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The Genesis of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opera, Die tote Stadt

by Brendan G Carroll – Copyright 2021

The eminent Viennese critic and musicologist Dr Rudolf Stefan Hoffmann who wrote the first biography of Korngold in 1922, declared that Erich Wolfgang Korngolds early works dream of opera. Indeed, logically and with an eye to the theatre, his first orchestral composition was an overture to a play!

In fact, this flair for the dramatic had manifested itself far earlier. At the age of  just ten, Korngold, an astonishing musical prodigy, composed a cantata entitled Der Tod , and this was later to form the opening movement for a set of complex piano miniatures on the story of Don Quixote  by Cervantes, which he completed at the age of 11.

The blueprint for Korngold’s opera  Die tote Stadt  can be found in this very early work – bold, declamatory opening phrases, a free use of densely chromatic harmony and a predilection for the delayed resolution of dissonance – it is all there in the music of a ten year old boy. His love of suspension between the inner voices of complex chordal progressions and a gift for writing memorable, unusual melody is also present, a gift that  would make Die tote Stadt one of the most fascinating works of its time.

The opera came to be written almost by accident.  The libretto is based on an adaptation and German translation of Georges Rodenbach’s celebrated symbolist novel  Bruges la Morte, written in 1892 and more specifically, Rodenbach’s later play on the same story, Le Mirage which appeared, posthumously in 1900. The German translation – Die stille Stadt – was made in 1902 by the Viennese poet and writer, Siegfried Trebitsch, who was a friend of Korngold’s father, the influential and much-feared music critic of Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, Dr Julius Korngold .

Trebitsch (some of whose poetry has already been set by young Korngold in his early lieder) eventually revised his original translation and published it under the new title of Das Trugbild in 1913.

 Early in 1916, Trebitsch chanced to meet Korngold’s father in the street in Vienna and upon hearing that his son was searching for an opera libretto, suggested that Das Trugbild might serve him well.

It was an inspired suggestion. Upon reading it, Korngold’s fertile imagination was gripped and he found that the story perfectly suited his extravagant talents.  He responded especially to its primary, underlying theme of a powerful love that endured beyond the grave, a concept that appealed to Korngold in a number of other works including the Lieder des Abschieds (composed almost contemporaneously with Die tote Stadt ) and his later mystical opera, Das Wunder der Heliane in 1927.

Korngold’s Die tote Stadt offers a score that can truly be called hyper-romantic with rapturous, heroic lyricism bursting from virtually every page. Originally, Korngold conceived the opera in one act but the playwright Hans Müller, who had earlier written the libretto for Korngold’s highly successful second opera Violanta in 1915, persuaded him to recast the story in three acts.

This made for a far more elaborate structure, and allowed for an extended divertissement in Act 2 featuring Marietta’s theatrical friends in an amusing harlequinade, and also an elaborate religious procession in Act 3. Müller began work on the libretto but, according to Korngold’s father in his memoirs, the initial result was somewhat turgid. Young Korngold decided to write it himself, in collaboration with his father, but under a pseudonym – Paul Schott  – deftly combining the names of the main protagonist of the story and that of Korngold’s German publisher in Mainz.

The reason for such a deception was not only because the position of Korngold’s father as chief music critic in Vienna could not be compromised, but more importantly, to avoid a resurgence of the spiteful, earlier accusations that the boy’s father had secretly co-authored his son’s early works. These allegations would clearly reappear, were his name to appear on the score. Thus, the authors’  identity would remain a closely guarded family secret until the opera’s revival in New York in 1975.

Of the numerous changes made to Rodenbach’s original, the most significant reflected the time and place of its composition , especially the startling, recent developments in psychological analysis that were so en vogue . It must be remembered that Korngold grew up in Freud’s Vienna (his Aunt Steffi actually lived in the apartment below Freud’s, on the Bergasse and Dr Freud was a frequent guest at her legendary dinner parties ).

Moreover, Freud’s famous treatise The Interpretation of Dreams had been published in Vienna in 1900, eight years after Bruges la Morte. Indeed, there is no opera more influenced by Freudian theory than  Die tote Stadt, a work that places almost two thirds of its action within the confines of an extended dream, replete with indications of necrophilia, repressed guilt and the profound, morbid inability of its main character, Paul, to move on from the grief of bereavement.

