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Libretto for Die Tote Stadt. First edition. Mainz, [1921].

Erich KORNGOLD: Die tote Stadt

December 2020

The Centenary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera, Die tote Stadt, Opus 12.

Korngold’s most celebrated opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was first performed a century ago with a unique double premiere (Hamburg and Cologne) on the same evening of 4 December 1920. It quickly became the operatic sensation of the early 1920s.

The eminent Viennese critic and musicologist Dr Rudolf Stefan Hoffmann who wrote the first biography of Korngold in 1922 when the composer was just 25 years old, declared “Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s early works dream of opera. Indeed, logically and with an eye to the theatre, his first orchestral composition was an overture to a play!”.

This flair for the dramatic had manifested itself much earlier. At the age of just ten, Korngold, an astonishing musical prodigy, composed a cantata entitled Der Tod (Death) to a libretto by a school friend. This later formed the opening movement for a set of complex piano miniatures on the story of Don Quixote by Cervantes, completed at the age of 11.

The stylistic blueprint for Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt can be found in both of these very early piano works – bold declamatory opening phrases, a free use of densely chromatic harmony, a predilection for the delayed resolution of dissonance, a remarkable facility for thematic variation and music that is already orchestral in its style – it is all there in the work of a ten-year-old boy. His love of suspension between the inner voices of complex chordal progressions and a gift for writing memorable, unusual melody is also present, a gift that would make Die tote Stadt one of the most fascinating works of its time.

The libretto is based on an adaptation and German translation of Georges Rodenbach’s celebrated symbolist novel Bruges la Morte, written in 1892, and perhaps more specifically, Rodenbach’s later play on the same story entitled Le Mirage which appeared posthumously in 1900.

The German translation of this play – Die stille Stadt – was made in­ 1902 by the Viennese poet and writer, Siegfried Trebitsch, who was a friend of Korngold’s father, the influential and much-feared music critic of Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, Dr Julius Korngold.

Trebitsch (some of whose poetry had already been set by young Korngold in his early lieder) eventually revised his original translation and published it under the new title of Das Trugbild in 1913Early in 1916, Trebitsch chanced to meet Korngold’s father in the street in Vienna and upon hearing that young Erich was searching for an opera libretto, suggested that Das Trugbild might serve him well.

It was an inspired suggestion. Upon reading it, Korngold’s fertile imagination was gripped and he found the story perfectly suited to his own tastes and talents.  He responded especially to its underlying theme of a powerful love that endured from beyond the grave, a concept that appealed to Korngold in a number of other works including the Lieder des Abschieds (composed almost contemporaneously with Die tote Stadt) and his later mystical opera, Das Wunder der Heliane in 1927.

Korngold composed a score that can truly be called hyper-romantic with rapturous, heroic lyricism bursting from virtually every page. Originally Korngold conceived the opera in one act but the playwright Hans Müller, who had earlier written the libretto for Korngold’s highly successful second opera Violanta in 1915, persuaded him to recast the story in three acts.

This made for a far more elaborate structure including an extended divertissement in Act 2 featuring an amusing harlequinade as well as an elaborate religious procession in Act 3. Müller began work on the libretto but, according to Korngold’s father recalling events in his memoirs, the initial result was somewhat turgid. Young Korngold was dissatisfied and decided to write the libretto himself, in collaboration with his father, but under a pseudonym – Paul Schott – deftly combining the names of the main protagonist of the story and that of Korngold’s publisher in Mainz.

The reason for such a deception was not only because the position of Korngold’s father as chief music critic in Vienna could not be compromised, but more importantly to avoid a resurgence of the early, spiteful accusations by certain Viennese factions that young Erich’s father had secretly co-authored his son’s early works. These allegations would clearly reappear were his father’s name to have appeared on the score. Thus, the authors’ identity would remain a closely guarded family secret until the opera’s revival in New York in 1975.

