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These two works, so eminently suited as concert partners, disappeared after Hitler came to power. Korngold and Schoenberg were both victimized for being ‘non-Aryan’ and their works were banned. Verklärte Nacht quickly reestablished itself, but the Korngold had to wait for its reappraisal until it was discovered in 1987 by The Raphael Ensemble, who gave its first public performance in the United Kingdom at The Purcell Room in London that year.
In this recording, two of the finest examples of the string sextet repertoire have been re-united. Stripped of all the surrounding intrigue, they can be enjoyed for what they truly represent—the very summit of late Austrian romanticism from Imperial Vienna, just before it finally disappeared for ever.
Korngold was perhaps the most extraordinary child prodigy in the history of music. A bold claim but, on examination of the evidence, a justified one. Mozart’s early works astonish because they were written at the age of five or six—but, as music, they are undistinguished. Korngold’s very first compositions however—his early Piano Sonatas, and his ballet Der Schneemann composed at the age of eleven—display a maturity and grasp of their complex contemporary idiom which I believe is unique in a composer so young.
Gustav Mahler, after hearing the ten-year-old Korngold play his early cantata Gold, pronounced him a genius, recommending that the wunderkind be sent to Alexander von Zemlinsky for instruction. Zemlinsky—another composer from this era of fin de siècle Vienna who has also recently re-emerged—was Schoenberg’s only teacher, and indeed Schoenberg, who remained a lifelong friend, married his sister Mathilde.
By the time Korngold became his pupil, Zemlinsky had established himself as an operatic composer and conductor; Schoenberg, meanwhile, had moved to Berlin, and the promise of a prestigious teaching appointment at the Stern Conservatorium.
From his first major work—the programmatic string sextet Verklärte Nacht, composed in 1899 and first performed in Vienna on 18 March 1902—Schoenberg had been a figure of controversy. In these early years he was still writing in a luxuriant, late-romantic style, strongly influenced by Wagner, Richard Strauss and the later German romantics. However, his symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande and the massive symphonic cantata Gurrelieder took music to the very frontiers of tonality and—on such epic scale—instrumentation.
As the young Korngold emerged, Schoenberg had already moved away from conventional tonality; his Second String Quartet, completed in September 1908, introduced a soprano soloist in the last movement which, incidentally, dispensed with a key signature altogether. The opening words of Stefan George’s text were particularly appropriate:
Ich Fühle luft von anderem planeten
I breathe the air of another planet
Curiously, the early music of Korngold was also considered audaciously modern, mainly because of its highly original harmonic structure—which remains impressive today.
Although Schoenberg was undoubtedly aware of Korngold’s remarkable precocity (his correspondence with Alban Berg indicates this) and must certainly have encountered the famous prodigy in Munich at the world premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in September 1910, it was Korngold’s father Julius, the highly respected—and feared—critic of the Neue Freie Presse, who was known to him more.
Julius Korngold (1860–1945) was Eduard Hanslick’s successor at the Presse and remained the most influential critic in Austria until he retired in 1932. He was certainly the most formidable opponent of the New Viennese School, and Schoenberg in particular, and his concerted campaign against its adherents ensured that the radical composers of the time completely shunned his talented son.
The ‘new music’ was summarily dismissed by Julius Korngold in a famous article entitled ‘The Atonal Twilight of the False Gods’ in which he stated:
We are facing a movement of regression: music now wants to crawl again on all fours, in a complete abnegation of the natural fundamentals of music—a relapse into primitivism, all with a maniacal worship of ugly sounds.
The elder Korngold’s activities certainly hampered his son’s career, and ensured that he was the subject of unusual enmity among critics and musicians alike.
Nevertheless, in the years which followed, the young Korngold enjoyed phenomenal success. His sonatas were performed by Carl Flesch and Artur Schnabel, his orchestral works by Nikisch, Muck, Weingartner, Busch, Mengelberg and Richard Strauss, his first operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta by Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann, and the number of performances of his works was prodigious throughout Europe and even in America. All of which stoked considerable fires of jealousy: ‘Publishers, performances—the boy has everything! I will become old before that!’ wrote Anton Webern in an impassioned letter to Schoenberg (13 November 1910). Later, after the premiere of Korngold’s Sinfonietta in 1913 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Weingartner, Webern wrote even more bitterly to his teacher: ‘Those dogs—who never play a note by you!’