By the time Korngold began work on Die tote Stadt (at the age of 19) he was already an established international composer with an impressive catalogue of lieder, chamber, operatic and orchestral works to his credit. Englebert Humperdinck, composer of Hansel and Gretel called him a ‘wonderchild from fairyland itself’, Sibelius declared him to be “a young Eagle” and Karl Goldmark described him as a “a miracle, a glorious blossom of the noblest kind…”.  Richard Strauss, on being sent scores of his first compositions, wrote to Korngold’s father in glowing terms:-

The first feeling one has is that of awe and fear that so precocious a genius should be allowed to follow its normal development. This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness and bold harmony, are truly astonishing. I am looking forward to making the personal acquaintance of this arch-musician…..

Korngold’s phenomenal early success not only aroused admiration however but also jealousy among rivals and contemporaries  “Publishers, performances that boy has everything! I shall be old before that…” wrote an envious Anton Webern to Schoenberg in 1913.

Korngold  had already completed two one-act operas by his mid-teens  – Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates – that had caused a tremendous stir at the first performances in Munich conducted by Bruno Walter, later reaching Vienna where Maria Jeritza and Selma Kurz sang the leading roles.

The stage was therefore set for Korngold to produce a major full length opera and Die tote Stadt was to provide the perfect canvas. He worked rapidly and, in spite of interruptions caused by his military service during WW1, finished the opera in short score in 1919, subsequently completing the extravagant orchestration on August 15 1920.

The orchestra is vast: three of each woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, the rarely used bass trumpet, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and five percussion (plus five more percussion on stage at the end of Act 1) two harps, four keyboard players – piano, celeste, organ and, supplying a special, eerie colour for the ghost of the dead wife, Marie, a harmonium! In addition there are church bells, a mandolin, a wind machine, a stage band of two trumpets and two Eb clarinets, a large chorus, a children’s chorus, a chamber choir of 16 voices and a further 8 sopranos off stage during Act 2.

Korngold deploys this enormous ensemble with consummate skill and the orchestra is used throughout, not merely to provide accompaniment but in the manner of a huge symphonic poem that comments on and defines the action. More particularly, every single member of this huge orchestra is treated like a virtuoso, making the score a tremendous challenge in performance.

The principal roles are equally demanding, and for the tenor who sings the role of Paul, this is especially true. Apart from the opening scene and a brief pause in Act 2, he is on stage throughout with high notes on almost every page.

The challenging double role of Marietta and the ghostly apparition of the dead wife, Marie, combines the coquettish charm of a Zerbinetta with the dramatic power of an Elektra.

Korngold, writing to the conductor Egon Pollak who would conduct the world premiere in 1920, declared the role to be suited to a Salome and a Mona Lisa combined, the latter remark referring to the opera by Von Schillings.

Such was Korngold’s celebrity in 1920 that a bidding war immediately broke out for the world premiere, with several theatres vying for the privilege of presenting the opera. In Vienna, Richard Strauss and Franz Schalk had recently been appointed co-directors of the Staatsoper and naturally wanted this most eagerly awaited new work for their first season.

Julius Korngold naturally preferred that his son’s premieres always be given outside of Vienna whenever possible, to avoid unnecessary animosity from rival music critics.

The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that Franz Schalk happened to be one of his closest friends (so accusations of favouritism might be made), while Richard Strauss was already a frequent target in Julius Korngold’s influential column in the Neue Freie Presse.

In any case, young Korngold wanted the premiere to be given in Hamburg, where he had recently signed a contract as conductor. At the same time, the Staatstheater in Cologne, was also anxious to give the world premiere, and promised a distinguished cast with the great Otto Klemperer as conductor.

Hamburg Premiere 4 December 1920 – original opernzettel for the world premiere. (copyright The Brendan G Carroll Collection)

After much haggling, both theatres agreed to a joint premiere, and on the same date  – December 4, 1920.

At one point, it seemed that Vienna would join in, making it an unprecedented triple premiere, but ultimately agreed to defer until January1921. Korngold  opted to attend the Hamburg performance before returning for the Vienna premiere, on January 10, when the legendary soprano Maria Jeritza would star. The opera was to receive exceptional reviews in all three cities.

Maria Jeritza’s interpretation was crucial for Korngold. who had written the double role expressly with her in mind. In a charming memoir written in 1975, at the time of the opera’s first complete recording, she recalled:-

How marvellous those initial Vienna rehearsals were: Franz Schalk was the conductor, Wilhelm von Wymetal the director, Karl Aagard-Oestvig, the most handsome of tenors and an actor to boot, was Paul….Hermann Wiedemann – and later Hans Duhan – sang Frank and the unforgettable Richard Mayr, Vienna’s celebrated Baron Ochs, sang the Pierrot.

 Dear Eritschko certainly knew what he was doing when he wrote the big Act 2 duet for Oestvig and me. It needs all the white hot flame of the Calaf-Turandot duet, which it anticipates by a few years…..

