Just for once, I am starting a posting with a clip that is — at least for regular readers! — entirely optional. Yes, this blog’s signed-up ‘followers’ and other devoted fans can jump right over it and start with the next one if they wish, and I won’t object in the slightest. And what makes me say that is that this first clip contains a piece of music from Korngold’s score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) that I’ve posted several times already: if anyone doesn’t want to go through it all again, I’ll understand!
On the other hand, such readers will be missing something. You see, the video contains a concert performance of music from the film — and, after chancing upon it a while back, the thought occurred to me that it offers something that none of the other clips of the same music have provided: a chance to actually see how carefully composed and orchestrated is the music that won Korngold an Oscar (Academy Award for Best Original Music Score) — and how demanding it is to perform: it’s not altogether an ‘easy play’, even for today’s super-competent orchestras. The clip I’ve chosen is, of course, from the ‘final duel’ scene that we’ve examined from various perspectives, this being by some way the most virtuosic segment of the score. (Readers with keen ears and good musical memories will notice that this bit of music is not exactly the same as what is heard in the film; this could be for as many as three different reasons, which active brains can work out for themselves). As a demonstration of the skill as well as the seriousness which Korngold brought to the task of ‘composing for films’, I think it is hard to beat. Here it is…
And at this point we rejoin readers who are prepared to skip over things…
Now the ‘real’ beginning to this posting comes in the form of another of those ‘original cinematic trailers’ that I include every so often. This one is for The Prince and the Pauper, from 1937, and — as your ears would probably have told you anyway, after all these weeks of preparation! — the score is by Korngold. What’s interesting about the visual aspect of this trailer is — as a pal of mine has just pointed out to me! — the fact that its final ‘caption card’ actually names Korngold as the film’s composer: ‘Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘ it says, just below the director’s name! If anyone can find me another composer who is named in a trailer from 1930s Hollywood, I’ll be delighted to hear of it: the fact that Korngold is accorded this seemingly unique honour must surely be a measure of the esteem in which he was held.
What I want to do at this point is move straight to an entire movement — from the Violin Concerto of 1945 — in which Korngold incorporates musical ideas that were used in this very film. (The work’s other movements feature ideas previously heard in Another Dawn, Juarez, and Anthony Adverse — all of them re-used with Warner Bros’ permission, I hear)…
Having directed everyone to that, I now want to stick my thumb back into The Prince and the Pauper — and pull out a few plums in the form of what will be highly recognisable presentations of that movement’s main thematic idea, as it appears at various points in the film soundtrack…
Now, it’s important to remember here that Korngold will have had a little team of skilled and trusted assistants metaphorically ‘by his side’ as he worked on the score of this film — musicians whose job it was to help with the inevitably hurried preparation of the final, fully orchestrated and notated score from the composer’s initial manuscript (I’ve seen the names Hugo Friedhofer and Milan Roder connected with this particular score, but I don’t have any reliable knowledge about who did what.) The reason I bring this up is that it means we can’t necessarily assume that absolutely every timbre and gesture in the orchestration comes from Korngold himself (though I daresay that everything we hear will have met with his express approval). And the reason I bring that up is that I want to introduce another one this blog’s carefully constrained, strenuously realistic examples of artistic comparison.
To make sure that I am being completely fair — and not metamorphosing into ‘a critic’ puking his own problems over artist and audience member alike — let me lay this out in careful stages. First, I confess that I myself have always felt just a little underwhelmed by aspects of Korngold’s Violin Concerto. I first heard it on the radio back in, I think, 1981, when the Itzhak Perlman recording was released — and, in particular, the finale seemed to me to be deficient in both invention and substance, for all the hurtling violinistic decoration in which it is drenched. I’ve heard plenty of other performances since (some of them a good deal more in tune than Heifetz’s here), and the feeling of dissatisfaction has never gone away. No, you don’t have to agree with this; but to follow my argument you do need to know that this is ‘where I’m coming from’.
Because it seems to me that, in terms of musical interest, the treatments of our theme in the film are, all told, actually superior to those that we hear in the concerto of eight years later — i.e. more inventive, more varied, more colourful, more meaningfully contradictory of musical expectation. Some of this has to do with the orchestration, of course — which is why I mentioned Korngold’s studio ‘team’ a minute ago: they may have had a certain amount of input into the finished product — and therefore a measure of ‘ownership’ over the film score’s orchestration that Korngold did not wish his concerto to violate. What’s more, I would say that the very fact that The Prince and the Pauper is made in black-and-white will likely have had an impact on the way it was orchestrated. Warner Bros had been releasing technicolour features since 1929 (in that year alone they put out three, one of them a co-production), and I find it easy to imagine that, as the glamorous sensuality of intense ‘screen colour’ became more and more the automatic expectation of stimulation-hungry audiences, black-and-white films might have compensated (or over-compensated) by supplying increasingly lurid orchestrations of a kind that would have seemed too ‘blatant’ in the concert hall. (For what it’s worth, the only monochrome film I can think of that dares to use a ‘monochrome’ score is the ‘special case’ that is the 1960 Psycho and its string orchestra.) But even allowing — insofar as one realistically can — for these features, I still find myself thinking that a finale that leaned more heavily upon what had gone into the film would have been more meaningful than the one we have, at least in terms of the movement’s local structures (which, of course, are all we can usually ask for in music that has to fit around film action and dialogue).
