Home > Fathers of Film Music > ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD – Fathers of Film Music, Part 2

ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD – Fathers of Film Music, Part 2

Erich Wolfgang KorngoldArticle by Craig Lysy

Born: 29 May 1897, Brünn, Moravia.
Died: 29 November 1957

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born of Jewish ancestry in the city of Brünn located in the province of Moravia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and is now Brno in the Czech Republic). He was the second son of renowned music critic Julius Korngold and his wife Josephine. His innate musical gifts manifested early when he played his Cantata “Gold” for composer Gustav Mahler, who was so impressed that he declared him a musical genius. When at age 11 his ballet “Der Schneemann” premiered at the Vienna Court Opera house for Emperor Franz Josef his destiny was set. His parents chose to act on Mahler’s recommendations and enrolled Erich to study under the auspices of Alexander von Zemlinsky and Robert Fuchs. To support his education Korngold made live recordings for player piano rolls, some of which survive today.

In 1911 at 14 years of age his career ascent continued as he wrote his first orchestral score, the “Schauspiel Overture”. This was followed in 1913 with “Sifonietta”, and his first two operas “Der Ring des Polykrates” and “Violanta” in 1914. His mastery of the large late romantic era orchestra as well as smaller chamber ensembles earned him a growing admiration from the public. He achieved international acclaim in 1920 with his opera “Die tote Stadt. By 1920 at the young age of 23 Korngold achieved a career apogee as a composer for both opera and concert, earning effusive acclaim from fellow composers Giacomo Puccini, and Richard Strauss who complimented him on his bold harmonies and forthright style. In the following years his works “Concerto for Piano Left Hand” (1923) and “Das Wunder der Heliane” (1927) continued his career momentum. He supplemented his income by teaching opera and composition at the renowned Vienna Staatsakademie, eventually earning the prestigious title of professor honoris causa by the president of Austria.

By age 37 Korngold had the world at his fingertips and enjoyed public and critical acclaim across Europe. In 1934 a new career opportunity opened up when Max Reinhardt who Korngold had collaborated with for the operettas “Die Fledermaus” and “La belle Helene” solicited him to journey to Hollywood to adapt the music of Felix Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for his film version. This very successful effort opened up Korngold’s eyes to new career possibilities, and he took to this new burgeoning medium with a passion. He signed an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers, thus becoming the first classical composer to join Hollywood. He launched his career with scores now considered to be classics such as “Captain Blood” (1935), “Anthony Adverse” (1936), “Another Dawn” (1937) and “The Prince and the Pauper” (1937). Yet a fell wind arose as the specter of fascism began to descend like a dark pall upon European culture and society. In 1938 a propitious hinge of fate occurred when Warner Brothers hired Korngold to score their new Film “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). His acceptance of the assignment proved life saving as the Nazi Anschluss followed upon his arrival in Hollywood, which foreclosed his return as a Jew to his homeland. Indeed years later Korngold would remark that “The Adventures of Robin Hood” literally saved his life. He also stated that he would defer from writing concert pieces or operas until such time that Adolf Hitler was removed from power. It is laudable that Korngold used his earnings to help finance the flight and relocation of many friends and refugees fleeing the Nazi pogrom in Europe.

Korngold settled into his new life in Hollywood and proceeded to finish the 1930s with the critically acclaimed “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939). The quality of his work established a new standard for the industry during a time when film music was evolving into an essential part of the movie-going experience. The 1940’s began with notable scores for “The Sea Hawk” (1940), “The Sea Wolf” (1941), “King’s Row” (1942), “The Constant Nymph” (1942) and “Devotion” (1943). 1943 was also notable, as Korngold at last became a naturalized citizen of the United States. His record of success continued until 1945 when his father took ill and died after a protracted illness. His death reminded Korngold that his father had never approved of his singular focus on film scoring and thus rekindled his interest and desire to return to the concert halls. This was strengthened by a growing disillusionment over the film assignments he was receiving. Four more scores followed including “Between Two Worlds” (1944), “Of Human Bondage” (1945), “Escape Me Never” (1946), and lastly “Deception” (1946), which marked his final film score.

Despite his stunning success Korngold abandoned Hollywood and returned to his first love – the world of opera and classical concert music. He had never seen film score music as a permanent career and had World War II not intervened he would have continued his career in the concert and opera halls of Europe. His return to his homeland in 1947 was delayed by a heart attack. In 1949 he was well enough to return and in 1950 re-launched his career with “Symphonic Serenade in B Major”, which was well received. Yet this success was fleeting as his musical comedy “Die Stumen” and subsequent works was poorly attended and subject to rather harsh criticism. There was a new reality as the war had ended Korngold’s era and ushered in a new one with a different sensibility. Viennese tastes now reflected a more modernist perspective and his classic romanticism sounded old, tired and frankly, incongruous. Regrettably adding to this rejection was that the classical community chose to stigmatize him for his ‘Hollywood’ connection. As such, a bitter and dejected Korngold accepted his fate, left Austria and returned to America.

