> Music and social history
World Premiere poster. The Brendan G Carroll Collection.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold always considered himself to be an opera composer. Indeed, his first biographer, Rudolf Stefan Hoffmann, declared in 1922 that 'even Korngold's earliest works dream of opera'. It is also significant that the composition which initially brought him world fame was for the stage - the ballet, Der Schneemann, composed at the age of 11 (see Image of the Month, April 2010). It was first presented at the Vienna Hofoperntheater where many of his greatest operatic triumphs would occur. By the 1930s, Korngold was living in Hollywood in enforced exile from Nazi Europe. Yet he often referred to his film scores, two of which won Academy Awards, as "operas without singing".
From his very first attempts in the operatic genre, Korngold achieved extraordinary success. He composed two one-act operas between the ages of sixteen and seventeen and these were first performed one hundred years ago this month. They are among the most remarkably precocious compositions in the history of music.
Following his first orchestral works, Korngold had already begun to search for an opera libretto and in the spring of 1913, just after his 16th birthday, he remembered a charming comic novella set in the 18th century - The Ring of Polykrates by Heinrich Teweles - that he had first read at the age of only 10. Teweles was, by then, the director of the German Theatre in Prague (where Korngold's teacher Zemlinsky was now chief conductor) and that summer Korngold and his father, the eminent and much-feared music critic Dr Julius Korngold, visited Teweles to obtain the necessary rights.
The title refers to Schiller's famous ballad of the King who enjoys such good fortune he has made the Gods jealous, which has a correlation to Teweles’ plot. The amusing story is set in the year 1797 and concerns the comedic mishaps of a young married couple - the newly appointed court conductor Wilhelm Arndt and his charming wife Laura, with their devoted servants, Florian and Liesel. Into this scene of domestic bliss comes the unexpected visit of an old friend, the jealous Peter Vogel, once a secret admirer of Laura's. Thus, the stage is set for a delightful comedy of misunderstanding and confusion that might easily have attracted Mozart or Rossini in their time.
Dr Korngold immediately advised his son to set this text in one act and engaged Viennese writer Leo Feld to write the libretto. Feld was also connected to Zemlinsky, having written the libretto to the latter's opera Kleide machen Leute, but Korngold's father found the results awkward and decided to revise it himself without credit. Young Korngold worked quickly and the piano score was complete by Christmas.*
(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)
The opera is structured along classical lines, with clearly defined ensemble numbers and duets, according to the devices of the plot. It also contains Korngold's first important aria, Kann's Heut Nicht Fassen, also known as the Diary Song, in which Laura turns the pages of her old diary, recalling the days when Peter Vogel tried to court her but also revealing how Wilhelm had always been her only true love. It is remarkably assured for a 16-year old boy and its structure and rapturous melody already look ahead to Korngold's later operas. A radio performance from 1960 of this aria, with the young Gundula Janowitz, can be heard by clicking on this link.
Korngold's sparkling orchestration, as befits the period of the story, is of chamber proportions albeit with an unusually large percussion section. A celeste is used, much in the manner of a harpsichord continuo, and the full score was completed by the spring of 1914. However, Korngold realised that a one-act opera would have no chance of theatrical performance on its own and so began to search for a more tragic, contrasting subject for a second opera.
Korngold's father turned to another friend, the Viennese writer, Hans Müller, who offered two possibilities, one a scenario based on the true story of Girolamo Savonarola (subsequently rejected) and the other an original story set in 15th century Venice, whose main character had the melodious name of Violanta. This was far more to young Erich's liking.
The plot is pure verismo. Violanta is a grande dame who has vowed to avenge the suicide of her younger sister, the abandoned lover of the handsome Alfonso, Prince of Naples. During the carnival she seeks him out and lures him to her house, where, at a pre-arranged signal, her husband Simone (also complicit) will kill him. After initial hostility, however, she falls in love with the Prince herself and after a rapturous duet - Reine Liebe (Pure Love) - she throws herself between him and her husband's dagger and dies instead.
Full-blooded renaissance dramas like Violanta were peculiarly popular in the years just before the outbreak of WWI. Schillings' Mona Lisa (Image of the Month, September 2015), Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Zemlinsky's Eine Florentinische Tragödie were all written around this time.
