Korngold and time

“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding […] sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen. (Hugo of 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?

Korngold with his wife and children

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.

(Original Caption) Erich Wolfgang Korngold, his son and his wife, pictured as they arrived in New York City, aboard the S.S. Normandie.

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.

Alma String Quartet

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.


And now there is Korngold. Just as I expected: fascinating, breathtaking and speaking to your heart and soul. Virtuoso, perfect and emotional. Phenomenal, in other words. That is how I prefer to hear my Korngold.

But there is more to it. Again; time… The Almas recorded the string quartets ‘direct-to-disc’. Live and without edits. No modifications: directly onto the record (CD).

In the announcement: “Because in this old recording technique, there is no digital track between the microphone and the record, there can be no editing. What you get is studio quality, but the sensation of a live performance. To reinforce that feeling, the quartet decided to play two pieces by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in concert attire”.

The first quartet is still to come: I can hardly wait!

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, op. 26 – No. 3 in D, op. 34
Alma Quartet: Marc Daniël van Biemen, Benjamin Peled, Jeroen Woudstra, Clément Peigné
Challenge Classics CC72869

Live performance on NPO Radio 4 ‘Podium’ at Hilversum Mediapark on November 25th, 2021