But Schoenberg was unconcerned. In November 1918 he founded the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, to enable modern music to have a proper platform. Among the composers he invited to submit works was young Korngold, who offered his Violin Sonata.
Eventually, this society was replaced by the IGNM—Internationale Gesellschaft für neue Musik (International Society for Contemporary Music) formed in 1922 after the Salzburg Festival, under the leadership of Edward J Dent, the English musicologist and friend of both Schoenberg and Korngold. It was Dent who unsuccessfully attempted to cement an artistic relationship between the two composers, and to win over Korngold’s father to ‘the cause’. Dent had once referred to Korngold senior as ‘the most dangerous adversary of the new music’.
He invited Erich Korngold to sit on the official IGNM jury, but Korngold declined. He knew only too well the political sensitivity of the situation, and his own impossible position in view of his father’s activities. And it was not only with the radicals that Julius Korngold fought; Richard Strauss (by then co-director with Franz Schalk of the Vienna Opera) was also attacked over choice of repertoire, singers and general policy which eventually ended Erich Korngold’s career as conductor at the Opera.
However, as Erich Korngold’s own musical predilections did not lean towards serialism or atonality, he was not seriously worried. His music, no matter how extravagantly bi-tonal it became—like that of Schreker, Zemlinsky, Gal, Schmidt, Von Schillings and Richard Strauss—remained rooted in diatonic harmony.
Perhaps to make his feelings known, he expressed them in musical terms. In 1926 he composed four Caricatures for Piano, each satirising a famous living composer, for a major piano anthology. He captured the different styles of Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith and … Schoenberg, in these vignettes. But at the last minute the publisher got cold feet, fearing they would off end the composers they depicted, and they were omitted from the book. Delightful and uncannily accurate in observing the stylistic idiosyncrasies of each composer, they remain unpublished to the present day.
Irrespective of the gulf between them, Korngold and Schoenberg found the patterns of their respective lives continually crossing. In 1923 Schoenberg’s first wife died, and the following year he married Gertrude Kolisch, sister of the violinist Rudolf Kolisch who led a famous Quartet. Gertrude—or Trudi, as she was known—had been one of Korngold’s first girl friends and in 1917 (during their romance) he had given her the autograph of his beautiful early song ‘Liebesbriefchen’ (‘A little love letter’) from his Opus 9 cycle Einfache Lieder (‘Simple Songs’). Her brother was an ardent champion of both Korngold’s and Schoenberg’s chamber music and he was one of the first to programme Verklärte Nacht with Korngold’s Sextet.
By the time of the famous poll in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, the elder Korngold had retired and the emergence of the National Socialist Party was imposing a major restriction on the careers of both composers.
Schoenberg left for America in 1933 and Erich Korngold followed him temporarily in 1934 for a highly successful project with the legendary producer Max Reinhardt—the film version of the latter’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hollywood. He finally took up residence there following the annexation of Austria in 1938. By then Schoenberg was Professor of Music at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ironically then, by a quirk of fate, they were now near-neighbours! Korngold went on to compose many fine film scores until the end of the war enabled him to return to his concert and opera career.
With the old friendship of Trudi Kolisch as a bond, the two men, wary at first, gradually drew closer. Schoenberg was a regular visitor to the Korngold house which, as more expatriots settled in Los Angeles, became a haven for those in exile to meet and discuss happier times. Among the major figures to be encountered at Korngold’s Toluca Lake home were Leon Feuchtwanger, Alma Mahler and her husband Franz Werfel, Igor Stravinsky, Salka Viertel, Otto Klemperer and Paul Wittgenstein.
