When it came to the fickle whims of public taste, Erich Wolfgang Korngold may have been a composer who was born twenty years too late.
At a time when Stravinsky had already created a riot with his primordial The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School was exploring brave new twelve-tone frontiers, Korngold’s early music hovers in the warm afterglow of Romanticism. It is music of vibrant autumn colors, hinting at the poignant nostalgia and haunting revelation we hear in the late works of Strauss and Mahler. Korngold’s 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”) enjoyed a burst of popularity, with performances on more than 80 stages around the world. Yet, by the late 1920s, his style was considered to be retrograde. In 1934, as Europe began its descent into genocide and world war, Korngold moved to the United States where he focused on scoring films for Hollywood. Today, Korngold is usually thought of first as a groundbreaking film composer.
One of the neglected treasures of Korngold’s earlier years in Europe is the mystical opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (“The Miracle of Heliane”), Op. 20. The 1927 premiere at the Hamburg State Opera failed to match the critical and public success of Die tote Stadt. Performances in Vienna and Berlin were also unsuccessful, and Das Wunder faded away. There are a host of reasons for the opera’s critical failure. A political storm had been whipped up by the writings of Korngold’s father Julius, an influential Vienna critic who had championed the music of Mahler, but attacked the new twelve-tone works. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest problems was the convoluted and fanciful plot, based on a 1917 play by Hans Kaltneker, with a libretto by Hans Müller. In his August, 2019 article spotlighting the opera’s recent American premiere at the Bard Music Festival, Alex Ross distills the essence of the synopsis:
The Ruler, a harsh governor of an unnamed realm, is confronted by the charismatic, Christlike Stranger, who enters into an ambiguous relationship with the Ruler’s wife, Heliane. The miracle of the title consists of Heliane bringing about the resurrection of the Stranger, who has killed himself in an effort to save her from accusations of adultery. Love wins out in the end, to put it briefly.
If we set aside the dramatic shortcomings of Das Wunder der Heliane, we are left with Korngold’s glorious music. Its melodies suggest the soaring heights of Puccini. Harmonically, it floats into a magical and ephemeral chromatic world of shifting keys. We hear this in Wie warm, wie schön! (“How Warm, How Beautiful”), which opens the first act. The young “Stranger,” has arrived in the kingdom, disrupting its oppressive order with his happiness and joy. Here, he converses with the “Gatekeeper.” This 2018 recording features Frank van Hove and Ian Storey:
The most famous excerpt from Das Wunder der Heliane is the aria, Ich ging zu ihm (“I Went to Him”), in which Heliane recounts her visit to the Stranger’s cell during the trial. With the final line, “I became his. And now kill me,” the aria drifts into a glistening, celestial dreamscape. Here is Renée Fleming’s performance:
The orchestral interlude which opens the third act contains echoes of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Yet, Korngold’s distinct voice, as heard in so many lushly Romantic film scores, is evident. Here, we bask in the vibrant colors of Romanticism’s twilight: