Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Piano trio in D, op. 1

performed by the Beaux Arts Trio, or below by the people credited in this video

(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born on May 29, 1897 in Brünn, Austria-Hungary, which is nowadays Brno, in what is apparently now called Czechia. He was born to a Jewish family, his father Julius a prominent music critic and pianist. His elder brother Hans Robert was a bandleader and percussionist.

A child prodigy for sure, young Erich is said to have been able to play four-hand piano arrangements with his father at only five years old. He could also apparently reproduce any melody he heard, and began composing at the age of 7. He composed a ballet at 11 (what could you do at 11?), and a piano sonata at 13, both of which were successful compositions.

Wikipedia says the young Korngold played his cantata for Mahler in 1909, who praised him and suggested that he study with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Both Mahler and Strauss told the elder Mr. Korngold that there was no use in enrolling his son in a school; there apparently wasn’t anything else he could have learned there.

He earned his reputation in Europe as a very talented composer of opera and concert music. He moved to America in 1934 to begin writing music for films, conveniently also escaping the growing threat of the Nazi regime. It seems it was in the States that he earned his most enduring fame, at least in the West. In total, he composed music for 16 films, as well as writing 7 operas, 3 string quartets, concertos for piano left hand (for Wittgenstein), cello, and violin, a symphony, three piano sonatas, some songs, and more.

But today, we begin with his opus no. 1, written at the tender young age of only thirteen, in 1910. It was dedicated to the composer’s father, and written under Zemlinsky’s tutelage. It was premiered in both Berlin and New York in November of 1910. In Vienna, it was premiered by very prominent musicians, among them Arnold Rose, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, and Bruno Walter on piano.

One thing that strikes me from the opening is the richness of the piano writing. It is at the forefront, but then forms such wonderful underpinnings for the strings when they take over, a full, robust sound, bigger than a trio but still intimate, and we can expect the same sort of mood throughout the rest of the work. I won’t say much more about this movement, except that what really impresses me about its beauty is the maturity of the dialogue between the instruments, the conversation they have, and the different manners of interaction as we get through the two subjects, the development and coda. Brilliant.

The second movement is the scherzo, and while it begins with what seems like a menacing gesture from cello, after this brief introduction, it reveals itself to be anything but. This is a true dance movement, almost suggestive of a minuet at first. The movement gets progressively quieter as we move through a second subject into the calm trio, but there’s a sense of weightlessness and very tasteful gaiety that is beyond the young composer’s years.

The third movement begins with cello, and yet again we have an almost annoying level of maturity and poise to the writing, a pensive movement, almost like a dream state, drifting off to a shimmery, quiet world before the finale.

If you’re actually listening to this work as you’re reading, or have, or will, you may realize that just about every movement (perhaps with the exception of the more ethereal third) is very easily one of those things you find yourself humming, that floats through your brain in a quiet moment and sticks to your mental wall, and this finale is no different. There’s a skittish, bouncy introduction, but the movement settles into something really gorgeous, again displaying a level of maturity that a 13-year-old shouldn’t be able to attain.

The Allegro molto e energico may seem unsuitable in the more lyrical moments of this finale, but it does give us some ‘energy’ and bounce, even delightfully revisiting the opening gesture of the first movement, rounding out the entire chamber work with a rich gesture that ends the clash between the two themes of this movement.

There’s something to be said here about Korngold’s maturity, his ability as a composer, and that means so much more than just writing pretty music. As we’ve discussed before recently (somewhere), there’s so much beauty in proportion, in balance, in the overall shape and voice of a piece, and by 13, we see the young composer already has this very much under his belt. It’s music that sounds like it’s been places, like a beautiful patina, but where has it been? The composer had clearly absorbed and learned this language, and when we get around to his more mature works, we’ll hear more of him individually.

But for now, we won’t. This specific moment in history is an important one, and we’re going to stay here for a few more posts, most notably another big milestone in the blog’s lifetime, so please do stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.

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