Schoenberg enjoyed the stimulating discussions—especially with the witty Korngold, who surprised him by his expert knowledge of contemporary music. On one occasion, Korngold expressed that he had always admired Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces (from 1911) and, without hesitation, walked over to the piano and started to play them from memory, despite not having seen the music for twenty-five years.
Schoenberg’s young daughter Nuria became inseparable from Korngold’s youngest son George, and the two became devoted playmates. Hoping to make the outbreak of peace complete, Schoenberg wrote a conciliatory letter (on a photograph of himself, it must be admitted) to Julius Korngold, now aged 84. He urged the aged critic to forgive and forget all of their old quarrels and asked to be allowed the chance of proving that his revolutionary ideas had been valid. But old Korngold remained implacably opposed to Serialism and Atonality, and the two were never reconciled on artistic matters, although something approaching civility was achieved.
It was an improbable end for both Erich Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg to spend their last days in Hollywood. The incongruity of their situation must have facilitated intimacy. As Dione Neutra (widow of the famous architect) put it:
We all shared a common fate; we were expatriots with no homeland anymore. We clung together, for that gave us security and a feeling of continuity. At that time, there was concentrated within a few square miles the greatest community of artistic talent ever assembled in one place. And yet, we were largely ignored by the Americans who did not know who we were, still less what we stood for. (from an interview with the present author)
An amusing example of this devastating ignorance occurred at a party given by Ira Gershwin attended by, among others, Oscar Levant, Salka Viertel, Basil Rathbone and his wife Ouida, and Schoenberg. The famous (and somewhat garrulous) society hostess Elsa Maxwell, noticing that Schoenberg seemed to be rather aloof—and anxious to involve him in the entertainment—enquired who he was and what he did. On being told he was a musician, she took him by the arm, led him to the piano and cooed ‘Come along Arnold, give us a tune …’
Schoenberg died in Hollywood in July 1951, after several years of illness following a severe heart attack in 1948, but just in time to witness a growing awareness and gradual acceptance of his music.
For Korngold the end was an unhappy one. His last years were also marred by illness—a heart attack in 1947 followed by a stroke and, finally, death from a cerebral haemorrhage in November 1957. But in contrast to his early years of success, Korngold died almost a forgotten man. His late works, which include a fine Symphony and a glorious Serenade for string orchestra, had to wait until comparatively recently for widespread performances and reappraisal.
Whereas Schoenberg can be seen as the initiator of the musical revolution, Korngold is now regarded, not as the prophet of modernity as it had seemed in 1910, but, as Nicholas Slonimsky once said, ‘the very last breath of the romantic spirit of Vienna’. He is also a vital link between the post-Straussian romantic school and the progressives in their many guises.
In reality, Korngold stood for everything that Schoenberg rebelled against—but it has taken fifty years for musical opinion to accept that there is a place for both divergent philosophies. The ‘discovery’ of Mahler and the rehabilitation of Richard Strauss in the 1960s had a direct bearing on this. Both Schoenberg and Korngold have inspired almost unprecedented critical volleys and, considering their eventful lives, they would be delighted to find themselves represented at last, for the very first time, together on a gramophone record.
The two works on this record are appropriately paired, in that they were frequently performed together during the 1920s and ’30s. Both were premiered by Arnold Rosé and his augmented quartet. Rosé was Mahler’s brother-in-law, and leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was an ardent champion of both Korngold and Schoenberg. The critic Max Graf recalled: ‘… Schoenberg brought me a Sextet, Verklärte Nacht. The music sounded new, the harmonies unusual. Since I did not trust my judgement, I gave the score to Gustav Mahler … Mahler wavered in his opinion, as I had done, and asked Arnold Rosé to play the Sextet with his musicians in Mahler’s office (at the Vienna Opera). He invited me ( and Schoenberg) to come to this private performance, and we were both enthusiastic. Mahler said to Rosé “You must play that!” and Rosé played it at the next chamber music evening, to the great displeasure of the Viennese public who hissed loudly.’
In fact Rosé became a committed champion of the work. During one concert, after the audience had expressed its expected noisy disapproval, the Rosé ensemble stood as if acknowledging an ovation and then sat to replay the entire work before the stunned audience.
