Worshipped, ignored, forgotten: about Erich Wolfgang Korngold and ‘Die Tote Stadt’.

kORNGOLD kindHe was a child prodigy. At the age of twenty he was already world-famous and established as a composer. He wrote several operas, songs, concertos, symphonies, quartets, quintets and some more. His compositions were performed by prominent musicians such as Arthur Schnabel, Carl Fleisch, Bruno Walter, Rose and his quartet, Böhm, Tauber, Lotte Lehmann, Strauss…

He was the inventor of the famous Hollywood sound, which in reality was nothing more than a combination of the Viennese schmalz (including the waltz) and a healthy dose of tension and a sense of drama. Worshipped before the war, totally ignored afterwards.

Korngold, the son of a leading Austrian music critic, was destined to to become a musician – a genius! His father had not called him Wolfgang for nothing.

On the recommendation of Mahler, who became quite impressed by the boy’s talent, he was taught composition by Zemlinsky. After eighteen months (Korngold was then 12 years old) his teacher thought it was pointless to teach him anything.

An amusing anecdote also dates from that time. Zemlinsky was appointed chief conductor in Prague. When he heard that Korngold studied counterpoint with Hermann Grädener (then a famous music teacher), he sent him a telegram: “Dear Erich, I heard that you are studying with Grädaner. And, is he already making progress?”

Below: Korngold plays Korngold:

Korngold was eleven years old when his ballet pantomime Der Schneeman premiered at the Vienna State Opera and at the age of eighteen he presented two operas: Ring des Polykrates and Violanta. The last one starring Maria Jeritza. Both achieved enormous success. “Meister von Himmel gefallen”, headlined one of the newspapers.

Korngold Jerirza Violanta

Maria Jeritza as Violanta

In 1934 Korngold left for Hollywood. His friend Max Reinhardt, a world-famous stage director, asked him to write music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a film he worked on at the time. Thanks partly to the beautiful music it became a great success and the directors of Warner Bros. offered Korngold a fantastic contract.

Traailer of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


Korngold lived between two worlds. Literally and figuratively. In the years 1934-1938 he commuted between Hollywood and Vienna. In the winter he worked on film music, the summers he spent on his more ‘serious’ works.

At that time his last opera, Die Kathrin, was created. The premiere (originally planned for January 1938) had to be postponed several times. Richard Tauber, who had taken over the leading role from Jan Kiepura, was working on a film in England and was only available in March.

On 22 January a telegram arrived: whether Korngold could be back in Hollywood within ten days, to start the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood as soon as possible. Korngold considered it an omen and with the last ship he left Europe on 29 January 1938. On 3 February he arrived in New York, together with his wife and one of his two children (the rest of the family followed a month later).

Below is a trailer of Robin Hood:

He was doing well in America and was very successful (two of his films won an Oscar), but still he didn’t feel at home there. His heart and soul had stayed behind in Vienna. In 1949 he travelled back to Vienna, but nobody knew him anymore. In Salzkammergut he visited his villa, where he had once been so happy. What a pleasure that you have returned”, was said to him. And when will you leave again? Disillusioned he returned to Hollywood, where seven years later he literally died of a broken heart.

Below: Konrad Jarnot sings Korngold’s ‘Sonnett fur Wien’:


KOrngold TS poster

“This cover illustration of the Schott publication of excerpts from Die tote Stadt, arranged for piano duet, depicts very well the sort of atmosphere which Korngold sought to portray. The medieval city of Bruges with its dark streets, canals, processing nuns and tolling church bells.

“Any act requires oblivion,” Nietsche wrote in one of his pamphlets. “To survive one sometimes has to destroy one’s past.” Korngold must have known, because it is precisely with these words that you can summarize the real themes of his best-known opera, Die Tote Stadt.

After the death of his wife, Paul, a widower, locked himself up in his house in a deserted Bruges, where he lives among the relics. One day he meets a young woman who reminds him of his deceased wife, and in whom he sees her reincarnation. What follows is a ‘Vertigo’-like, hallucinatory search through the mystical and misty city, balancing between dream and reality. Only when Paul lets go of the past, he can leave the ‘dead city’ and start a new future.

The Tote Stadt had its world premiere in Cologne (under the direction of Otto Klemperer) and Hamburg on 4 December 1920, followed by the rest of the world. Before the war it was the most played of all contemporary operas. And because Maria Jeritza had chosen the work for her American debut, Die Tote Stadt became the first opera to be performed in the Metropolitan Opera in New York after the First World War. In German.

Below: Maria Jeritza sings ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ in a 1926:


Korngold den haag

taken from “A boy of cheeky sway” by Caspar Wintermans

After the very successful premieres in Cologne and Hamburg, Die Tote Stadt travelled around the world. A year later there were also enthusiastically received performances in Vienna and New York, but the Netherlands had to wait until 1929. The opera was performed on 26 January in The Hague, in the Building of Arts and Sciences. It was a one-off performance in the series of so-called ‘Extraordinary Opera Evenings’, produced by Jacob Meihuizen, then director and intendant of the Building of Arts and Sciences.

Korngold 1929 den Haag

taken from “A boy of cheeky sway” by Caspar Wintermans

Korngold himself conducted the Residentie Orkest, and the leading roles were sung by the then stars from Hamburg: Gertrude Geyersbach, Fritz Scherer and Josef Degler. It was an overwhelming success, even though the hall was not fully occupied. After the second act the applause was so great that the composer had to appear on stage.

Yet the review in the NRC was only moderate. The reviewer found the music old-fashioned, weak and sentimental, and the story (of which I don’t think he had understood much) too ridiculous for words. How different in Het Volk! A.d.W. had already studied the score long before the performance, and considered it a “work of inwardness, of lautrer Innenklang”. He also added: “After a year of dealing with work, I dared to express my understanding of its inner value in written and spoken words.”

In his extensive article he concludes that he loves the music: “There is something very attractive and youthful in it, the heart is always strongly involved, and nowhere the technical skills dominate. An important thing in this music, filled with and drenched in moods, is that it moves from peak to peak, always with tension and with core themes full of invention”. And he ends with: “A work like this needs to be given again later. I believe that the public will certainly appreciate it, now that the ice of acquaintance has broken”.

A work like this needs to be given again later….. A.d.W. wrote it 90 years ago, on 28 January 1929. After 1938 ‘Die Tote Stadt’ was no longer played. Only at the end of 1970s it started a cautious comeback.

Korngold boek

If you would like to read more about Korngold in the Netherlands, I warmly recommend “Een jongen van brutale zwier” (“A boy of cheeky sway”)  by Caspar Wintermans.

Wintermans in the introduction to his book: “In a life that was overshadowed by jalousie de métier and racism, this pet child of muses has created an oeuvre that shimmers and glows with joy and beauty, that gives lustre and colour to the existence of lovers of late-Romanticism, who know that it is never too late for romance. “

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator


http://Korngold and time

Die Kathrin, Korngold’s last opera, still awaiting rediscovery

Das Wunder der Annemarie Kremers ‘Heliane’


  1. This article is highly informative and allows one to get acquainted with a composer whose name deserves recognition. Thank you, Basiu.
    I read somewhere that Korngold knew Jan Kiepura who sang in his operas staged in Europe.


    1. Korngold wrote two of his opera’s for Kiepura, they were friends. They met each other at the last ship from Europe, both of them escaping Europe. Kiepura (and his wife Martha Eggerth) were Jewish too.


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