Erich Wolfgang Korngold's life bridged astonishing gaps in history and music, from the final two decades of Imperial Austria and the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, a time when Korngold himself was hailed as "a new Mozart," to Hollywood in the heyday of the studio system to the darkened era of postwar Europe. In Vienna during the teens and the 1920s, he symbolized the best of melodic, tonal music in the opera house; in Hollywood he was synonymous with the swashbucklers of Errol Flynn. Born in Brünn, in Moravia (now Brno, Czechoslovakia) he was the son of Julius Korngold, one of the most influential music critics in Vienna. A natural musician, Korngold began composing at age 6 and was encouraged by no less a figure than Gustav Mahler to pursue his musical studies. Before age 10, he'd written a piano sonata and a ballet, and his Second Piano Sonata, written at age 13, received its first performance from Artur Schnabel. He wrote his first two operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, while in his teens, and in 1920, at 23, Korngold completed his most celebrated operatic work, Die tote Stadt. The latter, a rich, glittering melodic work with touches of early 20th century modernism, was an immediate hit in Austria and Germany and quickly entered the repertory of opera companies around the world. It was also the first German-language opera to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York after the end of the First World War, and remains a widely performed and known work some 90 years later.
The 1920s saw Korngold add theatrical music to his activities. His adaptation of Johann Strauss' Eine Nacht in Venedig was a worldwide success, as was his Strauss pastiche Waltzes in Vienna, the latter even getting adapted to film in England by Alfred Hitchcock early in his directorial career. In 1929, Korngold was commissioned by producer Max Reinhardt to work on a new stage production of Die Fledermaus. Reinhardt was pleased with the results and impressed with Korngold's work, and three years later, when Warner Bros. studios engaged Reinhardt to adapt his stage version of A Midsummer Night's Dream into a film, he hired Korngold to arrange Felix Mendelssohn's music for the movie, which was released in 1935. That brought the composer to Hollywood for the first time, a fateful trip, as it turned out. The resulting film was a financial failure, but the studio (and, even more important, studio chief Jack L. Warner) was impressed with what Korngold had done with the music. Korngold was offered a contract, which he accepted after some slight hesitation.
Korngold's arrival in Hollywood was perfectly timed, both from his standpoint and that of the studio. Two years earlier, Max Steiner had demonstrated the power of orchestral music in talking pictures with his score for King Kong, revolutionizing the whole field of film music and catching most of the other studios flat-footed. Korngold's arrival at Warner Bros. gave the studio's newly enhanced music department a huge boost in talent and the studio an immense boost in prestige. From Jack Warner's standpoint, it was as though he had signed Beethoven to a contract. Korngold got terms in his contract that few composers would ever enjoy: not only a very generous salary, but the right to pick and choose his projects, and, in the opening credits of the movies he worked on, a separate title-card all of his own. In any publicity that went out on the movies in question, if the director were credited, then Korngold had to receive credit as well. And all of this was done, of course, while living in the near-idyllic climate of Southern California.
His first film score under this contract, for the swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), delighted both the studio's executives and millions of filmgoers. Korngold's music added a richness to the sweeping tale of heroism and triumph over injustice that startled viewers with its inventiveness, adding an extra dimension to the drama and excitement and beauty of the movie far beyond the film's considerable visual appeal. Over the next two years, Korngold turned in dazzling musical scores for Anthony Adverse (1936), The Green Pastures (1936), and The Prince and the Pauper (1937). In late 1937, the composer returned to Vienna in hope of premiering a new operatic work, but the growing Nazi influence over politics and art in Austria made it impossible for Korngold and his family (all of whom were Jewish) to remain. In early 1938, he accepted a new contract offer from Warner Bros. and got himself and his family to America just before Nazi Germany forcibly annexed the country. Korngold spent the next nine years in Hollywood among the movie colony's artistic elite, able to pick and choose his films and always doing superb work. Korngold turned in a dozen memorable scores that defined elegance in film music, from costumed adventures like The Sea Hawk (1940) to serious drama such as Kings Row (1942).
Following the end of World War II, Korngold decided that it was time to return to his real home, now liberated by the Allies. His return to Vienna, however, proved bittersweet at best. The city had been bombed and many of its most familiar landmarks destroyed during the war and it was not the Vienna he remembered from the teens and '20s. Worse still, he received a cold, even harsh reception from a populace resentful of his years in Hollywood. He'd had, of course, no choice but to leave when the Nazis took over, but his decision to work and live in Hollywood was a source of deep anger that made him an object of derision for critics. It's likely that his melodic, tonal music would have received a poor reaction under any circumstances; atonalism, all the fashion by then, had completely passed him by. His last concert works were derided by critics and audiences alike. Even his Symphonic Serenade, premiered by renowned conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, was ridiculed and neglected. Korngold lived his final years comfortably in California, in near complete artistic eclipse. Although near the end of his life, he did begin to see a new generation of filmgoers and listeners start to embrace and appreciate his film scores. And just four years after his death, the first in a series of re-recordings of his Warner Bros. scores would start to appear on LP. Additionally, his association with Hollywood did not diminish the appeal of such established works as Die tote Stadt, which was still being revived in the 1970s. Korngold's music for films, the concert hall, and the opera house has been revived and re-recorded numerous times since the 1960s. In the realm of film music, John Williams helped this process of rediscovery immeasurably with his score for Star Wars (1977), which owed a huge amount to Korngold, a fact of which he made no secret at the time. And in the 1980s and 1990s even his lesser-known operatic works were being performed and recorded, along with his complete concert repertory.