Verklärte Nacht is a rare experiment in the field of the ‘chamber symphonic poem’. Doubtless influenced conceptually by Smetana’s quartets, this one-movement tour-de-force of intensely chromatic post-Tristanesque harmony, with its quasi-symphonic textures, created a furore when it first appeared. The public was shocked by the (then) modern harmony—especially an inverted chord of the ninth ‘which does not exist’. Schoenberg remarked tartly, ‘and thus cannot be performed, as one cannot perform that which does not exist’.
It was composed in just three weeks in September 1899, and took as its inspiration a poem by German poet, Richard Dehmel (1863–1920) from his collection Zwei Menschen. (Co-incidentally, as if readers of this essay need any more co-incidences, Dehmel’s daughter Ilse married Korngold’s brother-in-law, Paul Sonnenthal, and Richard was a close friend of both composers.)
All of this is conveyed by the music in a sustained outpouring of rich, polyphonal, densely scored string-writing, maintaining an unremitting tension.
The work falls into five sections which roughly correspond to the five stanzas of the poem. The slow introduction in D minor sets the mood as in the first stanza of the poem. The ‘moonlight’ theme, a descending chromatic figure, is reminiscent of the opening of Liszt’s B minor Sonata which in its one-movement form may have provided Schoenberg with a blueprint for this work. After only twenty bars the harmony takes on a decidedly Wagnerian character—note the ambiguous chordal progressions which recall the opening of the famous Tristan Prelude.
An agitated and extremely tense accelerando leads to the woman’s speech (bar 29) ‘I carry in my womb a child, but he’s not yours …’, heard in the first viola. The music is dominated by a mood of guilt and self reproach, centred firmly in minor keys. At bar 50 the music changes, to prepare for the sudden introduction of a new, ardent theme in E major at bar 100 (‘now I have met you, ah you’).
The third section of the music is a spectral, grotesque scherzo (bar 124, ‘She stumbles on’), and graphically depicts the uncertainty of the woman as she wonders how her companion will respond to her confession. To reflect this sense of ‘walking blindly’, the harmony becomes even more ambiguous, almost tenuous, while the metre swings to 9/8 with the marking ‘Drängend etwas unruhiger’ (‘Hurrying on somewhat restlessly’). This marvellous, almost symphonic passage leads to the fourth section which introduces the male character. His first words—after the intensity which has gone before—are dramatically stated in a radiant D major (bar 230, ‘Let the child you have conceived be no burden on your soul’).
Schoenberg’s wonderful colouristic writing to reflect the lines ‘You are floating with me on a cold sea, yet between our two hearts there flickers some special warmth, from you to me, from me to you, that will bear that child to me, by me’ (bars 251–265) brings a glittering, transcendant quality to the music which alters the entire mood. The modulation to the rarely used, highly chromatic and brilliant key of F sharp major at this point ‘uplifts’ exactly, as in the manner of the poem.
The final section (bar 370), in the tonic major, presents the ‘moonlight’ theme, now ‘transfigured’ and accompanied by a colouristic,. bass, ever more yearning (bar 391, ‘Their breaths were joined in the air as they kissed’) and the delicate final coda is exquisite, as the earlier ethereal arpeggiatura (from the fourth section) is reprised. The work ends molto pianissimo, in D major.
Although scored deliberately for string sextet, the music palpably cries out for greater forces. Schoenberg recognized this and later re-scored it for string orchestra in 1917 (revising it in 1941); it is by this version which the work is best known.
The thematic material described above is sparse, economic, and used in the manner of the Wagnerian Leitmotif. The one-movement form is tightly constructed and there is no sense of waste or excess. ‘In music there is no form without logic, there is no logic without unity’, Schoenberg once observed, and it is nowhere more apparent than here. In his liking for the one-movement form (he exploited it particularly well in his monodrama Erwartung from 1909, which has certain plot similarities with Verklärte Nacht) Schoenberg unwittingly shared a compositional trait with Korngold, who also showed preference for condensing his ideas into a single unbroken movement: as well as a symphonic poem Sursum Corda, a Cello Concerto, the symphonic poem Morgen and the late Theme and Variations, Korngold composed a one-movement Piano Concerto for the left hand (for Paul Wittgenstein in 1923) which manages to encompass an astonishing range of mood and expression in a tautly constructed scenario that has been described (by pianist Gary Graffman) as a ‘keyboard Salome’. Innovative use of form and harmony then, was a striking characteristic of both of these remarkable composers throughout their careers, in spite of their differing views on how each should be used.
