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Erich Wolfgang Korngold. [c.1920].

Erich KORNGOLD Incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing

May 2020

Incidental Music for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Op.11 by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) – The centenary of the first production, Vienna, 6 May 1920

In 1918, as the Great War drew to a close, the 21-year-old former wunderkind Erich Wolfgang Korngold was confined to barracks in Vienna as musical director of his regiment. His military service had already interrupted work on a major new opera, Die tote Stadt, and apart from some  marches and the ceremonial Kaiserin-Zita-Hymne for the coronation of the Empress Zita, who briefly succeeded Emperor Franz Josef before the eventual collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he had written very little music for over two years.

It was at this point that Korngold received a commission to write an incidental score for a new stage production of Shakespeare’s witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing, or, as it is known in German, Viel Lärmen um Nichts.  The commission came from a local theatre company, the Wiener Volksbühne, and the production was to be staged in the charming baroque Schlosstheater at Schönbrunn Palace.

Korngold was enchanted by the whole idea and having read almost all of Shakespeare’s plays in German translation in his early teens (in the renowned Schlegel-Tieck version), he was already familiar with the play and enthusiastically set to work.

With the severe restrictions of wartime (the chance of securing a full orchestra being remote) plus the limited size of the Schönbrunn pit, Korngold had already decided that the music would have to be scored for reduced forces, while also taking into account the intimate acoustic of the historic theatre.  As the music he would write would also underscore some of the actual dialogue in certain scenes, Korngold took great care in matters of balance. Consequently the music is scored for a delicate chamber ensemble that includes piano, harp, single woodwind, two horns, trumpet, trombone, large percussion section and, unusually, a harmonium to further enrich the sound and provide distinct colouristic effects at key points in the score.

Korngold worked rapidly, creating a musical canvas of 18 separate numbers of varying length – some lasting barely 30 seconds while others are more substantial at five or six minutes. He drew on one previous composition, a curious piece entitled Tänzchen im Altem Stil (Dance in the Old Style) which was composed in the summer of 1917, though no performance has yet been traced and it was not published at that time. Korngold borrowed a gorgeous cello melody from this charming little work; scored for modest chamber forces it easily transferred to the new score, where much expanded, it forms the basis of one of the most famous movements.  Entitled Gartenscene and illustrating Don Pedro’s garden, it amounts to a tone poem in miniature as prelude to the second half of the evening. (Shakespeare’s five-act play was presented in this version with just one interval).

Korngold also composed a beautiful art song – the Lied des Pagen Balthasar [well-known to Shakespeare’s compatriots as ‘Sigh no more, ladies’] – an exquisite tenor solo about man’s infidelity, with harp accompaniment mimicking a lute.  There are a number of other outstanding sequences including the impressive and very Mahlerian Trauermusik and the celebrated Hornpipe, which triumphantly concludes both play and score.

In the summer of 1919, just as Korngold was putting the finishing touches to the orchestration, he received the shocking news that the Wiener Volksbühne had gone bankrupt and consequently the entire production was to be cancelled! With everything ready, including all of the costumes and the score practically finished, this seemed a disaster in the making.  However at the last moment the management of Vienna’s famous Burgtheater, hearing of the impending calamity, stepped in and offered to produce the play and rescue Korngold’s music – as well as contracting members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the run of performances at the Schlosstheater.

By this time Korngold had played excerpts of his score on the piano to friends and colleagues and all were delighted with it. His father, the eminent critic Dr Julius Korngold, who always had an eye on box-office takings, saw the potential for his son’s charming score to have a life beyond the theatre.  He encouraged Erich to fashion a suite for concert use, and so it was that Vienna actually heard three segments of the score more than four months before the curtain went up at Schönbrunn; Korngold included this suite in a special concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, that he conducted on 24 January 1920.  It proved so popular (it unusually had to be encored, almost unheard of for a new work) that after expansion to five movements it quickly became one of his most widely performed works. By 1933 it was apparently in the repertoire of over 100 orchestras worldwide.

Meanwhile final rehearsals were taking place for the stage production and Korngold was closely involved in all aspects, just as he would be when working on films in Hollywood a decade or more later. Indeed it is fascinating to observe how Korngold was already developing his remarkable skills in underscoring dialogue and bridging dramatic pauses and scene changes with music, skills he would draw upon when adapting to the new medium of film in America.

In 2012 the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, under the direction of conductor John Mauceri, mounted the first modern revival of Korngold’s complete original score with a production of the play. In a programme note, Mauceri rightly observed that Korngold was carrying on the long tradition of ‘symphonic theatre’ that stretches back to Haydn (Il Distratto), Beethoven (Egmont), Schubert (Rosamunde) and, most relevant of all Mendelssohn (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Coincidentally it was the latter which would provide Korngold with his entrée to films, when Max Reinhardt invited him to Hollywood in 1934 to work on his lavish screen version of the play, with Korngold adapting and expanding Mendelssohn’s original music and creating what amounted to a Mendelssohnian symphonic poem to accompany the film.

In researching Korngold’s 1920 score for Much Ado, Mauceri also discovered that all of the original parts and even the conductor books from the first Vienna production had survived in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, undisturbed for almost a century. These fragile materials were full of Korngold’s handwritten notes and instructions. It was thus possible to reconstruct the performance exactly as Korngold had intended and a CD of the performance was subsequently issued by the Toccata label in 2013. This complete score was also later published.

Of particular interest was the revelation that the string parts were originally played by single players rather than a normal string section, doubtless because of the space and acoustic problems already noted. Korngold naturally increased the size of the strings for the orchestral suite, where no such considerations mattered.

The sold-out premiere finally took place on 6 May 1920, with Korngold himself conducting, and was a great success – so great in fact, that all remaining performances also quickly sold out. Korngold’s future wife, Luise Sonnenthal was present and afterwards told her fiancée that she thought he had written a little masterpiece. Korngold smiled and said “Eine kleine Bühnenmusikeh?” – a witty reference to Mozart’s famous serenade. Korngold dedicated the score to his great friend, the conductor Egon Pollak, who would later direct the world premieres of the operas Die tote Stadt and Das Wunder der Heliane in Hamburg and conducted the Much Ado suite there several times.

Word spread throughout Vienna and even to the provinces, that Korngold’s new work was a smash hit. The public clamoured for tickets and the management had to extend the run ” by popular demand” as the cliché goes.

This runaway success created a new problem however – the musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic were otherwise engaged for the start of the new season and could not continue with the extended run. Undaunted, the resourceful Korngold spent a weekend rearranging the entire score for violin and piano. He then called upon his friends, the violinists Rudolf Kolisch (1896-1978, leader of the legendary string quartet that bore his name) and Paul Breisach (1896-1952, later conductor at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin and after emigration to the US the Metropolitan Opera). Both played the violin part on alternate nights (and sometimes together as a duo), with the composer at the piano! Korngold playing the piano was almost like a full orchestra, as anyone who heard him play often stated.

On Sunday nights, when not engaged either in a concert or at the opera, Karl Anton Stiegler, the celebrated principal horn player of the Vienna Philharmonic joined them to play the final  Hornpipe (with the bribe of a fine cigar for his trouble).

Eventually, with no sign of the box office dwindling, the production transferred to the Burgtheater itself in October, when the Schlosstheater had to give way to other bookings. By this time, other theatres in Austria and Germany were preparing to stage their own versions of the play with Korngold’s score. Korngold had prepared a four- movement suite for violin and piano drawn from his reduced score, which also became immensely popular in the concert hall and later, on gramophone records. Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, Max Rostal, Jascha Heifetz and Toscha Seidel were among the great virtuosi who performed and recorded it; Lionel Tertis transcribed it for viola.

Korngold also published a 3-movement piano solo transcription in 1920 (‘leicht bearbeitet’, presumably for domestic use). As recently as 2012, an unpublished and previously unknown manuscript score of a transcription of 3 movements for string quartet, was discovered in Vienna. This was published and recorded in 2015.

By the mid-1920s the orchestral suite began to be heard internationally, not only in Europe but also in America. The great conductors of the time took it up, among them Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and Weingartner. In 1923 it was announced for the Promenade Concerts in London but, owing to the orchestral parts not arriving from Germany in time, Sir Henry Wood had to substitute Korngold’s earlier Schauspiel-Ouvertüre, composed at the age of 14. Wood had presented this in 1912 and retained the score and parts in his library, while Much Ado About Nothing had to wait until 14 July 2007 for its Proms premiere!

Richard Strauss was one of the many great musicians who loved this music and when he took the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour of South America in the Spring of 1923, he included the Much Ado suite in his programmes with considerable success. Korngold himself conducted it many times in Vienna and in 1925 at the Concertgebouw and at the Augusteo in Rome.

The political events of the 1930s and the rise of the Nazis eventually removed Korngold’s music from the repertory in Germany and (from 1938) in Austria as well, and the score to Much Ado About Nothing faded from view. After WW2, in the atonal climate of the 1950s, it struggled to reclaim its place.

Korngold eventually returned to Vienna in 1949 in an attempt to revive his European career and while there, he was invited to make a recording of the Suite which was issued first on 78rpm discs and subsequently, as a long-playing record in 1953. Part of this rare recording is included at the end of this page, with Korngold himself conducting the bustling Overture to his score, just as he had in 1920 – a unique historical document.

Gradually, through occasional performances and broadcasts, Korngold’s delightful score started to return to the repertoire. Jascha Horenstein included it in one of his London concerts in October 1960, a new LP recording with the South German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart conducted by Willy Mattes appeared in 1973 and since then many other recordings have appeared.

In July 2001 the eminent Viennese composer H. K. Gruber conducted the first complete performance of the entire score since before 1933, with the City of London Sinfonia at London’s historic Guildhall, a performance which included actors (in costume) reading relevant passages from the play on stage.

The huge success of Mauceri’s North Carolina performance 2012 prompted a stage production at Wuppertal two years later.  Then on 24 November 2017 a unique event organised by the Joseph Haydn Institute, together with the Max Reinhardt Seminar and the Exil.Arte Center of Vienna presented a special evening at Schönbrunn Palace to mark the 120th anniversary of Korngold’s birth and the 60th anniversary of his death, in which students performed the music from Much Ado About Nothing once again in the Schlosstheater (in concert, on the stage) together with Korngold’s String Sextet, Op.10.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, the orchestral suite from Much Ado About Nothing is rightly becoming one of Korngold’s most popular works, with numerous performances worldwide and regular recordings appearing almost annually.

© Brendan G. Carroll, May 2020


Brendan G. Carroll is the biographer of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His book The Last Prodigy is considered definitive and was published in 1997 by Amadeus Press. It appeared in a revised version, translated into German, by Boehlau Verlag, Vienna in 2012.

With the exception of the two instrumental arrangements and the postcards of the two theatres, images shown above are copyright of the Brendan G. Carroll Collection as is the recording.  We are most grateful to Mr. Carroll for his help in mounting this timely celebration and drawing our attention to the anniversary.