Yet one last chapter remained in his life and in 1954 he returned to Europe for the premier of his “Symphony in F#”, which regrettably was a critical failure. In 1956 at the behest of Republic Pictures he returned one last time to score a film after he was asked to adapt music by Wagner for “Magic Fire”, a biopic starring Alan Badel. In 1956 Korngold was creating his initial sketches for a second symphony and sixth opera when he suffered a catastrophic career-ending stroke. He never recovered and passed in 1957 at the young age of 60. It is a sad commentary that at the time of his death he had faded from the consciousness of both the concert halls of Europe and the movie theaters of America.

It is worth noting that Korngold’s canon consisted of just 20 films. During his brief time in Hollywood, he was recognized for his work and secured four Academy Award nominations, winning twice, the first in 1936 for “Anthony Adverse” and then again in 1938 for “The Adventures Of Robin Hood”. Among his accomplishments after he returned to classical music were the “String Quartet No. 3 in D major” (1946), his exquisite “Violin Concerto” Op. 35 (1947), the “Symphonic Serenade in B♭ major for string orchestra”, (1950) and lastly the “Symphony in F♯ major” (1954).


Korngold was an unabashed romantic and fully embodied the sensibilities of the late Romantic Era, which espoused a sense of longing, heightened emotions, passion, and the quest for the unattainable. He brought to us forthright, robust and effusive chromatic writing that was supremely powerful in evoking an emotional response. Lacking subtlety and often fully melodramatic, Korngold had no compunction telling an audience how to feel. His notes came from the heart unfiltered with a persuasive emotive power. Brendan G. Carroll, a Korngold authority wrote: “Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.

Three masterful examples of his genius include “The Sea Hawk” (1940). Korngold understood that this story was at its heart a grand nautical adventure with a charismatic swashbuckler in command. He brilliantly sets the tone of the film with one of the greatest Main Titles ever penned. Abounding with spirited horn fare, Korngold captures the film’s emotional core with this splendid nautical piece that propels the film onward to a marvelous adventure. “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939), is a film that revolves around the tempestuous love affair between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl Of Essex. Korngold sets the tone of the film with a splendid demonstration of regal horn fare that perfectly establishes the pomp and circumstance of the Elizabethan royal court and supports our lovers with a lush string rich love theme. In “The Adventures Of Robin Hood” (1938), Korngold recognized that the film centered on Errol Flynn, the bold and brash Earl of Locksley. He recognized that he had to capture his defiant swashbuckler nature and so brought him to life with an orchestral vigor that matched his tour de force duels on the screen. As the adept and agile Essex repeatedly battles and wins against the odds we are informed by Korngold’s writing that our hero is invincible.


Korngold brought to film an “Old World” romanticism, which was expressed with forthright unabashed thematic expression. Like his contemporary Max Steiner, his music was neither subtle nor nuanced and relied on leitmotifs. Fully melodramatic, his scores were well suited for the classic films of the early Hollywood era, but as times began to change with the onset of World War II, increasingly his music seemed to be at odds with the times. Indeed despite his early achievements, Korngold by the mid 1940s no longer received any accolades but instead reaped considerable critical disdain. No doubt this along with his father’s death contributed to his departure from film.

Fate would have it that in the early 1970s RCA Victor released a compilation album of his best film scores. The album was very successful and served to not only rekindle interest in his film scores, but also his operas and concert pieces. This renaissance has led to film score lovers taking a new look at this remarkable man. Indeed John William’s grand Main Title for “Star Wars” in 1977, which many believe found inspiration in Korngold’s Main Title for “Kings Row” seemed to usher in a neo-classical return to the era of Korngold’s rich and thematic orchestral scoring. In your author’s view there could be no better tribute.

In our modern world where lines are often blurred and we lack clarity due to ambiguity, there is comfort to be found in the genuine, forthright and unrestrained expression of human emotions. This is why Korngold has earned his place in film score history and why his music continues to echo through the passing years. It suffices to say that whenever you come upon a Korngold score you will feel the glory of the hero, the heartache of lovers denied and the explorer’s exhilarating spirit of adventure. For Korngold, melody was the beating heart of music, and it is for this reason that he has rightfully gained immortality.


Academy Awards Best Original Score Wins:

  • 1938 – The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • 1936 – Anthony Adverse

Academy Awards Best Original Score Nominations:

  • 1940 – The Sea Hawk
  • 1939 – The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex


A Dream Comes True (1935), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Rose of the Rancho (1935), Captain Blood (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), Give Us This Night (1936), The Green Pastures (1936), Hearts Divided (1936), Another Dawn (1937), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and Juarez (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), The Constant Nymph (1942), Kings Row (1942), Devotion (1943), Between Two Worlds (1944), Of Human Bondage (1945), Escape Me Never (1946) and Deception (1946), Magic Fire (1956).