The ripe and melodramatic tale appealed to Korngold's fertile imagination and the end result was a highly charged score using a very large orchestra with considerable virtuosity that belies the tender age of its composer. Perhaps even more remarkable is how convincingly he depicts the emotions of the drama. At 17 Korngold was hardly aware of sexual matters, and was always strictly chaperoned by his domineering parents. Girl friends were permitted but under strict supervision and even a set of charming little waltzes for piano that he had written for some of them a few years earlier, had been suppressed by his father, remaining unpublished until 1997!
It is therefore astonishing that such a naive youth could compose such powerfully sensual music. Yet there is no doubt that at 17 Korngold was a complete master of his craft and easily able to compete with the works of older contemporaries. In particular, this score marked a new development in Korngold's harmonic language, introducing a more advanced, highly chromatic voice. The very opening bar, with its unsettling and ambiguous, typically Korngoldian chord of a strangely altered 9th, heard across the entire orchestra and never properly resolving, creates a unique, haunting sound-world that could be by no other composer.
The world premiere of both operas took place at the Royal Opera House in Munich on March 28th 1916, conducted by Bruno Walter, who recalled in a later memoir:-
Korngold recorded a short piano improvisation on Violanta in Vienna in 1951, which may reflect Walter's vivid reminiscences of that performance in 1916, and this can be played at the bottom of this page.
In Munich the casting was first rate, with Emmy Krüger (later a noted Isolde at Bayreuth) singing Violanta, and the great Maria Ivogün as Laura.
The operas reached the Vienna Hofoper a few weeks later, with an even more star-studded cast being assembled. The legendary Maria Jeritza took the role of Violanta, while Selma Kurz sang Laura opposite Alfred Piccaver as Wilhelm. The success was total and a sceptical Viennese public was completely won over. In the 1970s, during a London recording session for one of Korngold's film scores, the great conductor, Jascha Horenstein recalled how dozens of young opera-goers (himself included) carried the teenaged Korngold through the streets of Vienna on their shoulders, after the brilliant performance.
In the years that followed these operas made a triumphant journey around the opera houses of Europe. Alexander Zemlinsky, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, Karl Böhm, Leo Blech and many other great conductors presented them with such legendary singers as Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, Vera Schwarz and Richard Tauber taking the main roles.
In June 1919 Korngold himself conducted both works in a gala performance to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Vienna Opera, at the request of newly appointed director Richard Strauss, who attended and afterwards was heard to remark on "the incredible versatility of Korngold's genius".
The cast was particularly stellar: Jeritza reprised her success as Violanta opposite the famous Wagnerian heldentenor Leo Slezak as Alfonso, while Lotte Lehmann sang Laura (in Polykrates) with Alfred Piccaver once again taking the part of the husband, Wilhelm. Mahler's first biographer, Richard Specht wrote in Der Merker that "Korngold conducted Violanta as if he were in a trance...." A young Egon Wellesz, reviewing the performance for the newspaper Neuen Tag, wrote a perceptive analysis, saying in part:-
Korngold revised and tightened both scores in 1931 for new productions in Vienna under the baton of the new director Clemens Krauss, with Jeritza again reprising her interpretation as Violanta, which was by now a signature role (she also gave the American premiere at the New York Metropolitan, in 1927).
In addition to this success, the Prelude and Carnival Music from Violanta enjoyed a successful life in the concert hall, a special concert version prepared by the composer being widely performed internationally.
However, with the rise of the Nazis after 1933, both Violanta and Polykrates (like all of Korngold's other works) were suppressed and subsequently vanished from the repertoire. After WWII, to mark Korngold's return to Vienna in 1949, Austrian Radio mounted a studio performance of Violanta and this was supervised by the composer. A rare tape of this unique broadcast fortunately survives, from which the rapturous love duet sung by Willy Friedrich and Ilona Steingruber can be heard, by clicking on this link.
Fine, complete, commercial recordings of both operas have also appeared : Violanta in 1980 (Sony/CBS) and Der Ring des Polykrates in 1995 (CPO).
In 1997 Violanta was performed for the first time in the UK, in a concert performance only, by Opera North, first in Leeds and repeated at the BBC Proms in London. Polykrates received its first UK performance (with piano) at a concert given at the Queen Elisabeth Hall the same year. Both await a UK stage production. After the war there were occasional stagings of the separate operas but it was not until 31 May 2013 that they were finally reunited on the same bill. The production at the Augsburg Stadttheater was the first since 1936!
BRENDAN G CARROLL
(Brendan G Carroll is the biographer of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His book The Last Prodigy was published in 1997 by Amadeus Press and appeared in a revised version, translated into German, by Boehlau Verlag Vienna in 2012. The recordings and illustrations offered here are all from his private collection.)