Korngold and Heifetz

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), a Viennese prodigy as pianist and composer, wrote one of last century’s immortal melodies in his 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt, the apogee of his career. In 1934 the director Max Reinhardt enticed him to America for the first time, to work on a film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Korngold stayed to write more scores for Hollywood movies. Just before Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, he was back in Vienna expecting to premiere another opera when he responded to an SOS from Warner Brothers, who needed a composer for The Adventures of Robin Hood. This time he stayed in America and by October 1942 he had ground out 14 film scores in eight years.

By 1946 he had had enough of this work and was trying to get back into ‘serious’ music. His final Warner Brothers movie was Deception, for which he wrote a cello concerto, played by Eleanor Aller of the Hollywood Quartet. His Violin Concerto, based on some of his early film themes and dedicated to Alma Mahler, should have been completed early in World War II for the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, but Korngold procrastinated until prompted by Jascha Heifetz – who dangled a generous commission fee – to finish it.

By the time the work was premiered in St Louis on February 15, 1947, with Heifetz as soloist and Vladimir Golschmann conducting, Huberman had only months to live and never performed the work. When Heifetz took the concerto to Carnegie Hall on March 27, Olin Downes of The New York Times was at his most patronizing: ‘This is a Hollywood concerto, with vibraphone effects and like devices; fully orchestrated in the Straussian manner; commonplace in its thoughts; liveliest in the final movement, which Mr Heifetz played in top virtuoso style. Other pages … are in more lyrical vein, but the melodies are ordinary and sentimental in character; the facility of the writing is matched by the mediocrity of the ideas.’

Although the concerto is not often heard in concert – it has never recovered from the acid comment of another American scribe, Irving Kolodin, that it was ‘more corn than gold’ – it has regularly been recorded. The violin solo at the start of the Moderato nobile is drawn from the score for Another Dawn (1937) and the second subject comes from Juarez (1939).

The Romanze is in ternary song form, the main theme – first heard on the clarinet – stemming from Anthony Adverse (1936).

  • Heifetz, Hurrell
  • Korngold, c.1920, The Tully Potter Collection

Korngold composed the contrasting central section specially for the concerto. The dance theme at the start of the Allegro assai vivace is also new, while the second theme comes from The Prince and the Pauper (1937).

Tully Potter