This is a big Erich Wolfgang Korngold year, marking both the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 60th of his death. Not that you'd know it from anyone's programming around here. But Michael Haas, director of research at the Jewish Music Institute's International Centre of Suppressed Music at Royal Holloway College, has just written a valuable article about Das Wunder der Heliane, the composer's fourth, largest and most controversial opera. (Read it here.)
Premiered in 1927, Heliane is a strange, mystical, dystopian tale of redemption through love. Our hero is a nameless Stranger who has been jailed for attempting to bring love to a loveless realm. Our heroine is Queen Heliane, the sole named character, wife of the cruel and apparently impotent Ruler. Heliane and the Stranger fall in love...
Ten years ago the opera received its only UK performance to date, in concert. It didn't go well. The Royal Festival Hall platform was too small to accommodate both the vast orchestra and all the vocal soloists, so the singers were placed in the choir above and behind the orchestra, but the less-than-ideal demands this created seemed challenging for all concerned. It was a pity, to say the least, because I was at the rehearsals and it sounded a great deal better. Those at the performance weren't to know that, though. The opera celebrates the sanctity of sexual consummation between people who really love one another, something you'd think would scarcely raise hackles. Yet one critic condemned the work for being blasphemous (yes, really) and dismissed it as "Entartete Musik": a nefarious Nazi-coined term that Korngold himself would have known all too well.
It's slightly sad to observe that the British, in tribal musical-taste terms, appear to have problems with Korngold that don't apply quite as universally elsewhere. In other countries his third opera, Die tote Stadt has become standard repertoire. In the UK, it has once more vanished into obscurity after one short run at Covent Garden. As for Heliane, it basically doesn't stand a chance in Brexit Island. Yet with wonderful irony, Haas points out some strong similarities between the scenarios of this opera and a recent UK smash hit: George Benjamin's Written on Skin.
I became interested in Korngold so long ago that I didn't know you weren't meant to like him. Back then, indeed, hardly anyone in this country had heard of him. One of my teachers - American - played me part of Die tote Stadt when I was about 19. I was hooked at once. A year later, deciding on a dissertation topic at Cambridge, I came across the LP of the Erich Leinsdorf recording on a table in Dr Derrick Puffett's rooms and mentioned my enthusiasm to him. Dr Puffett - who was one of the most acute and positively terrifying musical intellectuals in the faculty - encouraged me to go ahead with a study of the piece and offered to be my supervisor for it.
Some years later I had the chance to write a short biography of a 20th-century composer and suggested Korngold because I was fascinated by his life story. A child prodigy in Mahler's Vienna. His appalling relationship with his father - what composer could be unlucky enough to be the son of a powerful critic? The rise of the Nazis; the controversies his father caused; the split in musical style of the times. The escape to Hollywood; Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis; and the attempted, but hopeless, return to Vienna. What a life. What an emblem of the 20th century.
One didn't imagine things could get worse still for Korngold's reputation after all that. But I can't begin to tell you about the quantity of flak I've taken over the years simply for liking this composer's generous-spirited and lavishly beautiful music and finding his story worth telling.
Not all music is for everyone. Composers' voices speak to us, or don't. There are some unfortunate souls who don't like Brahms. There are a few very popular composers to whose music I'm fairly allergic; some whose language I have grown into and come to love with the years (notably Bartók and Boulez); others, like Monteverdi, who stand out like Mount Ararat amid flatlands of other stuff that possibly is considered more interesting than it really is. It isn't a matter of life or death if you don't happen to get along with a particular compositional personality.
But I do think you need to pause for thought, now and then, and look at where our cultural conditioning comes from and, to some degree, how our tastes might be formed.
Another example: I'm still struck by the ease with which some dismiss Mendelssohn as glib, shallow and too happy. His apparent ease of style came from obsessive hard work and continual revision; as for too happy, he worked himself first into the ground and then into a premature grave. Those criticisms were actually deliberate anti-Semitic slurs promulgated against him as the Nazis attempted to poison public opinion over the most popular violin concerto in Germany, prior to banning it. Yet their "arguments" can still sometimes be heard in concert hall foyers, repeated almost as if by rote. Evidence of Mendelssohn's working patterns, his life and intellectual breadth of knowledge, his emotional state, and so forth, all go against such a judgement. But few stop to consider what they're saying and why.
The hideous situation faced by those in such a position - any refugees and oppressed peoples, born in the wrong place at the wrong time - is still brushed aside by the millions of more fortunate majority-population individuals who have no clue what others have been through, yet who are themselves no different except by virtue of luck.
Fortunately, though, there are people who love his music. Many are actual musicians. Many of them are violinists who fall in love with the concerto and related pieces. Here's Nicky Benedetti and friends:
Heliane is being performed several times in Europe this year and next. The Volksoper in Vienna has already done it, about six months ago, and now those eager to see it can go to:
Freiburg, concert performance on 22 July
Flanders Opera, Antwerp and Ghent, 15 September - 10 October;
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, March 2018 (starring Sara Jakubiak and Brian Jagde)
Maybe see you there.
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