based idiom. If given proper exposure, there is no doubt that these works would be enthusiastically welcomed by audiences.

    • John Borstlap says:

      According to my computer, this video holds inappropriate content, probably due to a modernist antivirus installation programme. But surely this Flagello will have written something worthwhile, I have read about it and heard something at another occasion. But such music has been considered ´not in step with the times´, as if there is some overarching authority deciding which art is meaningful and which is not. All this is the result of a misunderstanding of the notion of ´progress´, which does exist in science but not in the arts.

      I always found Korngold, also his early works, too thin in musical substance and close to kitsch, all that easy emotionalism, the obvious gestures, etc. But it is still so much better than Xenakis. Composers like Korngold are highly gifted but they remain at the surface of things.

      • Kevin Scott says:

        Far from it. I’m sure John McLaughlin Williams would agree with me, but Korngold’s music is not thin in substance. It may lack a certain finesse in terms of overall architecture (I’m thinking of some of his early chamber works), but he knew what he wanted from the orchestra, as one can attest to his early Sinfonietta, a symphony in all but name.

        The operas can fall into the trap of something close to “kitsch” as you mentioned only if the conductor and/or the singers treat these works either as inferior Strauss or second-rate Puccini by not taking them seriously enough, which is an insult to Korngold’s music and vision.

        Though he was not entirely sympathetic to most of his contemporaries (I hold his father responsible for trying to steer his son away from the pioneering visions of many composers, even if the young Erich adored Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, and knew the early scores of Schoenberg), Korngold did manage to absorb some of their styles into his music on his terms. Heliane, for all its beauty, pays homage not only to the aforementioned Dukas opera and Strauss’ hyper-romantic operas such as Die Frau ohne Schatten and The Egyptian Helen, but in some ways one can hear him stretching the bounds of tonality to the point where he wants to disrupt its center and go into another dimension. He may not have been warm to Berg’s Wozzeck, but in some ways there are times in the opera where he wants to go toward that direction. (He does in a brief cue depicting Carlotta’s madness in William Dieterle’s 1939 film “Juarez”.)

        Korngold, for my money, continues to strike gold and less korn, unless his music is placed in those who underestimate his style and his vision.

      • John Borstlap says:

        To Kevin:

        For instance, here a spicy ‘Russian’ music quickly gives way to easy sentimentality, destroying the promising effect:


        Or, here is some friendly salonmusic:


        Some people found this not sentimental enough and clothed the innocent nudity of the original with more respectable garb:


        The whiteness of strings protected K somewhat from Hollywood indulgence:


        … but you can feel his longing looks over the ridge before quickly returning to some proper dissonance.

        Anyway, the man was full of invention and if you have been in Vienna and know the Musikverein and 1st Bezirk, you can imagine the bewilderment of papa Julius, once the feted music critic of Vienna’s music life, to find himself and his brilliant son in bland California, with Erich’s promising future in titters.

        • minacciosa says:

          John, it’s interesting that you picked mostly works that cannot be called representative of Korngold to support your point of view. Korngold wrote Der Schneeman when he was ten years old and by the time he was twelve, his manner had changed significantly. By fourteen and sixteen there were even more changes, none of which to my ears sounds anything like your characterizations. The Symphonic Serenade is a serious and fully representative work, but again, I do not hear anything in that which supports your opinion (which you are certainly entitled to hold).

          • John Borstlap says:

            These were random examples…. I should have a closer look into his operas, that is where most of his efforts seem to have gone into.

  • John Borstlap says:

    it may be interesting to compare Korngold’s way of being romantic, which I find really thin, with something comparable, using the same devices:


    This is not better simply because it’s Wagner and we got used to finding Wagner better than X,Y and Z, but because of the emotional depth which uses the same devices slightly differently so that they have a different effect. It is not a question of musicality, I think, but of personality: a richter emotional range determines different choices from the infinite range of possibilities within a tradition.

    • minacciosa says:

      And here you commit the sin of impugning one composer for not being another. That’s a no-no. The fruit of the Wagnerian tree was indeed rich, ripe, and varied, and we are thrilled that it yielded such astonishing and lasting variety.

      • minacciosa says:

        John, clearly one’s auditory mileage may vary; “a richter [sic] emotional range” remains in the ear of the beholder.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I compared the quality of the sentiment. That seems to me fair enough – it is through comparison of such things that we train our perceptivity.