Program Notes: Die Tote Stadt

By September 10, 2014Die Tote Stadt

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Die tote Stadt, op. 12 (1920)

Die tote Stadt is a masterpiece of modern opera, premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. Much admired by Berg, Puccini, and Alfred Hitchcock, this (originally Belgian) horror story was transformed by the composer and his father into an operatic libretto that mirrored 1910s Viennese art, literature, and society. Its composer was one of the stars of early twentieth-century Viennese modernism, acclaimed by Gustav Mahler as a genius, and a rare confidant to Brahms.

Although the Korngolds were a Jewish family, originally based in Brunn (Brno), Czechoslovakia, Erich Korngold’s music is closely related to the expressionist paintings of his Viennese contemporaries Egon Schiele (1890–1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1888–1980). Die tote Stadt’s psychological and harmonic adventures reflect both Gustav Klimt’s lushly Viennese Lebenslust (lust for life, as in the character of Marietta) and its darker counterpart, Weltschmerz (worldly anguish, reflected in the opera’s protagonist and setting). Puccini reacted to the opera by calling the twenty-three-year-old composer “the strongest hope for new German music.” Due to Korngold’s preference for doubling his melody in the orchestration with divided strings, and for his dramatic skill, German critics began to refer to him as “the Viennese Puccini.”

This opera combines elements of romantic ghost stories, Freud’s writing on dreams, and aspects of the emergent Neue Sachlichkeit (new literary realism) that reached its peak in the 1920s; the story shares elements with Strauss’s Salome (1905), Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg (1913), Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), and Berg’s Wozzeck (1925). In a decade when so many Europeans had lost loved ones, as World War I concluded in defeat and Austria’s Habsburg dynasty came to an end, the epic, heroic opera seized the attention of a weary, nostalgic German public.

Early Works

Korngold’s career was carefully supervised by his father, Dr. Julius Korngold, a lawyer and leading Viennese music critic. The Korngolds visited Mahler at his summer compositional retreat in Maiernigg. They attended the 1910 Munich premiere of his Symphony No. 8, after which the twelve-year-old Erich was invited to play his Piano Sonata No. 2 as part of a glittering soirée held at the old Hotel Regina. His performance aroused the amazement and admiration of Dukas, Widor, and Saint-Saëns, and he received congratulations from other artists at the event including Schoenberg, Webern, Klemperer, Stokowski, and Thomas Mann.

By the next year, Erich’s Schauspielouvertüre and Sinfonietta were played by the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig and the Vienna Philharmonic; his one-act operas Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta won immediate success in Munich in 1916, and he later conducted them himself at the Vienna Court Opera. By 1920, the year of his operatic triumph Die tote Stadt, Erich made his début in Vienna as an orchestral conductor, embarking on a career as a conductor/pianist/composer that earned him international recognition.

His Father’s Influence

Erich’s father Julius Korngold had been hand-picked by Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), to succeed him as the critic for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse. Julius took Gustav Mahler’s advice to enroll Erich in private studies with Alexander Zemlinsky (Alma Mahler’s former teacher and Schoenberg’s brother-in-law), rather than the Conservatory, where Julius himself had studied with Anton Bruckner. Erich’s student works were premiered and lauded by notable professionals such as Bruno Walter, Felix von Weingartner, and Mahler’s brother-in-law Arnold Rosé.

Julius Korngold’s mentor, Eduard Hanslick, had been a prominent opponent of Wagner; he authored Vom Musikalish-Schönen (On the Beautiful in Music, 1854), a foundation of modern musical aesthetics. As professor of music history and aesthetics at the University of Vienna, Hanslick asserted that music can “awaken” feelings, but not “represent” them. His reviews were notorious, once accusing violinist Adrian Brodsky of putting the audience “through hell” (with music from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto) “which stinks to the ear.”

Julius followed Hanslick’s style, conducting public arguments with Richard Strauss (during his time as co-director of the Vienna State Opera), and even being sued by artists he reviewed. These scandals adversely affected his son’s musical career, as Erich had to conduct his own operas several times on short notice, without a fee, because a conductor had been offended by Julius’s comments.

