More Gold Than Korn

By Frederick L. Kirshnit, Le Concertographe

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When egomaniacal composer Alexander Hollenius (brilliantly portrayed by Claude Rains) tells cellist Paul Henreid in the 1946 film Deception that the key to his new concerto is in the fugato section, he speaks with the authority of the actual composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Viennese wunderkind now pushing fifty and living in the transplanted European community of Hollywood. Patiently writing scores for all types of movies, from the adventure films of Errol Flynn to the gently aristocratic Anthony Adverse, Korngold finally got the opportunity in this film to feature the music as the central character. Involved not just in the background but a major participant in the dialogue and plot twists, the former prodigy and son of the extremely influential critic Julius Korngold has great fun while a member of this particular production team. For example, when Bette Davis realizes backstage that she must kill the overbearing composer to fulfill her destiny, the orchestra strikes up the opening strains of the Unfinished Symphony (and, for you film buffs, she lives in the exact same apartment as does Oscar Levant in the eerily similar Joan Crawford-John Garfield tearjerker, Humoresque). Not since the collaborations of Prokofiev and Eisenstein had a composer so much direct input into the making of a film. The resulting Cello Concerto is a masterpiece in a truncated style (only the score of King’s Row, with its magical ability to capture the American spirit and, at the same time, to recreate the world of fin-de-siécle Vienna, can rival it in Korngold’s cinematic output). Although the opening theme is introduced dramatically, it is the gorgeously flowing second subject which is the heart and soul of this unique essay, a melody so rich as to defy description and the equal of any in mid-century. The fugato is filled with the adrenaline so prevalent in the classical music of the era (in the film, Hollenius is compared to Shostakovich). The short attention span of the popular movie audience and the obsessive need to keep Henreid on camera translate into a piece wherein the cellist plays almost constantly. As a result, the dramatic cadenza, with its feel of The Flight of the Bumblebee, becomes the central focus. The finished concert version (doubled in length to the present twelve minutes) is actually more the suggestion of a concerto along the lines of Korngold’s friend and Los Angeles neighbor Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene. Its extremely rare hearings are evocative of the flowering of music in Southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, a golden age which included composers Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, performers Heifetz and Seidel, film music pioneer Franz Waxman and conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer (not to mention Thomas Mann, whose Doctor Faustus reflects his absorption into the musical life around him while he was living in Pacific Palisades). The present Concerto is the product of such an insular environment that it was premiered in California by the cellist of the Viennese expatriate Hollywood String Quartet, Eleanor Aller, mother of conductor Leonard Slatkin.