Composing for the Pictures

By the Noted Austrian Master

An Interview Secured Expressly for The Etude Music Magazine (January, 1937)


Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born Mar 29, 1897, in Brunn, formerly Austria, now Czechoslovakia. Since 1901 he has resided in Vienna. He is the son of Dr. Julius Korngold, music critic for the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna. He began to take piano lessons at the age of six, and made his first attempts at composition when but seven. His teachers were Robert Fuchs and Alexander V. Zemlinsky. At the age of ten he composed a fairy tale cantata, which he played before the amazed Gustav Mahler. His pantomime-ballet, "The Snowman." was composed at the age of eleven. Many more compositions followed. in rapid succession. The youthful prodigy progressed so rapidly that before he had reached the age of twenty-three he had completed major works, such as the operas "Violanta" and "Die Tote Stadt." He became a conductor of his own works, as well as of the works of other composers. In 1924 he married a granddaughter of the actor, Adolph Sonnenthal; and in 1930 he became a professor of the Wiener Stadts Academie fur Musik. His biography was written by Rudolf Stephen Hoffmann and was published in Vienna in 1922. He is, at the time of writing (1936), still a young man.  -   Editor's Note.

“ART IS LONELY TODAY,” declares Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Viennese composer who was once termed the most amazing musical prodigy of the twentieth century. "The public is against great art.  It wants something cheaper.  Films and radio suffice to entertain it, since the opera and the symphony orchestra are not sources of joy to it.

"A musical difference in Europe and America?   I am sorry to say that such a thing no longer exists.  The days when people felt that all the world's culture dwelt on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean have long since passed.  Of course Europe is still more fond of opera than is America, though opera has declined there also, of late years.  Still, there is not in Europe the dearth of operatic presentations that one finds in the United States. where there are only a few cities able to support opera for only a few months each year - and this is nothing.  Opera is too expensive for these United States.  It was always a luxury in Europe, though Europeans loved it too much to worry about the cost. Opera they must have!  Emperors and aristocrats supported it.

A Far Flung Audience

“Perhaps that is the difference between the music of today and that of yesterday. The modern composer writes his music for the masses of people, not for wealthy patrons.  Beethoven, on the other hand, wrote his quartets for approximately four hundred people, most of whom were aristocrats.  Today, hundreds of thousands of people hear the same quartets. Beethoven had no conception of what would happen when his music was played over the radio. Doubtless, his surprise would be great. Could he have foreseen such an event, perhaps he would have written differently, perhaps not.  Who can tell?   However, it is for the hundreds of thousands of listeners that the modern composer writes. That is why the results of his efforts are different.  But, when one analyzes things, art itself has not changed in a hundred years. It is the mode of expression that has changed. "For the young composer, there are now many dangers. The young composer should first study the old masters - not to copy them, you understand, but for background. Perhaps he should even go to Vienna for this.  Then he should discover his own musical personality. He should not he disappointed, nor should he lose his energy and his ideals when he discovers how few opportunities there are now for sincere art.  He must keep going; someday recognition and understanding will come. But the young composer should not write fox trots.  He should close his eyes to the films and his ears to the radio. He should simply write serious music, as the masters did: a real, a difficult question today, for writing entertainment music is not composing.  Men like Mahler, Bach and Bruch were giants.  Lehar is gifted, but he has nothing to do with music, in that sense.  And those films!  They are dangerous too, for they need so many musicians!  They hire every composer they can find, with the result that many of them lose their best inspirations in pictures that will be scrapped tomorrow.”

A Master at Work

It must be explained that this interview with Korngold took place in the busy Warner Brothers-First National film studios in Burbank, California.  Korngold is comparatively new to the film world, though he has underscored many major films since the signing of his contract.  Therefore, like all sincere creators, this great composer is tremendously interested in the work at hand. His interest in films - a new form of musical expression – leads him to speak much of them.  In like manner, as soon as he begins work on his new opera, he will speak of it constantly, since it will occupy his waking thoughts as well as his dreams.  His current interest, however, is film music and the problems it offers.

Nevertheless, he need not he so concerned over the young composer in films; for the man who has something genuine to offer the world will not allow his mind to be contaminated with that sort of entertainment music.  After all, they are two different things: writing film music, and writing art music.  The approach to the one is that of a craftsman, to the other that of an inspired creator.  The one factor that makes this evident is the amount of mechanics in film music - mechanics to which all the composers must conform in order to give their work a commercial value.  Even Korngold, while he worked on the film, “Anthony Adverse," developing his new idea of pitching the music just underneath the pitch of the voices and rushing it into pauses in the dialogue, had to work with stop watch in hand; for in such cases accurate and precise timing is of paramount importance.

Korngold is not worried only over young film musicians.  He is worried also over the fact that in many cases too many composers are assigned to the same picture. Consequently, too many alien ideas creep in.  He is disturbed over the fact that in a nonmusical picture, where there is, nevertheless, music, it is relatively unimportant. He feels that more recognition should be given it.