Verklärte Nacht owes much to the tone poems of Richard Strauss in the way it is developed, although a conventional analysis can be applied. Some scholars believe it to be set in a massive double sonata form, with the third section acting as a bridge between the two. I suspect that Schoenberg’s motivic scheme and thematic development is much more subtle than that, and is probably unconsciously done. In other words the entire work was composed without a preconceived plan and, like all great works, obeys an inner logic which conforms to a variety of analyses.
One of the most remarkable aspects of early Schoenberg is his mastery of harmony after such rudimentary training. It is known that his instruction under Zemlinsky was short-lived and that he was largely self taught. The earlier D major Quartet (written under Zemlinsky’s guidance in 1897) was a sort of ‘trial run’ for Verklärte Nacht, and would seem to have provided him with enough knowledge of instrumentation to attempt this large-scale and innovative work (although he had played cello in the Fröhliches Quintet in the early 1890s with Fritz Kreisler, and he also started an earlier Sextet ‘Toter Winkel’, a fragment of which still exists, running to 31 bars).
He admitted, in his Harmonielehre (first published in 1911) that when he wrote whole-tone passages (in Verklärte Nacht and later in Pelleas und Melisande) he was unacquainted with the use of the scale by Liszt, the Russians, or Debussy, or that he was even aware that he was doing it. By 1900, the finest examples in the String Sextet repertoire were by Brahms, and here in Verklärte Nacht we find Brahmsian elements too. The angular melodic leaps and the delicate frisson of the coda seem to suggest late Brahms. Did Schoenberg therefore unconsciously attempt to reconcile the famous conflict between Brahms and Wagner in this work?
Schoenberg was unable to attend the first public performance of Verklärte Nacht. He was in Berlin where, to support his wife and daughter, the struggling young composer was working at the Buntes Theater, as musical director of the Überbrettl, a kind of cabaret, which influenced his early cabaret-style songs and ultimately Pierrot Lunaire.
The conservative Viennese public and critical fraternity gave the work a rowdy reception. Schoenberg retreated, and started in new directions. His developments beyond the restrictions of tonality did not mollify the opposition however; as he once put it cynically, ‘I am a conservative who was forced to become a radical’. Later on, when asked why he no longer composed as he did when he wrote Verklärte Nacht, he replied: ‘I still do compose in the same way, but it is not my fault if people do not realize it.’
The case of Korngold could not be in greater contrast. His music was invariably well received by the public. As tonality and conventional harmony were increasingly rejected by his contemporaries, the public readily embraced his intensely romantic music. In a way, Korngold carried on where Schoenberg broke off. By the time he came to write his Sextet, he had enjoyed unprecedented success and controversy. The ‘Korngold scandal’ was everyone’s favourite Klatsch, as coffee house gossip was known. It began to be whispered that great musicians included works by the prodigy to curry favour with his famous father. One story told had the following exchange:
‘I hear you’re playing Korngold’s Sonata;
is it rewarding?’
‘No, but his father is!’
But Richard Strauss, Mahler, and the rest did not mistake a goose for a swan. Today we can appreciate Korngold’s music for the same valid reasons they did.
The Sextet in D major is Korngold’s finest chamber work and is (more so than Verklärte Nacht) a direct descendant of the sextets of Brahms. Combining the melodic sweetness of late German romanticism with the rich textures and epic pictorial imagery of the Viennese Jugendstil, the work is nevertheless decisively stamped with Korngold’s distinctive personal idiom. The critic Josef Reitler reviewing the first peformance (on 2 May 1917) proclaimed, ‘From the very first bar, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s signature is unmistakable. Of the composers alive today, apart from Strauss, there can be no one who writes as personally and as individually as he …’ It was written just before the outbreak of the First World War, on a summer holiday in Alt-Aussee, when Korngold was just seventeen years old, and it was composed simultaneously with his opera Violanta, Opus 8.
