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The Last Prodigy:
The dawn of the 20th century heralded an age of continuing progress. In terms of technology, many of the advances were for machines of war; scarcely anyone would have foreseen the grim future of conflict that was to run until near the end of the century. The first decade of the new century also saw the emergence of child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose advanced tonal technique seemed destined to win him a place as a major composer. But just as prosperity and peace were absent during much of this troubled time period, Korngold's music went into eclipse in the 1930s and only recently emerged from the tomb to which it was consigned by the main current of 20th-century musical thought.
Brendan Carroll's excellent biography of this composer who was so shabbily ignored by postwar intellectuals is long overdue. From the outset, Carroll focuses on the phenomenal musical ability shown by Korngold. Not only did he produce complex musical compositions from an early age, but these early compositions are adult in style and show the distinct idiom of the composer. Like Mozart, Korngold's distinguishing talent was an inexhaustible supply of melodic inspiration that he skillfully assembled.
The major success in the 1920s of his opera Die Tote Stadt marked Korngold as a peer to Richard Strauss. But by the '30s the dissonant tide was running against him. Unable to renounce melody and harmony, he was branded a reactionary by the haute monde, and scorned as a Jew by the Nazis. Fortunately, his flair for romanticism earned him Hollywood commissions for a series of memorable films--and, incidentally, saved his life by getting him out of Europe during a critical period. But when the smoke of World War II cleared, one of the casualties was interest in his serious musical oeuvre.
Carroll pinpoints three factors that contributed to Korngold's fall into obscurity: controversies generated by his father, the critic Julius Korngold; suppression of performances by the Nazis; and the hostility of the serious musical establishment. However, he seems to weight them equally, and perhaps in this he errs. Korngold's father's influence on the Viennese music world waned by the end of the '20s, and the Third Reich lasted just 12 devastating years. Clearly the dominant factor in the suppression of Korngold's music was the disdain of the art crowd for a composer who wrote movie (gawd!) music, and who wouldn't kiss the book and declare serialism as his personal savior. Luckily for Korngold and his fans, as the century nears its end, composition has finally broken the dogmatic bonds of the "music of the future." No better sign exists of this than the renaissance in Korngold recordings in the 1990s, and the respectful if belated rehabilitation of his reputation betokened by a book like Carroll's. This is a balanced volume well worth reading for anyone who is interested in this seriously underrated composer. --Sarah Bryan Miller [via]