The King Condescends

The studio at which he works is justly proud of the acquisition of Korngold.  The studio heads heard his music for "Captain Blood" for the very first time at the preview.  They simply took it for granted that it was good and said nothing more about it.  Fortunately for Korngold, he is said to he wealthy in his own right.  He does not need the films or the money they bring: so that, if they do not like what he writes, if his own work dissatisfies him, or if he does not like the picture, he stops work immediately. They evidently allow him to do so if he wishes, so great is their respect for him.

"I am already a noted composer," he says simply, in a matter of fact tone, with no visible conceit.  Fame is not new to him. He has known it all his life. That enables him to dictate to those who pay him his salary, and to be independent so that he can return to Vienna to write his new opera, "Die Kathrin," when the film work is finished.  He may then return, if he will, to write the score for "Danton," Max Reinhardt's scheduled screen undertaking.

Yet, to a certain extent, Korngold has had to adapt himself to Hollywood. When he first arrived, he told the producers flatly that it was impossible for him to work as hastily as other film musicians work. He insisted that he needed time for reflection, for mature deliberation, as well as time for his own creative work. Even he has had to make concessions. No longer call he create his own music while he is actively engaged in underscoring a film.  That for "Captain Blood" was written in three weeks - surely, as he remarks, a "crazy" way to do things.  Yet, he was pleased with the score, pleased that a suite from it would be published, and pleased with the writer's suggestion that it would be of interest to the general public to print the entire score, apart from the film, just as a screen scenario has lately been published in its original form.

In fact, Erich Wolfgang Korngold likes picture work.

"I play only the piano and the orchestra," says Korngold. Then he adds whimsically, "The orchestra is such a very nice instrument to play."  When he composes, whether or not his music is intended for a film, he writes immediately as the completed music will sound.  Thus, if his composition is orchestral, it is written in full score.  He never writes for the piano and arranges an orchestral score from the piano copy.  Of course, if his composition is intended for the piano, he would think of the piano first.

Genius and Simplicity

HE IS SAID to be tremendously popular with the other musicians in Hollywood.   A legend has crept out of the studio recording room that discloses a reason for this popularity and sheds light on the amiability of this composer.  He lifts his baton to open the rehearsal, and the entire orchestra. bent on a quiet joke, crashes into a discordant, loud, extremely wrong chord by way of greeting.  Korngold merely smiles and says, "We’ll take it again, gentlemen!"

The fact that his very first composition of note was a ballet is explained by Korngold as being because the ballet is the easiest form for a child of that age to comprehend. Despite his extreme youth when he wrote this ballet, the conductor did not change a single note of it.  It is still performed, from time to time. Korngold now considers this initial ballet as being an important step toward his great ambition - opera. He has written no more ballets since that time, because the opera form is more attractive. "Why write a ballet," he asks, “when it may be included in all opera with far greater effect?  Opera is the combination of all the elements. After all, the inspiration for the dance comes from the music, not music from the dance."

In Korngold's estimation, Stravinsky is the best of the living ballet composers. "After Stravinsky, there was no development, only imitation."

Korngold works extremely hard, and is his own worst critic. He is never satisfied with anything he does, though he is immensely pleased with the works of others. “No performance of my works is good.  I have never heard a perfect performance of any of my operas!" he declares.  If someone dares to opine, in his presence, that his new work will be greater than his last, he will demur.  "Let us wait and see," he will say.  The writer spoke of the reaction of another young composer, when he discovered faults of his own during a radio broadcast of one of his works. The other man in the room looked alarmed, as though a shrine had been desecrated by the speaking of another composer in the presence of the genius Korngold.  But Korngold's own face gradually and boyishly lighted up as he said excitedly, "Yes, that's it!  That is the way to feel!  That is the way I always feel!"

Indeed, fame has given him confidence in himself, but it has not taken from him a certain boyishness that is inherent in all great men.  Mention his composition, "Rubezahl" to him, and he will jump up spontaneously, run to the piano and play snatches of it rapidly and happily.  If he is asked to sign an autograph book, he will first look over it in interested fashion, to see if it contains the names of anyone he knows. "Oh! Molinari!" he will cry. "I knew him! When I was conducting in Rome. And there is Hertz!  I know him, too."

Whither Going?

AT 'I'HE BEGINNING of Korngold's amazing career (not so very long ago, one must admit) there was much discussion about him. Everyone acknowledged his precocity, though enemies once attributed his great success - and even his music - to his ambitious father, a renowned critic.  True, there was no parental opposition here.    Dr. Julius Korngold was happy over those musical leanings.

Contemporary modernists are wont to decry Erich Wolfgang Korngold's later works, to protest that he has not lived up to his early promise.  The impression is given that Korngold (like the baby of the Mexican legend, who was born, spoke and died) came too early to the flowering of his genius, that he said what he had to say and never grew.  "Sterility" is the word most often applied to him.

One might ask this pertinent question: "Should Korngold deliberately become an ultramodernist just because some zealous critics would consider that an advance over what has gone before?”

Films have given Korngold a new outlet. His music for them is beautiful and well scored.   Perhaps in that medium he will regain whatever ground he has lost in the minds of certain of these critics.  Then again, perhaps it is the critics themselves who will be forced to see matters in a different light.

Surely, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is being led into the paths best fitted for him.