Korngold's Violin Concerto: From the Silver Screen to the Concert hall


By the time he composed his Violin Concerto in 1945 Eric Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) had already made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished and versatile composers of his generation. He first came to prominence as an astonishingly talented child-prodigy in Vienna, and by the age of 20 he was already a well-established composer with a number of major works to his name.

He was first invited to Hollywood in 1934 by actor Max Reinhardt, who asked for an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a film of the same name. The film was an instant success, launching Korngold’s meteoric rise to fame as a Hollywood composer. In 1935 he signed an exclusive contract with Warner Bros, making him one of the first professionally employed in-house film composers. For the next decade he devoted his career entirely to composing for film. Today he is considered one of the founding fathers of the symphonic film score, and one of the genres most essential innovators, inventing the lyrical melody driven style of film score that remains popular to the present day.

At the end of World War II Korngold all but retired from composing for film, and made his return to the concert hall with his dazzling Violin Concerto, composed for violinist Jascha Heifetz and dedicated to Alma Mahler. Although the concerto is a return to Korngold’s pre-Hollywood Viennese roots it borrows much of its musical material from film scores Korngold had composed over the previous decade. Interestingly, many of Korngold’s film scores borrow material from his juvenile compositions, dressing them up in elaborate Hollywood style orchestration. In the Violin Concerto we hear a reverse-engineering of this process, whereby the often lyrical melodies of his film scores are stripped back to the bare essentials, allowing their purely musical qualities to shine through.

The Themes

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Movement 1 opens with a theme taken from Korngold’s score to the 1937 melodrama Another Dawn. In the soundtrack, this theme is driving and heroic.

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In the concerto, though, the feel of this melody is completely transformed – played by the solo violin the theme takes on an altogether more lyrical and expansive feel (you can follow the first few bars of the melody in the score just above this blog).

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Later in the first movement, the love theme from the 1939 historical drama Juarez is used as the concerto’s second subject. In the film, the theme is presented on violins embellished by harp glissandi.

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Once again Korngold completely transforms this melody, this time stripping it back to the bare essentials – the solo violin plays the theme alone, this time an octave up, in the expressive upper-register of the instrument.

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Almost the entirety of Movement 2 subtitled ‘Romanze’ is based on a single motif, paraphrased from Korngold’s Oscar winning score to the 1936 epic costume drama Anthony Adverse. The theme is never quoted verbatim in the concerto; instead, its characteristic rising quality is used as a recurring feature throughout the movement.

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Movement 3 is undoubtedly the virtuosic highpoint of the concerto, with considerable technical challenges for the soloist. The movement takes the form of a set of theme and variations, based on the main theme from Korngold’s score to the 1937 adventure film The Prince and the Pauper.

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Throughout the movement the main melody is presented in a number of different ways. In the first instance it is fast and virtuosic, with the melody only just audible.

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The tune gets it first fully recognisable appearance later on in the movement in the more romantic and lyrical second section. 

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Other variants on the theme include a heavy lumbering variation

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and an intriguing variation where fragments of the melody are rapidly passed around all the sections of the orchestra.

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At one point in the movement the theme is even presented as a direct quote in the exact same orchestration as in the opening credits of the film itself.

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The LSO perform Korngold’s Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes and conductor Marin Alsop on Sunday 7 June as part of the LSO International Violin Festival.
Buy tickets to the concert