The Opera

In spite of his father’s many enemies, Erich Korngold secretly collaborated with Julius (under the pen name of Paul Schott) on the libretto for Die tote Stadt. Viennese playwright Siegfried Trebitsch was translating the Belgian symbolist play Le Mirage by Georges Rodenbach, and suggested it to the Korngolds. Le Mirage was based on Rodenbach’s 1892 novella Bruges-la-Morte, the first work of fiction ever illustrated by photographs. Trebitsch convinced Julius that the story would make a good opera, and mentioned that “even Puccini, had considered it.”

Bruges-la-Morte is an icily written symbolist horror story in which parallels are constantly being drawn between the “dead” city of Bruges—the ancient Belgian town set among atmospheric waterways—and the hero’s dead wife, Jane. The hero (Hughes) goes to the opera and meets Marietta, a dancer from the chorus of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable: this influential opera featured a chorus of ghostly balletic nuns, performing entirely en pointe, a relatively new technique at the time. Hughes ultimately murders Marietta with the lock of his dead wife’s hair, and the two women are joined in death, with Hughes murmuring “Bruges la Morte” over the corpse.

The Korngolds were particularly attracted to the brooding, symbolist depiction of Bruges itself, which seemed to evoke the post-war mood in Austria. The black and white photographs of Bruges reminded them of Vienna, and the story had a lot of potential (it was transformed into the French crime novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcjac and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo in 1958).

Julius owned a signed, original copy of Sigmund Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899); he replaced the original ending of Bruges-la-Morte with a dream sequence: the hero awakes wiser for his dream of killing the dancer, accepts that his wife cannot return, and leaves Bruges behind forever. Hughes was renamed Paul, Jane became Marie, and the dancer Marietta was transformed into a modern Viennese woman: warm, cheerful, flirtatious, and full of Lebenslust. Paul’s psychological disorder is resolved and exorcized by learning from his dreams. The libretto glows with a warmth and sympathy that is notably absent from the original book.

Musical Style

The psychological intensity of Die tote Stadt inspired music of a highly mystical quality. A brilliant melodist and renowned orchestrator of both classical works and operettas, Korngold called for huge musical forces including a full orchestra with triple winds, quadruple brass, four keyboards, and a wind machine. His presence at the 1910 premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (”Symphony of a Thousand”) and his military experience leading a World War I regimental band contributed to his demands for a large brass section, additional onstage bands, bass trumpet, and a massive battery of percussion. In order to evoke the innumerable church bells and voices of Bruges, Korngold used bells (both tuned and untuned), offstage sopranos, children’s choir, and three separate choruses.

Unusual for its time, Die tote Stadt calls for the leading singers to portray multiple characters (though many productions now, including this one, cast a different singer in each part). Korngold’s climactic duet in Act II influenced Puccini’s contemporaneous love duets for Turandot. The first part of the opera completed was “Marietta’s Lute Song” (Glück, das mir verblieb—Joy, sent from above). This beautiful aria quickly became Korngold’s most requested composition; it may sound familiar due to its appearance in films such as Aria (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), and A Late Quartet (2012).

In the first act of Die tote Stadt, Paul, overwhelmed by Marietta’s resemblance to Marie, drapes her with Marie’s shawl, gives her a lute, and asks her to sing. Korngold’s glorious melody returns to close the opera, as Paul, drawing the curtains across Marie’s portrait, reframes the song with new words, translating his fear into a final acceptance of loss: “Joy sent from above, fare thee well, my faithful love. Life and death must part—heart is torn from heart. Wait for me in heaven’s plain—on earth we shall not meet again.”

Korngold uses leitmotifs to unify the work, although modern critics such as Edward Said have attributed this to the influence of Richard Strauss’s operas. The most recognizable motives are hollow perfect fourths and fifths representing the “dead” city of Bruges and a descending chromatic scale evoking death. Key associations and instrumental solos can be important signifiers: Marietta’s lively numbers (highly chromatic, and preferring sharp keys) contrast with the nostalgic Pierrots Tanzlied for baritone at the heart of the opera (in five flats) and the ghostly harp motives associated with Marie.

