At the end of the world premiere of Korngold's Violin Concerto on February 13, 1947, St. Louisans stood and clapped so long and so hard, their arms tingled. The ovation‹the longest reviewer Harry R. Burke could remember at Kiel Auditorium‹was more than homage to the virtuosity of composer and soloist. It was vindication of two men, both child prodigies, who had dared to cross the border into popular art, then leaped back.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold's symphonic Hollywood scores had transformed the art and won him two Academy Awards‹for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood. But the thought of Korngold scoring Errol Flynn swashbucklers had so pained the critics, they had repressed all memory of the composer whose operas and chamber music had enraptured Vienna before the war.
Jascha Heifetz's breach had been sillier: In 1946, under cover of the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, he had written a pop ballad titled, "When You Make Love to Me (Don't Make Believe)." Two days before he was to premiere the Korngold Violin Concerto, a St. Louis Globe-Democrat headline yelped, "Heifetz, the Heretic!" and added a subhead: "He gets $5,000 for concert, composes swing music on the side." Written by syndicated columnist James Murray from Los Angeles, the piece proclaimed the crossover "roughly comparable to Rembrandt's suddenly turning his talents to create a Sunday comic strip."
Heifetz remained gracious, telling reporters, "To me, going to St. Louis is like going home." The evening of the premiere, he walked forward, his thin face composed, and raised his violin. Korngold drew in his breath. He had chosen St. Louis deliberately for his premiere, wary of the East Coast critics' "snobbish, atonal anger." Now, every seat in Kiel was filled. Vladimir Golschmann was conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. And when Heifetz finally rested his bow after what was, by all accounts, a technically and emotionally brilliant performance, Korngold knew he had been redeemed. Applause still thundering, he turned his broad back to the audience, so urgent was his desire to tell Heifetz and Golschmann how well they had understood him.
"Erich Korngold, barrel-shaped, baldish, so confused he was astonished, had a brief respite from Hollywood's treadmill last night," wrote Burke in his review for the Sunday Globe.
Post-Dispatch critic Thomas B. Sherman said Korngold "had every reason for feeling that his opus had been set free in the world under propitious circumstances."
After the premiere, Korngold wrote to an old friend, "My violin concerto was triumphantly received in St. Louis. A success like in the best times in Vienna…. I now have five weeks until the New York critics tear it apart."
They fulfilled his expectations, one calling his work "more corn than gold." But half a century later, the concerto shines in a new light, and is now the most performed of all his works.
Korngold had begun composing at seven. At nine, his chubby face shaded by a large sailor hat, he had played for Mahler. Pacing as he listened, Mahler exclaimed, "A genius!"
Korngold wrote operas and operettas, fell in love with Luzi, a Viennese beauty, and indulged himself in fame and Viennese chocolate‹until Hitler marched into Austria and the work of all Jews was branded degenerate. Not even a practicing Jew, Korngold left his homeland reluctantly in 1938, crossing with his family into Switzerland on the last unrestricted train.
He had already worked extensively in Hollywood, first cajoled there by director Max Reinhardt, who knew his love of Shakespeare, to score a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Korngold settled in Hollywood permanently. He signed a generous contract with Warner Brothers but sat by the radio for hours, brooding about the gas chambers. He countered the darkness with lush, grandly optimistic music. Using intricate melodic composition to drive a psychological narrative, he imprinted his music on young moviegoers.
But he missed composing absolute music.
"Where's my violin concerto?" asked violinist Bronislaw Huberman, an old family friend, every time he and Korngold met. Luzi, too, urged her husband to compose seriously again. Finally, on Christmas of 1944, he presented her with the final sketch of a new quartet.
Next, Korngold finished Huberman's long-promised violin concerto, started then abandoned in the 1930s. Both modern and romantic, the piece was his reaction against a modernism gone too far; gone, in his opinion, "unmusical." He would later complain to the Post-Dispatch that "today's musical authorities and composers have delivered themselves, almost to a man, to the strange musical sects of men such as Schoenberg, who produce scores more related to mathematics than to music. It is these musical authorities I am afraid of."
Huberman loved the concerto and forbade Korngold to show it to any other violinist. But when Bronislaw Gimpel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic expressed interest in the work, Huberman hedged, refusing to name a performance date.
The great Jascha Heifetz asked to hear the concerto. He listened expressionlessly, and Korngold later admitted to the Post, "I couldn't tell what he was thinking. When at the end of the playing, he burst out laughing and said he would play it, I became the happiest man in the world, and we both sat and laughed for many minutes for no reason at all."
Jeannette Batz Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.