Monday, 26 January 2009

Korngold, modernist ? Metzmacher

Ingo Metzmacher, who is conducting Korngold’s Die tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House tomorrow, is a specialist in new music – listen to his Henze, Hartmann and Messiaen, and the German series “Who’s afraid of 20th century music?”, one of the best antidotes to the idea that modern music is scary. So why is he conducting Korngold, whose reputation is ultra rich and retro ? “Because it is a modern opera”, he says “on the verge of modernism….It is like an old photograph. You like to keep it and look at it, but you know that reality is different”.

Read the full interview at

When Korngold wrote Die tote Stadt the First World War had only just ended. Naturally, Viennese minds turned to past glories. There’s a theory that in tough times, people need escapist art. Perhaps that’s why the opera was such a hit, for it reminded people how good the past could be. Korngold built into his music heavy hints that the vision was a “photograph”, just like the illustrations in Bruges la Morte, which are photographs, not drawings. In 1920, Wozzeck and Jonny spielt auf were years in the future. By the standards of the time, Die tote Stadt was ground breaking. As Metzmacher says, it is modern, and Erich made sure the hero moved on.

What was Vienna really like in the 1920’s ? From February 28th, the South Bank is hosting a series, Vienna, 1900-35, City of Dreams. The concerts focus on big sellers like Mahler, Zemlinsky and Berg but there was a lot else going on besides. The big names are there to lure audiences to explore deeper and find out gradually about Schreker, Krenek, Eisler, Webern, Pfitzner, Braunfels, Hindemith and others. Plus about the literature, philosophy, art…. And remember Hitler was hanging out too and picking up ideas. There's that photo of him standing in the crowds in the Ringstrasse, and rumours he went to school with Wittgenstein. In any society, there are many different spheres operating simultaneously. Schoenberg may not have grabbed audiences but the ideas he created had far reaching influence. Indeed, it is interesting to compare Die tote Stadt with Gurrelieder.

So where does Korngold fit in? Die tote Stadt may be his masterpiece but where does it stand in context of other things going on? where does it stand in relationship to his other work? How does he develop, as people usually do? What is his lasting influence? There will always be segments of the audience who resolutely prefer the past, but what is the past anyway? The inescapable fact is that people often do prefer "the photograph" to reality, fossilization to ongoing life.

It would be interesting to see into young Korngold’s mind. He was intelligent, well aware of what was happening around him. But he was also surrounded by conservatives like his father. Mozart rebelled and did his own thing regardless, but Erich Korngold just seems too nice a guy to have done to Julius what Wolfgang did to Leopold ? Perhaps he bottled up his inner tensions. leading to his early death ? Or he channelled his creative needs in a different direction, ie the movies. It’s poignant listening to the Violin Concerto again. It’s famous because it’s relatively easy to schedule (unlike an opera) and is always popular with audiences. It’s instantly accessible because the themes are so familiar. They come from the films, though the films themselves recycled themes he was working on prewar.

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