“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding […] sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen. (Hugo von Hoffmanstal)
Yes, time is really something special, it goes by whether you want it to or not, and resigning yourself to it is an art in itself. But sometimes time returns, often too late and usually in a dream. Or as a memory.
Think of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a child prodigy who at the age of 20 was already world-famous and established as a composer. In 1934, he left for Hollywood to compose music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The film was a huge success and the management of Warner Bros. offered Korngold a really fantastic contract. Who thought at the time that it would save his life?
In early 1938, he received a telegram asking if he could be back in Hollywood in ten days. Korngold considered it an omen: on the very last ship, on 29 January of that year, he left his beloved Vienna. And Europe.
He was doing well in America and was very successful there, but he did not feel at home. His heart and soul remained in Vienna. In 1949 he travelled back to the city of his dreams, but nobody there knew him anymore. Forgotten. In just over ten years, he had become a nobody. Disillusioned, he returned to Hollywood, where he literally died of a broken heart seven years later.
Until the 1980s, he went from being a celebrated composer of countless operas, songs, concertos, symphonies, quartets and whatnot to a reviled ‘film composer’ of kitsch music.
Time… And suddenly people found out – or remembered – what a great composer he had been. Korngold was rediscovered. Today, his violin concerto is one of the most played (and recorded) violin concertos and his operas are on the bill in every opera house in the world. Rightly so, but too late for him.
Time… Just look at his string quartets. Korngold composed his second string quartet in 1933, when nothing was supposedly happening as yet, although you could already hear (and not even very far away) lightning and thunder and there were already some signs on the wall.
Korngold wrote his third string quartet twelve years later. Not only did a lot of time pass between the second and third string quartets, but a lot of things had also happened. Well, a few things…… Fascism, anti-Semitism, Kristallnacht, Anschluss, pogroms, the Second World War and the Shoah.
Time…. The second string quartet still has the schwung of the old Viennese tradition. A bit like a ‘Mozart-kugel’, or a ‘Sachertarte’. Delicious and irresistible. What a difference with the third! Korngold composed it in 1945 and you feel nostalgia and bitterness. And resignation.
We have long known that the Alma Quartet has a great affinity with ‘Entartete composers’. Their recording of the quartets by Schulhoff is simply the best I have ever heard.
Korngold, like many European artists of that period, could had not found his place in US. As you write, he returned to Vienna, but no one knew him there anymore. So he returns to US, and writes music he does not want to write. And he dies of a broken heart. And yet the music he was so fond of has not been forgotten, and its revival is what he richly deserves. Thanks to those musicians, Korngold’s name will not be forgotten.
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