At the time of the opera’s New York revival in 1975, Jeritza attended rehearsals and told the soprano Carol Neblett, who sang the double role of Marietta-Marie that, in her opinion, it was actually a triple role, saying:

You must not only be the vivacious young dancer Marietta, and then the dead wife Marie in the Vision Scene – but also, the depraved, seductive version of Marietta as she appears in Paul’s dream! Three women!  It is one of the greatest acting challenges for a singer in all of opera…..

The gala Vienna premiere that Jeritza remembered so vividly, was not without problems however.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hamburg, December 1920, after the Generalprobe of Die tote Stadt: Atelier Mocsigay, Hamburg. (copyright The Brendan G Carroll Collection)

A disastrous dress rehearsal had caused the young composer tremendous anxiety. Korngold’s wife Luzi, who was, at that time, still only his fiancée (they married in 1924)  remembered it all vividly, in her memoirs:-

As the premiere date drew ever nearer, Erich took me to the dress rehearsal. I went in with the highest expectations but came away bitterly disappointed. When Erich sat at the piano and performed his opera, he was more Jeritza than “THE Jeritza” that we saw on the stage more poetic than the dreaming tenor Oestvig. From his fabulous piano playing, I imagined a more intoxicating sound than I heard from the Vienna Philharmonic; in my imagination I had imagined everything on the stage to be livelier, warmer and more human. I was shocked all the more, when I saw Erichs worried face.

The well-worn myth that a successful premiere requires a disastrous dress rehearsal was borne out to quite an incredible degree in the case of  Die tote Stadt. The moment the curtain went up at the performance, I was instantly aware of the tension and contact between stage and public that had been missing during the dress rehearsal. As soon as Oestvig walked into his beloved, deceased wifes room, he was nervous, jumpy and alone. He actually became Paul, the man who dwells in the realms of death while seeking life. The tension that came before Mariettas entrance was almost unbearable. And  I was not the only one who felt it I could sense with every nerve in my body, the fascination of the public. The singers had to keep returning to take bows even after the first act, Erich stood between Jeritza and Oestvig. Richard Strauss had passed a note to Erichs box instructing him not to be ungrateful to the public and show his appreciation right from the beginning.

After Richard Mayr, that most unforgettable of all Viennese singers, had performed the Pierrotlied, the public went wild, breaking out in a veritable hurricane of enthusiastic applause. The operas success was guaranteed and from that moment, it was launched into victory.

After the premiere, I visited the Korngold home for the very first time. Quite off hand, Erich informed everyone there that he knew before the performance, it would go well, as someone at the opera had already guaranteed it. When a baffled Franz Schalk asked who this person could possibly have been, Erich answered that it was the theatre fireman who had been scheduled to cover the rehearsal.

After hearing the Mariettalied, he had come up to Erich and announced, “Mr. Korngold, that was something quite splendid… you’ve really pulled it off!”. This prophetic fireman remained Erichs dear friend. Many years later, I saw Erich with his arm around his shoulders walking down the Opera staircase……  

Among the celebrities in the audience at the Vienna premiere was Puccini, who had known Korngold since he was a wunderkind. In an interview he gave in Munich a short time later, he said:

With regards to modern German music, my biggest hope lies with Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He is exceptionally gifted, has a formidable technical knowledge and, most important of all, superb musical ideas….he has so much talent, he could easily give half of it away and still have enough left for himself.

Puccini’s praise of Korngold’s musical ideas has been reflected in the enduring popularity of the two main arias in Die tote Stadt. Dr Marcel Prawy, the legendary producer and later historian of the Vienna Opera, once observed that Die tote Stadt provided the very last “hit tunes” in German opera – the aforementioned Mariettaslied (which incidentally, was composed by Korngold first of all, before the rest of the score, in the summer of 1916) and the nostalgic Pierrotslied.

In fact, the Mariettalied  is now one of the most recorded of all 20th century arias (over 100 versions exist) and its haunting, opening phrase is reproduced, in a facsimile of Korngold’s manuscript, on the composer’s gravestone in Hollywood.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s grave in Hollywood, California, which bears a facsimile of his autograph manuscript of the famous Mariettalied from Die tote Stadt. (copyright The Brendan G Carroll Collection)

After the triumphant Vienna premiere, critic Dr Elsa Bienenfeld, writing in the Neues Wiener Journal, summed up the feelings of most, when she declared:-

What was in Violanta still a fortunate experiment is here, assured mastery.  Since music was first written for the theatre, there has never been a composer who has achieved so much, so young…A youthful tempest is bursting over us…Who can tell whither this demon will lead, this young and glorious artist, this original musician!

