As a child prodigy, Korngold looked set to become one of Austria’s most prized composers, but that was before he crossed the Atlantic to find success in Hollywood instead. But what delights does his music hold?

Atmosphere and action

Korngold’s instinct for portraying narrative in music, replete with atmosphere and action, was evident when he was only 11, writing his enchanting Don Quixote Character Pieces for piano.

His rhythmic flexibility, observant eye and gift for capturing personality paid off in Hollywood.

Ambition and control

Korngold’s music can sometimes seem almost too ambitious for its own good. He applies dense textures, complex flights of chromaticism and polytonality and changes of time signature.

The latter are often part of his eager bid for control and often amount to written-out rubatos.

The Motif of the Cheerful Heart

As a teenager, Korngold invented a signature tune for himself which he named ‘The Motif of the Cheerful Heart’.

It is based on two interlocking, rising fourths and a rising fifth and appears as early as his Märchenbilder for solo piano (1910).

In 1937, when he scored a turkey of a movie called Another Dawn, he transformed the motif with an aching, homesick tritone instead of the fifth; the melody, reused to open his Violin Concerto, is now world famous.

Never shy of sentiment

While the 20th century reacted against Romanticism by refuting overt emotion in music, Korngold’s big heart and generous nature often found him wearing his heart on both sleeves at once.

His fondness for lyrical, operetta-like melody sometimes mingled with his distinctly futuristic over-ambition to startling effect, notably in Das Wunder der Heliane.

Recommended recordings…

Die tote stadt
Carole Neblett (Marietta), René Kollo (Paul), Hermann Prey (Franz/Pierrot); Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
RCA Gold Seal GD 87767

A feast of melody, fantasy and high emotion.

Violin Concerto
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
RCA Gold Seal 09026 61752-2

Authenticity from the violinist who premiered this robust and deeply felt concerto.

Das Wunder der Heliane
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Heliane), John David de Haan (Stranger), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/John Mauceri.
Decca 475 8271

The first complete recording of this magnum opus...

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Adventures Of a Wunderkind (DVD)
Directed by Barrie Gavin
Arthaus Musik 100362

Superb documentary introduction to Korngold.

Korngold's Violin Concerto is performed at the BBC Proms on Wednesday 4 September by Leonidas Kavakos and the Vienna Philharmonic - click here for full details. His Symphony in F sharp minor is available now on Chandos Records, performed by the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson.

Original text by Jessica Duchen


Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.