When Erich Wolfgang Korngold died in Hollywood he was all but forgotten despite having been one of the most important composers of film music ever. Rather than providing ‘atmosphere’ in reaction to a film’s events, Korngold created large-scale scores linked by motifs representing particular characters, as Wagner did in his operas, and contributed immensely to the mise-en-scène with a masterful knowledge of instrumental colour.
He had learned it all in Vienna, where he was one of the most striking prodigies since Mozart. Mahler heard some of the ten year-old Korngold’s music and pronounced him a genius.
Korngold wrote his incidental music to Shakespeare’s late comedy for a German-language performance by the Vienna Burgtheater at Schönbrunn Palace in 1920. Around this time, at the age of 23 he wrote his greatest opera, Die tote Stadt.
In the play, Don Pedro of Aragon visits his friend Don Leonato in Messina, Sicily en route home from waging war, with a retinue of soldiers including his bastard half-brother Don John, Benedick, and Claudio. Claudio and Hero, Leonato’s daughter fall in love and are to be married, but Don John hatches a plot to discredit Hero as unfaithful. Meanwhile, confirmed bachelor Benedick spars constantly with confirmed spinster Beatrice (Leonato’s niece) about the evils of marriage, until they are tricked into admitting their love for each other. At the last minute Don John’s ploy is accidentally uncovered by ‘two foolish officers’, Dogberry and Verges.
For the suite, Korngold extracted five of the 14 numbers and arranged them to create a satisfying musical shape independent of the play’s chronology.
The ‘Garden Scene’ reminds us that, as Richard Taruskin notes, ‘never was a musical hypnotist more adept than Korngold’. It accompanies Benedick’s soliloquy on the nature of love in Act II scene iii and forms a bridge to the next act.
Program notes supplied by Gordon Kerry © 2020