And if I’m right about this, acceptable confirmation will come in the form of every readers’ spontaneous agreement, at this point, that they themselves felt more intensely involved in those film score extracts than they did in the concerto finale. Any dissenters…? Raise your hands now…
If we are all agreed that I am correct — or that, at the very least, I have a point worth considering — let me move on to one additional thought.
What I’d like to suggest — on the basis of my significant but by no means ‘comprehensive’ or ‘expert’ familiarity with Korngold’s output — is something that relates to the composer’s creative psychology. For he does seem to me to be someone who responds with more intense creativity to situations that foreground human drama than to those in which the focus is on more ‘abstract’ expressive values. Much as I would love to love, say, Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C# For the Left Hand Alone (1923), or his Symphony in F sharp (1947-52), I cannot deny that I find them, in places, to be duller even than the dullest bits of the Violin Concerto. And not only do my ears find them less compelling, musically and expressively, than the operatic music for which Korngold first became famous in ‘serious music’ circles (and at an astonishingly young age, too!) but I also come away feeling them to be less substantial than any comparable quantity of the film music that snobbish folks have so often viewed as sub-artistic and undeserving of serious attention. In short, it seems to me — I can’t evade the conclusion! — that Korngold was someone who needed overt commitment to a situation and a story in order to work at his highest level.
It’s hard to prevent this sounding like a dismissive criticism, but it isn’t meant as one — any more than we are dismissively criticising Wagner when we observe that he was only ever really his true self when he was able to work with a dramatic situation in which myth, philosophy and intense human emotion were all intermingled as ‘fertilising’ elements: I think folks will agree that no-one who knew Wagner from his non-operatic output alone would ever realise that he was among the greatest of all composers. In the case of Korngold, this consideration leads me to the thought that some of this master’s finest and deepest work was actually produced in Hollywood — in the service of commercially motivated mass entertainment products produced in what was virtually a factory system. In this sense, Hollywood actually did him — and therefore us! — an artistic favour. Funny old world, eh?
To wrap up this aspect of our ongoing film-musical explorations, I want to present five clips. (I was planning on one, but I’ve just thought of four others that will help relieve the pain of the preceding discussion.)
First, here is a side of Korngold that is less familiar, at least as far as this series of postings is concerned. It comes to us via the trailer from the 1942 Kings Row, in which Ann Sheridan and Robert Cummings star alongside the man who went on to be the first US president to be condemned by the International Court of Justice for ‘unlawful use of force’, and whose role in spilling oceans of blood in Central America marks him out as a major war criminal. Come to think of it, this clip is optional, too — or, rather, it would be, were it not for the fact that the score of Kings Row so impressed the pianist, composer and musicographer Harold Truscott (1914-92) that he apparently went to the cinema more than 30 times just to hear it. And, before you ask: the film is a ‘small town’ melodrama in which not one single buckle is swashed…
Secondly, if you want to hear a compilation of extracts from the score, there is one here:
Thirdly, something about that Academy Award given to Robin Hood. You’ll have seen from the illustration at the top of this posting that one of the ‘nominated’ films that year was Block-Heads. This is, of course, the wonderful, feature-length (and fairly ‘late’) Laurel and Hardy comedy which everyone really ought to know. The reason I present it here, though, is that I want to invite readers to go through it ‘with their ears on’ — and to decide whether there is anything in its music that could possibly have made it a meaningful contender for the prize that went on to be won by Korngold. Myself, I haven’t discovered any such thing; though I’m aware that I may be more biased than you. (Incidentally, the film’s final gag is, quite literally, the only moment of risqué humour that I have ever detected in the output of the great Stan and Ollie… Prepare to be slightly shocked…)
[Colourised version here, if you’d prefer.]
Fourthly, if anyone wants to compare these two soundtracks on the basis of a side-by-side viewing, Robin Hood can be seen here:
And, fifthly, here is a little clip about Korngold’s life and career. Myself, I would quibble over occasional details; but, really, it’s not at all bad…
And that really ought to be the end of this posting; the reason that it isn’t is connected with my two guiding principles — one of which could be summed up as ‘Always leave them wanting less’, while the other is our old friend ‘Everything that really matters is in the music’.
As far as the latter principle is concerned, let me drag the discussion back to Korngold’s Violin Concerto for one final moment — and force everyone to address the structural issue associated with putting together a work whose first movement’s main theme comes from one film score, and whose finale’s dominating idea is drawn from another. Is this piece just presenting us with a ‘random’ selection of two attractive ideas, to be enjoyed and forgotten as two different flavours of ice-cream that come one after another (with other sweets in between) — or is there some way in which Korngold establishes a measure of unity between the two borrowings and what is done with them. The answer is, of course, ‘yes’. The theme which opens the concerto begins with the notes A – D – A – D – G# (scale degrees 5 – 1 – 5 – 1 – #4); the finale’s opening and principal ideas contain A – D – A – G# (5 – 1 – 5 – #4). It’s not at all difficult to feel or hear the connection: the only reason any competent listener can have for not noticing it consciously is that they are too busy paying attention.
See you next week — with a new topic!
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