The Korngolds made numerous subtle changes to Rodenbach’s original. The synopsis of the opera is as follows:

Act One
The story is set in Bruges. The main protagonist, Paul, has moved there following the sudden death of his wife, Marie. He is looked after by a servant, Brigitta and has turned one of the rooms in his apartment into a shrine, which he calls “the Temple of Memories” which is dedicated solely to the cult of his dead wife and her relics, which include a large portrait, an old lute and a long plait of her hair, conserved in a crystal cask. As the curtain rises, Brigitta admits Frank, an old friend of Paul’s, to the “Temple”. Frank has not seen Paul for some time and Brigitta tells him that a marked change has come over her master, who is now highly excitable and frequently talks of the dead returning to life. At this point, Paul suddenly comes home and rushes in, joyfully embracing Frank, telling him that he has met a beautiful young woman who is exactly like Marie in every way. He has bought her roses and invited her to the house. Frank vainly begs his friend not to indulge in such groundless fancies and leaves. Finally, the mysterious woman arrives, elegant and nonchalant. She is a young dancer called Marietta, visiting Bruges to perform at the local theatre. Paul asks her to put on his wife’s shawl at which he calls her “Marie!” She tells him that her name is Marietta. He then gives her the lute and Marietta sings a nostalgic old song which coincidentally was a favourite of Paul’s dead wife, Marie. Paul joins in the second stanza and as the last notes die away, happy singing can suddenly be heard from the street: these are the voices of Marietta’s friends and colleagues whom she must join because they have rehearsals at the theatre. She dances exuberantly but is stopped in her tracks when she sees Marie’s portrait.  “But this is me! With the shawl and the lute?” She has to go to her rehearsal, however, and leaves. Once alone, Paul hears his wife’s voice calling him and as the stage darkens, she appears to him. He begs her forgiveness but the spectre urges him to see that “Life is calling you; look and understand”.  Paul’s vision has begun. 

Act Two
The vision continues. Now standing in the main square of Bruges, perturbed by a sense of anguish and remorse, Paul waits in front of Marietta’s house. A group of Beguines from the nearby Convent walks past, and the last of them is Brigitta now dressed in a novice’s habit. She has left Paul’s service because he has not remained faithful to Marie. Then Frank suddenly appears. He is no longer friendly to Paul and has also been seduced by Marietta, and is about to enter her apartment; he triumphantly shows Paul the key that she has given him. Paul is furious and he sets upon his friend, grabbing the key from his hand. Frank shouts “I am no longer your friend” and, staggering, he leaves.  Then, a boat carrying the entire company of Marietta’s troupe passes along the canal. Everyone sings a serenade to Marietta, who enters with the handsome Gaston, also clearly one of her lovers. Fritz, dressed as Pierrot, sings “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”, a luscious, and nostalgic waltz song. Marietta suggests rehearsing in the open air the scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil in which she plays the part of Hélène, the nun who rises from the tomb. She starts a seductive dance with Gaston and Paul, disgusted by the blasphemous spectacle, comes forward to stop it. The friends leave and, once alone with Marietta, Paul, in a fury, reveals the reason for his attraction towards her. He says he never loved her. He has loved in her only the image of his deceased wife. Marietta is hurt, but becomes determined to challenge her rival and chase out her ghost forever. She gradually seduces Paul who, incapable of controlling himself, gives in and attempts to enter her house. However, she stops him: “I want to come to your home! For the first time, to be with you at your home!” 
Act Three
After a night of love with Paul, Marietta wakes up early to find herself alone. She goes into the “Temple of Memories” to look in triumph on the portrait of Marie. Paul returns. Full of remorse, he has been out walking and praying. He tries to make Marietta leave the room, but she refuses. As bells and chants can already be heard from outside, she insists that she wishes to watch from the window the religious procession that is held every year on that day. Paul feels increasingly drawn by the ceremony and, as the bishop passes, he falls to his knees. Marietta, following a devilish impulse to profane his feelings, tries to seduce him again. Tormented by guilt feelings, Paul spurns her, but in his delirium, he thinks that he can see the procession menacingly entering the room, which makes Marietta laugh. Paul tries to control himself, as he defends his faith in love and loyalty, but she accuses him of weakness and hypocrisy. She runs to the cask, opens it and seizes the plait of hair, which she winds around her neck, and begins to perform a provocative dance with it. Furious, Paul throws Marietta to the floor and in a rage, he strangles her with the plait of Marie’s hair. The scene dims to complete darkness as Paul cries out ‘Now she is like the other one!” and the vision is over. The light slowly returns. Paul shakes himself and, surprised, he sees that the dead body has disappeared and the plait of hair is in its rightful place. Everything is as it was at the end of Act 1.  What has happened has all been a dream. Brigitta comes in to announce the lady who had just left has come back, after taking just a few steps. Marietta enters: she has forgotten her umbrella and the roses. Is this perhaps a sign that she ought to stay? Paul is astonished and says nothing. She shrugs her shoulders, smiles and leaves. At the door, she meets Frank, who bows as she passes by and then asks his friend: “So, was this the miracle?” It has indeed been a miracle. Paul will never see her again. The nightmare has had a liberating effect on him, destroying his dream, but at the same time curing him of his obsession. Frank is about to leave and he suggests that Paul go with him. Paul replies: “I want to try”. He will leave the dead city, because life imposes the “terrible commandment”: there is no resurrection on this earth. As the opera ends, Paul sings again the old Lute Song that had so moved him in Act 1 and as the curtain falls, he leaves the house for good.

Of the numerous changes made to Rodenbach’s original, the most significant was its emphasis on hallucination and obsession, reflecting the time and place of its composition, especially the startling recent developments in psychiatry that were so en vogue. It must be noted that Korngold grew up in Freud’s Vienna (his Aunt Steffi actually lived in the apartment below that of Freud on the Bergasse and Dr Freud was a frequent guest at her legendary dinner parties, as was young Korngold).

Moreover, Freud’s famous treatise The Interpretation of Dreams had been published in Vienna in 1900, eight years after Bruges la Morte. Indeed, there is no opera more influenced by Freudian theory than Die tote Stadt, a work that places almost two-thirds of its action within the confines of an extended dream, replete with indications of necrophilia, repressed guilt, sexual obsession and the profound morbid inability of its main character, Paul, to move on from the grief of bereavement.

By the time Korngold began work on Die tote Stadt (at the age of 19) he was already an established international composer with an impressive catalogue of lieder, chamber, operatic and orchestral works to his credit. His phenomenal early successes not only aroused admiration, however, but also jealousy among rivals and contemporaries.  “Publishers, performances – that boy has everything! I shall be old before that …” wrote an envious Anton Webern to Schoenberg in 1913.

Korngold had already completed two one-act operas by his mid-teens – Violanta and Der Ring des Polykrates (click here to see Exhibition of the Month, March 2016) – that had caused a tremendous stir at the first performances in Munich conducted by Bruno Walter, later reaching Vienna where Maria Jeritza and Selma Kurz sang the leading roles.

The stage was therefore set for Korngold to produce a major full-length opera and Die tote Stadt was to provide the perfect canvas. He worked rapidly and, in spite of interruptions caused by his military service during WW1, finished the opera in short score in 1919, subsequently completing the extravagant orchestration on 15 August 1920.

The orchestra is vast: three of each woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, the rarely used bass trumpet, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and five percussion (plus five more percussion on stage at the end of Act 1) two harps, four keyboard players – piano, celeste, organ and, supplying a special, eerie colour for the ghost of the dead wife, Marie, a harmonium! In addition there are church bells, a mandolin, a wind machine, a stage band of two trumpets and two Eb clarinets, a large chorus, a children’s chorus, a chamber choir of 16 voices and a further eight sopranos off stage during Act 2. Korngold deploys this enormous ensemble with consummate skill and the orchestra is used throughout, not merely to provide accompaniment but in the manner of a huge symphonic poem that comments on and defines the action. More particularly, every single member of this huge orchestra is treated like a virtuoso, making the score a tremendous challenge in performance.

The principal roles are equally demanding, and for the tenor who sings the role of Paul, this is especially true. Apart from the opening scene and a brief pause in Act 2, he is on stage throughout with high notes on almost every page.  The challenging double role of Marietta and the ghostly apparition of the dead wife, Marie, combines the coquettish charm of a Zerbinetta with the dramatic power of an Elektra. Korngold, writing to the conductor Egon Pollak in 1920, declared the role to be suited to a Salome and a Mona Lisa combined, the latter remark referring to the opera by Von Schillings, popular at the time. (click here to see Exhibition of the Month, September 2015).

Such was Korngold’s celebrity in 1920 that a bidding war immediately broke out for the world premiere, with several theatres vying for the privilege of presenting the opera. In Vienna, Richard Strauss and Franz Schalk had recently been appointed co-directors of the Staatsoper and naturally wanted this most eagerly awaited new work for their first season.

Julius Korngold preferred that premieres of his son’s works always be given outside of Vienna whenever possible, to avoid unnecessary animosity from rival music critics.  The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that Franz Schalk happened to be one of his closest friends and accusations of favouritism might be made, even though Richard Strauss was already a frequent target in Julius Korngold’s influential column in the Neue Freie Presse.

In any case, young Korngold wanted the premiere to be given in Hamburg, where he had recently signed a contract as conductor at the State Opera. At the same time, the Staatstheater in Cologne was also anxious to give the world premiere and promised a distinguished cast with the great Otto Klemperer as conductor. After much haggling, both theatres agreed to a joint premiere, and on the same date – 4 December 1920.

At one point, it seemed that Vienna would join in making it an unprecedented triple premiere, but they ultimately agreed to defer until January1921. Korngold opted to attend the Hamburg performance, conducted by his close friend and admirer Egon Pollak, before returning for the Vienna premiere on 10 January when the legendary soprano Maria Jeritza would star. The opera was to receive exceptional reviews in all three cities.

Maria Jeritza’s interpretation was crucial for Korngold who had written the double role expressly with her in mind. In a charming memoir written in 1975, at the time of the opera’s first complete recording, she recalled:

How marvellous those initial Vienna rehearsals were: Franz Schalk was the conductor, Wilhelm von Wymetal the director, Karl Aagard-Oestvig, the most handsome of tenors and an actor to boot, was Paul … Hermann Wiedemann – and later Hans Duhan – sang Frank and the unforgettable Richard Mayr, Vienna’s celebrated Baron Ochs, sang the Pierrot. Dear Eritschko certainly knew what he was doing when he wrote the big Act 2 duet for Oestvig and me. It needs all the white hot flame of the Calaf-Turandot duet, which it anticipates by a few years ….

At the time of the opera’s New York revival in 1975, the elderly Jeritza attended rehearsals and told the soprano Carol Neblett, who sang the double role of Marietta-Marie, that in her opinion it was actually a triple role, saying “You must not only be the vivacious young dancer Marietta, and then the dead wife Marie in the Vision Scene – but also, the depraved, seductive version of Marietta as she appears in Paul’s dream! Three women!  It is one of the greatest acting challenges for a singer in all of opera ….”.

The gala Vienna premiere that Jeritza remembered so vividly was not without problems, however. A disastrous dress rehearsal had caused the young composer tremendous anxiety. Korngold’s wife Luzi, who was, at that time, still only his fiancée (they married in 1924) remembered it all vividly in her memoirs:

As the premiere date drew ever nearer, Erich took me to the dress rehearsal. I went in with the highest expectations but came away bitterly disappointed. When Erich sat at the piano and performed his opera, he was more Jeritza than “THE Jeritza” that we saw on the stage – more poetic than the dreaming tenor Oestvig. From his fabulous piano playing, I imagined a more intoxicating sound than I heard from the Vienna Philharmonic; in my imagination I had imagined everything on the stage to be livelier, warmer and more human. I was shocked all the more, when I saw Erich’s worried face ….

The well-worn myth that a successful premiere requires a disastrous dress rehearsal was borne out to quite an incredible degree in the case of Die tote Stadt. The moment the curtain went up at the performance, I was instantly aware of the tension and contact between stage and public that had been missing during the dress rehearsal. As soon as Oestvig walked into his beloved, deceased wife’s room, he was nervous, jumpy and alone. He actually became Paul, the man who dwells in the realms of death while seeking life. The tension that came before Marietta’s entrance was almost unbearable. And I was not the only one who felt it – I could sense with every nerve in my body, the fascination of the public. The singers had to keep returning to take bows – even after the first act, Erich stood between Jeritza and Oestvig. Richard Strauss had passed a note to Erich’s box instructing him not to be ungrateful to the public and show his appreciation right from the beginning.

