Erich Korngold: Tänzchen im alten Stil

Program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, November 10–12, 2017.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2017. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Erik Korngold was the greatest film composer of Old Hollywood, notably scoring Errol Flynn movies including Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. He also wrote the music for 1946’s Deception—undoubtedly the only noir to have a composer as the villain (played by Claude Rains opposite Bette Davis). As a plot point, that film touched on the flight of European musicians to America around the Second World War—an exodus of which Korngold, a Viennese Jew, was a part. He first worked in America in 1935, bringing with him the late Romantic sound that still rings in today’s blockbusters. He settled permanently in Los Angeles in 1938, after Nazi Germany annexed Austria while he was abroad.

But before all that, by age 23, he was one of the most successful opera composers in Weimar Germany, with his opera, Die tote Stadt, a sensation in Hamburg and Cologne. And even before that, he was a child prodigy hailed by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss as a genius.

Tänzchen im alten Stil (literally, Little Dance in the Old Style) is a relatively early work from 1918, a transitional point for Korngold between prodigy and maturity. The first dance harkens back to classic Viennese waltzes, but with a winsome twist. The second dance is more adult, with a gorgeous cello solo that would be equally at home in a Brahms symphony or a silver-screen love theme. Then the first dance returns, but the simple A-B-A form is subverted when a surprise coda intermingles the two ideas.

The piece may not have been publicly performed in Korngold’s day. It was given a premiere by John Storgårds in 2007 and first recorded by him with the Helsinki Philharmonic in 2011.