The son of music critic Julius Korngold – who succeeded the much-feared Eduard Hanslick at the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna – Erich was composing prolifically by the time he was 10 years old, gaining the attention of figures like Gustav Mahler (whom he idolised) and Giacomo Puccini (who dubbed him a wunderkind). The pianist Artur Schnabel was soon playing Korngold’s Piano Sonata Opus 2 on his tours.
Korngold was in his early teens when his father published his pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman) and it was discovered by Baroness von Bienerth, the wife of the Prime Minister, who had it performed at a reception in Vienna in 1910 in a version for piano four hands with violin. The ballet was performed again a few months later in a full orchestral version, orchestrated by Korngold’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, at what is now the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Felix Weingartner.
Julius Korngold wrote the ballet’s commedia dell’arte-inspired scenario, in which a poor violinist, Pierrot, pines for his love, Columbine, held prisoner by her uncle, Pantalon. Some children build a snowman under Columbine’s window in the town square, its arms outstretched, and Pierrot has the idea to dress in white and takes its place – only for Pantalon to invite the ‘snowman’ into the house, with hilarious results.
The lush strings of the Vorspiel immediately give us a taste of the Romantic orchestral sound Korngold would bring to Hollywood, while styling the clown Pierrot as a fiddler gave the composer plenty of opportunities to write lavish violin lines, such as the gorgeous, yearning Serenade Pierrot plays at Columbine’s window. Korngold might have aspired to become ‘Direktor Mahler’ when he grew up, but the Viennese waltz her wrote for Der Schneemann suggests he might have also had a shot at inheriting Johann Strauss II’s mantle as ‘The Waltz King’.
© Angus McPherson, 2023