After Richard Mayr, that most unforgettable of all Viennese singers, had performed the Pierrotlied, the public went wild, breaking out in a veritable hurricane of enthusiastic applause. The opera’s success was guaranteed and from that moment, it was launched into victory.

After the premiere, I visited the Korngold home for the very first time. Quite off hand, Erich informed everyone there that he knew before the performance, it would go well, as someone at the opera had already guaranteed it. When a baffled Franz Schalk asked who this person could possibly have been, Erich answered that it was the theatre fireman who had been scheduled to cover the rehearsal.

After hearing the Mariettalied, he had come up to Erich and announced, “Mr. Korngold, that was something quite splendid… you’ve really pulled it off!”. This prophetic fireman remained Erich’s dear friend. Many years later, I saw Erich with his arm around his shoulders walking down the Opera staircase ….*

Among the celebrities who heard Die tote Stadt in Vienna during that first season was Puccini who had known Korngold since he was a wunderkind. In an interview he gave in Munich a short time later, he said:

With regards to modern German music, my biggest hope lies with Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He is exceptionally gifted, has a formidable technical knowledge and, most important of all, superb musical ideas … he has so much talent, he could easily give half of it away and still have enough left for himself.

Puccini’s praise of Korngold’s musical ideas has been reflected in the enduring popularity of the two main arias in Die tote Stadt. Dr Marcel Prawy, the legendary producer and later historian of the Vienna Opera, once observed that Die tote Stadt provided the very last ‘hit tunes’ in German opera – the aforementioned Mariettaslied (which incidentally, was composed by Korngold first of all, before the rest of the score, in the summer of 1916) and the nostalgic Pierrotslied.

In fact, the Mariettalied is now one of the most recorded of all 20th century arias (over 100 versions exist) and its haunting opening phrase is reproduced in a facsimile of Korngold’s manuscript on the composer’s gravestone in Hollywood.

After the triumphant Vienna premiere, critic Dr Elsa Bienenfeld, writing in the Neues Wiener Journal, summed up the feelings of most, when she declared:

What was in Violanta still a fortunate experiment is here, assured mastery.  Since music was first written for the theatre, there has never been a composer who has achieved so much, so young … A youthful tempest is bursting over us … Who can tell whither this demon will lead, this young and glorious artist, this original musician!

The house was subsequently sold out five times in nine days. Franz Schalk declared Korngold’s work to be “the summation of Austrian opera”.

Throughout 1921/22, the success of Die tote Stadt swept through the opera houses of Europe. It was given productions in Karlsruhe, Königsberg, Breslau, Bremen, Stettin, Nürnberg, Wiesbaden, Dusseldorf, Weimar, Zurich, Kassel, Halle and Korngold‘s birthplace, Brünn, in Moravia. On 19 November 1921, it reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the first German language opera to be staged there after WW1. Maria Jeritza made her triumphant American debut in what was now considered one of her greatest roles, and Richard Strauss, en route to South America where he would tour with the Vienna Philharmonic, attended the premiere sending a postcard to Korngold’s father reporting on the success.

In December 1921, Korngold travelled to Dresden, where Georg Hartmann mounted a fascinating production, imaginatively using film projections for the ghostly scenery and the Act 3 procession. Korngold was impressed, mostly because the role of Paul was sung by the great lyric tenor, Richard Tauber. He later told Luzi that Tauber’s incredible musicianship had a profound effect on him, adding “It was as if I myself had been standing on stage, singing every phrase, every note, exactly as I had composed it!”

Tauber became one of Korngold’s closest friends and sang the role of Paul many times, both as a guest in Vienna and in Chemnitz.  In 1924 he starred in a celebrated new production of the opera in Berlin, opposite Lotte Lehmann, conducted by a young George Szell.