Korngold had a modest canon of only 20 scores. Regretfully many of his scores have yet to be released or re-recorded, which for your author is very frustrating. But hope remains as slowly more and more his scores are being re-mastered or re-recorded. And so I offer you below, five recommendations that will introduce you to the Maestro.


Charles Gerhardt conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra

The re-recordings by Charles Gerhardt are a godsend and offer you a number of suites that are an excellent way to begin your journey. This first compilation CD provides seven suites some of his most exceptional scores, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Prince and the Pauper, Anthony Adverse, The Sea Wolf, Deception, Another Dawn and Of Human Bondage. The recordings are available in several different released (all of which have identical contents) – the original RCA Victor CD released in 1989, is probably the best.


Charles Gerhardt conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra

The second of the re-recordings by Charles Gerhardt also offers you several exceptional cues that are an excellent way to continue your journey. This second compilation CD provides music from eleven of his films – more than half is career output! – with premiere recordings of The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Juarez, Kings Row, The Constant Nymph, Captain Blood, Between Two Worlds, Devotion and Escape Me Never, and and additional music from Anthony Adverse, Deception and Of Human Bondage.

The following three albums are from the team of Anna Bonn, John Morgan and William Stromberg who have once again expertly reconstructed and re-recorded the entire scores with just outstanding quality and expert conducting under Stromberg’s baton, with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I cannot withhold my praise nor overstate my sincere admiration for their restorations, which are a blessing for lovers of film score art.

adventuresofrobinhoodTHE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)

The team of Morgan and Stromberg have once again expertly reconstructed and re-recorded the entire score with outstanding quality and expert conducting under Stromberg’s baton. This seminal score won Korngold his first Oscar. It is a rousing, rich multi-thematic effort that offers you the regal splendor and gallantry of the Elizabethan epoch. The film was Errol Flynn’s vehicle, and his brash, bold, charismatic and fiercely defiant persona animated the film. Korngold is perfectly attenuated to his heroic persona and expertly captured his irrepressible spirit. From the fanfare of the Main Title, to the lush Love Theme where the Lady Marian succumbs to his charm, to the epic and culminating The Battle – Duel – The Victory, this score is a testimony to Korngold’s genius and mastery of his craft. The melodies of this score are timeless and will echo through time.

princeandthepauperTHE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1937)

This is a classic Golden Age score which highlights the extraordinary talent of Erich Wolfgang Korngold who weaves an extraordinarily rich and complex musical tapestry. Displaying a multiplicity of themes, Korngold provides us with the naiveté of childhood, the heartwarming bond forged among friends, the heroism displayed by men of honor as well as the regal splendor of the Tudor court. The Main Theme represents the boys and underpins the film. Korngold provides both an A and B Phrase, which he emotes with great variability and a multiplicity of expressions; regal, playful, magical, whimsical and plaintive. The Adventure Theme is just a joy and is animated by playful strings, dancing woodwinds, glockenspiel accents. It flows with a wonderful youthful innocence and lightness of being. Lastly, the Friendship Theme emotes the bond that develops between Edward and Miles. This score succeeds on all counts and brought heart to this classic story.

seahawk-deceptionTHE SEA HAWK (1940) and DECEPTION (1946)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science nominated 16 scores in 1940 and “The Sea Hawk” was not among them! It is my judgment that this effort by Korngold is one of the finest ever written and the fact that it did not win, a travesty of the highest order. Sadly, this was his last swashbuckler score, which makes the snub egregious. Korngold understood that this story was at its heart a grand nautical adventure with a charismatic swashbuckler in command. He brilliantly sets the tone of the film with one of the greatest Main Titles ever penned. Abounding with spirited horn fare, Korngold captures the film’s emotional core with this splendid nautical piece that propels the film onward to a marvelous adventure. The spirited action writing for the duels and the exquisite Love Theme elevate this score to the sublime. Deception was Korngold’s last and I always feel a twinge of sadness when listening. The film deals with a convergence of three trials and tribulations for men who happen to be in the classical-music business. Given the subject matter Korngold infused his soundscape with works of Bach, Beethoven Hayden and Shubert. He provided a fine Main Title, Love Theme and his Cello Concerto, which closed the film was just outstanding.


1. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard books, 2000.
2. Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Wikipedia
3. Erich Wolfgang Korngold at the Internet Movie Database
4. Erich Wolfgang Korngold at the Internet Broadway Database
5. Erich Wolfgang Korngold at AmericanComposers.com
6. Carroll, Brendan G. Das Letzte Wunderkind – Revised edition of Carroll’s biography of Korngold – ‘The Last Prodigy’, in German translation, published November 2012. Hardcover Boehlau-verlag, Vienna
7. Dixon, Troy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, biography, 2011

  1. September 30, 2015 at 2:40 am

    What’s up, I read your new stuff like every week.

    Your writing style iis awesome, keep it up!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: