Film score pioneer was refugee
PBS recently broadcast a documentary called “Cinema’s Exiles.” It chronicled the many film professionals who fled Nazi Germany in the middle of the 20th century. So many of these are faces familiar to classic movie fans: Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Hedy Lamarr and Billy Wilder, for example. The documentary claimed that more than 800 film professionals fled to the U.S. during the 1930s.
I especially noted the composers who came over to find a new life and a new career in Hollywood. Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold are two of the names familiar to motion picture fans. In fact, the living film composers whose names are so familiar to all of us, like John Williams, James Horner and Michael Giacchino, will all attest to the importance of these two composers in the development of the film score as its own art form, and the creation of the opportunities they’ve enjoyed.
Korngold was born in Austria (in 1897, if you’re keeping score). He was invited to the U. S. in 1934 and created the score for Max Reinhardt’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Korngold is credited with “pioneering a new art form, the symphonic film score.” His name appears in the credits for these famous films:
“Captain Blood” (1938), alongside the names of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone; “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), with the same three stars: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone; this earned Korngold his second Oscar;
“The Prince and the Pauper” (1937) -- oh, come on –- AGAIN with Errol Flynn;
“The Sea Hawk” (1940), with Errol Flynn (am I the only one who sees a trend developing?)
“King’s Row” (1942) (Ah, at last, NOT an Errol Flynn flick) with Ann Sheridan, Bob Cummings and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
But Erich Wolfgang Korngold was famous even before he came to Hollywood. Barely 10 years old, he played for legendary composer Gustav Mahler who declared Korngold a genius.
On a side note: you will have the opportunity to catch a live performance of Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony during the coming season of the Lubbock Symphony.
Korngold is credited with writing the very first Left Hand Piano Concerto in 1923, a kind of composition that would be championed by many composers of the 20th century. Wayland Baptist University’s Richard Fountain has recently mastered one by Maurice Ravel.
Korngold’s brilliance wasn’t just raw talent. He had spent years not only working in classical music, but also finding great success in it. And he continued doing so outside of Hollywood. His violin concerto was premiered by Jascha Heifitz, and his music was performed by the great American orchestras.
He brought that interest – and so much more – to his film scores. He thought of motion pictures as “opera without singing.” He would give each character his own musical motive. He wrote music that he felt could also be played in concert halls, even without the visuals. (Can you say, “Star Wars” or “The Lion King?”)
And lest we forget: where would motion pictures be without the symphony orchestra?
Gary Belshaw is the executive director and composer-in-residence of the Plainview Symphony, which will soon announce its 38th season. He is also an adjunct instructor at Wayland Baptist University’s School of Music. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.