They made a famous recording at the time of the Act 1 duet that has been re-released many times since and indeed has never been out of the record catalogue in almost a century. Among many other notable productions at that time, none was more striking than in Frankfurt in 1922, where the great expressionist designer Ludwig Sievert created a nightmarish and brilliantly stylised vision of the story that was strongly reminiscent of the famous surrealist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari released in 1919. With weird perspectives and painted shadows, its dramatic use of lighting and psycho-sexual imagery brought a profound realization of the darker aspects of this strange story, effortlessly matching Korngold’s musical canvas.  The opera reached Prague that same year with Korngold’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky conducting.

Die tote Stadt continued its inexorable path in more than 70 productions before 1933, making Korngold the most performed composer of opera in German-speaking countries at that time, after Richard Strauss.

The year 1933 marked an obvious turning point, however.  Die tote Stadt had already fallen foul of the rising National Socialist Party in Germany when, at the premiere of a new production in Munich under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch, a large group of young Nazis carrying banners with swastikas tried to disrupt the performance.  At the end, Korngold bravely walked on stage accompanied by Knappertsbusch, who stood behind him in support as he took his bows. The public doubled its applause to drown the booing and hissing of the demonstrators, but the whole event left Korngold shaken. It was an ominous portent of things to come.

By the end of the 1920s, Die tote Stadt had become a favourite in Hamburg and also Vienna where it remained on the spielplan as late as 1936. Following the Anschluss of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, it was removed from the repertory by the new administration, along with all of Korngold’s other music.

After the war, a Vienna revival in 1950 was cancelled after a typical intrigue over casting, and it was not heard again there until 1967 when Marcel Prawy briefly presented it at the Volksoper.

Korngold himself heard it only once more after WW2, in Munich in 1955, a popular success that was alas summarily dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ by the critics. Its gradual modern revival only began in 1975 with Frank Corsaro’s production starring Carol Neblett at New York City Opera, which in turn led to the first complete recording under Erich Leinsdorf a year later.

Then, in 1983, as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin, Götz Friedrich chose it as the centrepiece of the festival in a striking new production at the Deutsche Oper starring Karan Armstrong and James King, which was televised and later travelled to Vienna, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The original telecast has since been released on DVD.

Since then, Die tote Stadt has become increasingly popular with productions in numerous German and Austrian cities, while Willy Decker’s much admired Salzburg production in 2004 also toured internationally and was released on DVD before finally reaching London’s Covent Garden in 2009, marking the opera’s UK stage premiere.

Subsequently, belated premieres have taken place in Finland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Argentina, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Japan, Hungary, Switzerland and France. It has become a repertory opera once again.

Last year, it returned to the stage in Munich, in a highly successful and completely sold out production, with Jonas Kaufmann starring as Paul. This production was to have been revived in July of this year, when it should have been live-streamed on the internet to a global audience of millions but the worldwide pandemic unfortunately prevented it. However a Blu-ray release will eventually follow.

Gustav Mahler, who was the first to declare the nine-year-old Korngold to be a genius in 1906, once observed that a composer could only really claim immortality if his works were still being performed 50 years after his death, something that Korngold has achieved with ease, in spite of the catastrophe of WW2 that sent him into enforced exile in Hollywood.  One hundred years after its famous double-premiere, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is no longer a half-forgotten novelty from the past, but is rightly recognised today as one of the most significant operas of the 20th century.

© Brendan G Carroll 2020

*I am grateful to Dr Michael Haas from the Center in Vienna for his fine translation of Luzi Korngold’s memoirs quoted in this essay.


We would like to give our special thanks to Brendan Carroll who has now contributed several of our Exhibitions of the Month.  He is the author of The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Amadeus Press, 1997.


In 1951 Korngold made one of his rare visits to the recording studio in Vienna to record some of his music. Among the performances captured by the microphones was his unique piano improvisation on themes from Die tote Stadt. Korngold opens with an explosive performance of the tempestuous motif for Bruges itself and then incorporates the whole of the luscious Pierrotlied from Act 2.