For a bird’s eye view of the culture and calamities of the early 20th century, you could take a look at the life and works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In his early youth he was a musical prodigy, well known as a performer and composer. In 1920, at the age of 23, Korngold was a major player in European concert music, and Die Tote Stadt received a dual premiere in Hamburg and Cologne. Die Tote Stadt remained popular throughout the decade. In the thirties Korngold’s music was banned in Germany, because of its Jewish source. In 1938, Korngold had gone to Hollywood to compose music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. During this time the Anschluss came, so he never went back. Korngold became an American citizen in 1943. He died in 1957 in California, having left a lasting mark on American film music.
Die Tote Stadt is a strange work. It follows the travails of a man named Paul in Bruges who has lost a wife named Marie. A woman named Marietta turns out to look uncannily (and not only in name) like Marie. Psychological investigation ensues. It all turns out medium-well.
Early in the course of it, Marietta sings one particularly extraordinary song: Gluck, das mir Verblieb, also known as Marietta’s Song. As the song of Marietta to Paul, it makes for a very weird seduction. Somewhat coincidentally, the song has had its own strange afterlife in movies alongside Korngold’s own celebrated movie scores, in The Big Lebowski and A Late Quartet. (The idea of Bruges as a ‘dead city’ also remains in the ghoulish 2008 film In Bruges.) It is a long travel from the audience of Emporor Franz Josef to the Academy Awards. But somehow it all happened in the life of Korngold, as one weird resonance followed another and another. We are hearing more and more from him in concert these days… and what we are hearing can be startling, strange, and beautiful.