The house was subsequently sold out five times in nine days. Franz Schalk declared Korngold’s work to be “the summation of Austrian opera”.

Throughout 1921/22, the success of Die tote Stadt swept through the opera houses of Central Europe. It was given productions in Karlsruhe, Königsberg, Breslau, Bremen, Stettin, Nürnberg, Wiesbaden, Dusseldorf, Weimar, Zurich, Kassel, Halle and Korngold‘s birthplace, Brünn, in Moravia. On November 5th 1921, it reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera ~ the first German language opera to be staged there after WW1. Maria Jeritza made her triumphant American debut in what was now considered her greatest role, and Richard Strauss, en route to South America, where he would tour with the Vienna Philharmonic, attended the premiere, sending a postcard to Korngold’s father reporting on the success.

In December 1921, Korngold travelled to Dresden, where Georg Hartmann mounted a fascinating production, imaginatively using film projections for the ghostly scenery and the Act 3 procession. Korngold was impressed, mostly because the role of Paul was sung by the great lyric tenor, Richard Tauber. He later told Luzi that Tauber’s incredible musicianship had a profound effect on him, adding “It was as if I myself had been standing on stage singing every phrase, every note, exactly as I had composed it!”

Tauber became one of Korngold’s closest friends and sang the role many times, both as a guest in Vienna and in Chemnitz.  In 1924, he starred in a celebrated new production of the opera in Berlin, opposite the great Lotte Lehmann, conducted by a young George Szell.

Die tote Stadt continued its inexorable path in more than 70 productions before 1933, making Korngold the most performed composer of opera in German-speaking countries at that time, after Richard Strauss.

The year 1933 marked an obvious turning point, however.  Die tote Stadt had already fallen foul of the rising National Socialist Party in Germany when, at the premiere of a new production in Munich under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch, a large group of young Nazis carrying banners with swastikas tried to disrupt the performance.

At the end, Korngold bravely walked on stage accompanied by Knappertsbusch, who stood behind him as he took his bows. The public doubled its applause to drown the booing and hissing of the demonstrators, but the whole event left Korngold shaken. It was an ominous portent of things to come.

By the end of the 1920s, Die tote Stadt had become a favourite in Hamburg and also Vienna, where it remained on the spielplan as late as 1936. Following the Anschluss of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, it was removed from the repertory by the new administration, along with all of Korngold’s other music.

After the war, a Vienna revival in 1950 was cancelled after a typical intrigue over casting, and it was not heard again there until 1967, when Marcel Prawy briefly presented it at the Volksoper.

Korngold himself heard it only once more after WW2, in Munich in 1955, a popular success that was alas summarily dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ by the critics. Its gradual modern revival only began in 1975 with Frank Corsaro’s production starring Carol Neblett at New York City Opera, which in turn led to the first complete recording under Erich Leinsdorf a year later.

Then, in 1983, as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin, Götz Friedrich chose it as the centrepiece of the festival, in a striking new production at the Deutsche Oper starring Karan Armstrong and James King, which was televised and later travelled to Vienna, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Since then, Die tote Stadt has become increasingly popular with productions in numerous German and Austrian cities, while Willy Decker’s much admired Salzburg production in 2004 also toured internationally and was released on DVD, before finally reaching London’s Covent Garden in 2009.

Subsequently, belated premieres have taken place in Finland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Argentina, the Netherlands,  Australia, Denmark, Japan, Hungary, Switzerland and France. It has, in fact, become a repertory opera once again. Last year, it returned to Munich in a highly successful and completely sold out production, with Jonas Kaufmann starring as Paul. This production has now been released on Blu-ray and has been critically acclaimed.

Gustav Mahler, who was the first to declare the 9 year old Korngold to be a genius in 1906, once observed that a composer could only really claim immortality if his works were still being performed 50 years after his death, something that Korngold has achieved with ease, in spite of the catastrophe of WW2 that sent him into enforced exile in Hollywood.

One hundred years after its famous double-premiere, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is no longer a half-forgotten novelty from the past, but is rightly recognised today as a significant 20th century work. Its very first presentation in Bucharest is yet another welcome milestone in its ongoing worldwide revival.

BRENDAN G CARROLL  copyright 2021

Brendan G Carroll is a musicologist and freelance journalist specialising in the music of the early 20th century. His biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Last Prodigy, Amadeus, 1997, revised in German for Boehlau-verlag, 2013)  is considered definitive. He is the founding President of the International Korngold Society and has written and lectured internationally on Korngold and his contemporaries. He is currently writing the first biography in English of the forgotten Austrian composer, Julius Bittner.