The Sextet is in four movements. In the first, the introductory triplet figure (characteristic of a fugal subject) is the foundation stone of a highly intricate framework that is richly textured. The main theme, song-like and ardent, develops for over thirty bars before bridging to a lyrical subsidiary theme in B major. The tonality, while formally expressed in key signatures, is so restless that the latter become virtually superfluous. The development and subsequent fugato leads to the thoughtful coda.
The Adagio, which was composed first, commences with an impassioned, declamatory appoggiatura which presages the ‘Vision Scene’ in Korngold’s most famous opera, Die tote Stadt (1920). The unaccompanied cello enunciates the main theme which is taken up by the ensemble in a succession of impassioned statements supported by intense double- and triple-stopping with, for Korngold, some highly unusual and extreme bi-tonal harmony. Sensuous and erotic, this movement looks ahead to his masterpiece, the opera Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), and comes closest to Verklärte Nacht in mood and intensity.
By direct contrast, the Intermezzo, a graceful 6/8 in F major, is one of Korngold’s most lovable creations. The main theme is a variation of his motto of rising fourths (from the Sinfonietta, Opus 5, composed in 1913) which he liked to include somewhere in all of his major works, sometimes hidden, sometimes boldly stated; other examples include the Finale to his String Quartet No 1 (1922) and the Act 1 Love Duet from his last opera Kathrin (1932–7). This intermezzo is intensely nostalgic and decidedly Viennese, and gives rise to some scintillating episodes. It may very well have been composed to a programme and is obviously inspired by some of Mahler’s great hymns to nature; note the Mahlerian glissandi which occasionally swoop down in octaves. The touching second subject is one of Korngold’s loveliest thoughts, capturing that peculiar and unique Viennese sigh of sentimentality. The wistful conclusion, where the violin whistles, as it were, the melody one last time while everything ‘slips away like a dream in a moonlit night’ (as one critic put it) is finished with a Korngoldian cadence that is magical.
The Finale—like all Korngold finales—is high-spirited and good-humoured and races along at quite a pace. There are cyclical references to the previous movements while the second subject, jaunty and robust, looks ahead to the finale of his last major work, the Symphony in F sharp major some thirty years later. It can be seen from this brief examination that there is an ongoing continuity to Korngold’s music with the themes and motifs recurring naturally from his earliest to his last compositions. The Sextet is beautifully rounded off as it returns to the opening theme of the first movement, before the emphatic conclusion in D major.
The interplay of motifs, the intricate filigree work of the inner voices, the contrapuntal textures and the masterful scoring for each of the six instruments make this Sextet one of the finest in the canon. It is all the more extraordinary that it was written by a teenager. One is reminded of Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies or Schubert’s Octet, written at about the same age.
Hearing it now, it is easy to understand the message behind a famous postcard sent to Korngold around this time by Zemlinsky, then time resident in Prague and Musical Director of the German Theatre there. Hearing that his illustrious pupil had been taking instruction from another teacher, he wrote: ‘Dear Erich, I hear you are studying with Graedener now. Is he making any progress?’
These two works, so eminently suited as concert partners, disappeared after Hitler came to power. Korngold and Schoenberg were both victimized for being ‘non-Aryan’ and their works were banned. Verklärte Nacht quickly re-established itself, but the Korngold had to wait for its reappraisal until it was discovered in 1987 by The Raphael Ensemble, who gave its first public performance in the United Kingdom at The Purcell Room in London that year. Now, at last, two of the finest examples of the string sextet repertoire have been re-united. Stripped of all the surrounding intrigue, they can be enjoyed for what they truly represent—the very summit of late Austrian romanticism from Imperial Vienna, just before it finally disappeared for ever.
Brendan Carroll © 1990