Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Swashbuckler

Born in 1897 in Austria, now Czech Republic, Korngold showed extreme musical talent as a child.  His father Julius Korngold was a music critic, and began his son on piano and theory lessons.  In 1906 at the age of 9, Korngold premiered his cantata Gold.  Well-known composers such as Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss praised Korngold’s talents.  Through Mahler, Korngold began studying with composer Alexander von  Zemilinsky.  He continued composing orchestral pieces and several operas, including Die Tote Stadt – one of his most popular works. 

By the 1930s as his reputation grew, Korngold received an invitation to Hollywood from Max Reinhart to adapt Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Also in 1935 Korngold scored Give Us This Night, Rose of the Rancho, and returned to Warner Bros for his first Errol Flynn film – Captain Blood.  Similarly to composer Max Steiner, Korngold used the operatic techniques and applied it to film scores.  The scores of this time became more epic in scope and used leitmotifs for characters and ideas.  In 1936 Korngold scored four films including Another Dawn and Anthony Adverse.  Korngold’s score for Anthony Adverse won him an Oscar (although as early Oscar tradition went, the award went to music department head Leo Forbstein).  As the threat of the Nazis grew stronger in Austria, Korngold stayed in Hollywood to score The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Korngold would later say “that film score saved my life”.  Korngold won the Oscar again for Robin Hood, which remains his most famous film score.  Meanwhile, Korngold set a new standard for adventure films.  His swashbuckling scores feature lush strings, strong brass and romantic melodies, deeming him one of the composers of ‘The Hollywood Sound’.  Some of this credit goes to his primary orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer. 

In 1939 and 1940 Korngold received more Oscar nominations for the Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk, respectively.  During this time, Korngold never stopped composing concert music and operas.  He blended film and concert music in his Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto, using themes from his scores of Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse, Prince and the Pauper, and DeceptionDeception was his last film score in 1946.  He continued composing concert music, including his Symphony in F-sharp until he died in 1957 at the age of 60. 

Of the major golden age film composers, Korngold only scored 20 films.  His influence has certainly gone beyond those scores. The AFI ranked The Adventures of Robin Hood on the list of top film scores.  The Korngold-type sound is notably the inspiration for rebirth of orchestral scores in films by composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore and John Williams.  Scores like Star Wars and Superman bear similar melodic structure and orchestrations to many Korngold films.  (See Music to Hear for the comparison of the main titles to Kings Row and Star Wars).  While not the most prolific, Korngold’s work for film music is great and he remains as one of the leaders in The Hollywood Sound.

The Adventures of Robin Hood – Procession and Epilogue (click here to listen)
Captain Blood – Main Theme (click here to listen)
The Sea Hawk (click here to listen)
Kings Row (click here to listen to Star Wars comparison)
Violin Concerto

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  1. My favorite type of score? Swashbuckling adventure. Thank you, Korngold!

  2. Ahhh the violin good!