Leading sopranos Maria Jeritza (Hamburg, Vienna, Berlin, and at the Met), Lotte Lehmann (Berlin, Vienna, Dresden) and tenor Paul Tauber (Dresden, Chemnitz, Berlin) were Korngold’s favorites in the roles of Marie/Marietta and Paul. The preparations for the 1924 Berlin premiere were very hectic due to Tauber and the young George Szell insisting on terrifying daily spins around the new Berlin Autobahn racetrack with Korngold and his fiancée Luzi as passengers.

Although the success of Die tote Stadt eclipsed other new German operas by Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker for over a dozen years, during the period 1936–45 all of Korngold’s works, including the Viennese revival of Die tote Stadt, were prevented from performance in Austria and Germany for political reasons. The opera has enjoyed notable recent revivals at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (1983), the Salzburg Festival (2004, traveling to San Francisco, Vienna, and Covent Garden during 2008–09), and twelve worldwide productions scheduled for 2014–15, including Odyssey Opera’s Boston premiere.

The “American” Composer

Erich Korngold is best known today as the composer of Warner’s classic adventure film scores such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Wolf, and Of Human Bondage. After several working visits to Los Angeles from 1934-38, the Korngolds settled in Hollywood (one month before the Anschluß of Austria), where they continued friendships from the old, German-speaking world: the Reinhardts, the Schoenbergs, occasionally the great writer Thomas Mann, and especially Franz and Alma Mahler-Werfel.

Korngold, while not fluent in English, was a genial colleague and party-guest, agreeing to improvise at the piano (even in front of the Gershwins). He did not approve of the racist conventions in place on movie sets of the day, choosing to eat with African American actor Rex Ingram and arranger Hall Johnson on the set of The Green Pastures (since they were not allowed in the Warner Green Room), and refusing payment for his work on that film because, “I enjoyed doing it.”

By the late 1930s, American film music was returning to the prominence it had enjoyed during the days when it accompanied silent films. Several modern composers, from Puccini to Shostakovich, made money in their youth as silent film pianists and went on to compose music for European sound films in the 1930–40s. The problem of finding a suitable way to record background music for the new “talkies” was solved in 1932 with multi-tracking; Korngold’s close friend from Vienna, Max Steiner (1888–1971), was the first to take advantage of the new technique. Actor and musician Oscar Levant called Steiner’s score for King Kong (1933) “a symphony accompanied by a movie,” and an expression of the new possibilities for “illuminating action with sound.”

Korngold’s use of large blocks of music, complex interweaving of leitmotifs, and sensitivity to his music’s interaction with speech left an indelible impression on the future of film music. He was the first internationally famous composer of serious concert and operatic music to be signed up by Hollywood, thus becoming, in the words of archivist Bernd Rachold, “a fixed star between Gustav Mahler and Errol Flynn”—and as such he demanded great respect from his employers and colleagues. Steiner, for instance, a Warner favorite and the composer of the influential King Kong and Gone with the Wind scores, was instructed by Jack Warner to write “wall-to-wall” music, while Korngold was allowed to select exactly which passages he wished to compose for.

Hugo Friedhofer (composer of over fifty films for Warner) told Elmer Bernstein in an interview in Film Music Notebook: “Korngold was the only composer I knew who could go to Hal Wallis or his associate Henry Blanke, who were producing all these wonderful epics, and say, ‘Look, will you give me a little more footage here,’ or ‘I would think this scene would be better transposed to this spot.’ And they would listen to him, and he was invariably right. This of course is based on his long experience in the theater of Vienna.”

Korngold was the first to write film music in long lines that contained the ebb and flow of mood and action, and he reused many motives from Die tote Stadt in his work for films. In the shattered post-war world, serious concert works that were tonal, romantic, expressive, and aesthetically beautiful went out of vogue, but this type of composition traveled, complete with its inheritance from Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, with Korngold into the cinema. Korngold fan clubs sprang up all over America—both my grandmother and father were members.


For further information about the composer, please consult the exhaustive documentary biography by Brendan Carroll (The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1997), the Phaidon volume on his life and work by Jessica Duchon (1996), and the Korngold Society’s website (2001–).

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