Klauss P. Hanusa worked with George Korngold, the composer's son to produce
recordings of Korngold's works, in Germany, such as Die tote Stadt
and the Sinfonietta. In the CD booklet notes, Hanusa describes how he had
tried to interest George in recording his father's work for A Midsummer
Night's Dream. George was not keen enough to prioritise such a project
because he reckoned that it was more Mendelssohn than Korngold. However,
I feel quite justified in expressing the heading as above because Korngold's
contribution to Max Reinhardt's film of his stage production of Shakespeare's
comedy was, as I think you will agree, when you hear this marvellous album,
very significant. In typical modesty, Korngold chose not to be credited at
all in the film's titles leaving all the glory to Mendelssohn.
Reinhardt, who had worked with Korngold before, did not hesitate to invite
the composer over to Hollywood from Vienna to arrange and supervise the music
for his film. It was Korngold's first visit to the film capital but Warner
Bros were impressed enough with his commitment and talent to summon him back
to score other films notably the swashbuckler romances of Errol Flynn beginning
with Captain Blood. His Hollywood contract undoubtedly saved him from
the clutches of the Nazis.
Korngold at work on A Midsummer Night's Dream
Ever the perfectionist, Korngold went to extreme pains over the music for
A Midsummer Nights Dream. As soon as he arrived at Warner Bros., he
asked a technician how long one foot was; "Twelve inches", he was told cynically.
"No", Korngold insisted, "I mean how long does it last on screen." Apparently
nobody had asked this before but when the answer came back - two thirds of
a second, Korngold was delighted. "Ach…exactly the same length of time
as the first two measures of Mendelssohn's Scherzo!"
Victor Jory (who played so many villains in the 1930s and 1940s) played Oberon.
He remembered how Korngold carefully rehearsed him in the precise rhythms
that he wanted for the famous speech which begins "I know a bank where the
wild thyme grows…" When it came to the actual filming Korngold lay in
some bushes out of camera range and literally conducted Jory's performance
as though he was singing his lines. This sort of meticulous care and
resourcefulness soon established Korngold's authority over director (William
Dieterle who was in full accord with Korngold's wishes) and actors in matters
as they might affect the music. Such a practice had never been encountered
before but Korngold, on this film, established procedures that would influence
the medium right up to the present day. He also steadily built up the Warner
Bros orchestra, which at this time, was merely a glorified dance band into
a proper symphony orchestra.
The film of A Midsummer Nights Dream had 114 minutes of music. Clearly
Mendelssohn's composition of the same name had insufficient material, so
Korngold supplemented it with quotations from many other Mendelssohn
compositions. It is testament to Korngold's skill and sympathetic treatment
that the integration of all this extra music is so seamless and sounds so
natural. In places where new adaptation occurs, Korngold expanded the orchestra
to include saxophones, piano, guitar and vibraphone plus extra percussion
and harp. He also thickened Mendelssohn's textures especially in the lower
strings to compensate for the limitations of the monaural sound recording
where the altogether more delicate scoring of early 19th century
orchestration would have been lost. The additional instruments are used almost
exclusively for the 'magical' effects which were necessary to match the exotic
scenes on screen. A wordless chorus, for the fairies, is also added.
Let me start by saying that the playing of the Berlin Orchestra is simply
glorious; beautiful phrasing and textures clear and transparent. The sound
engineering is excellent. The recording opens with a seven minute Overture
instead of the Title Music. This Overture was played in theatres before the
opening credits during the film's initial release and then discarded. It
includes music from Mendelssohn's original Overture, Op 21 as well as from
the Nocturne and the music for the Rustics.
Every one of the following 25 tracks are enchanting. I will mention just
a few. 'Theseus-Hymn' begins as a stirring fanfare and then proceeds into
an exhilarating choral adaptation of the finale of Mendelssohn's Third 'Scottish'
Symphony. Then there is Korngold's ravishingly beautiful arrangement for
tenor and orchestra of On Wings of Song transposed up from
G flat to G major. Scot Weir sings what becomes the lovely song 'O Live With
Me and Be My Love' most beguilingly. 'The Fog Dance' for fairies' chorus
and a gossamer delicate orchestra is sheer magic. 'Oberon's Plan' (referred
to above in the context of Korngold conducting Victor Jory's spoken lines)
is underscored by a beautiful arrangement of the song An die Entfernte.
Titania, as sung with bell-like purity by lyric soprano Celina Lindsley,
sings her lied to Mendelssohn's lovely Lied Ohne Worte Op 67 No. 6.
The ravishing Intermezzo is taken directly from the Entr'acte between Acts
II and III of the original incidental score. 'Wedding Waltz', in three quarter
time and newly and wittily orchestrated, includes a buffoonish use of three
jazzy saxophones. 'Titania's Song' is an enchanting arrangement of the so-called
Venetian Gondola's Song from the Lieder Ohne Worte Op. 19,
No. 6. The famous Nocturne is played transposed down a semitone into E flat
major because Reinhardt's conception was set in darkest night. Of course,
the suite would not be complete without Mendelssohn's famous 'Wedding March'.
The finale ingeniously and touchingly blends foregoing themes.
Not for Mendelssohnian purists but then I prefer Korngold's stronger, brilliant
colours For me, this is an album to treasure - a CD that will be a strong
candidate when Film Music on the Web Awards come round again.
But Norman Tozer is not so keen:-
Max Reinhardt's film vision of Shakespeare's play was visually a cross between
the drawings of Arthur Rackham and Disney. Conventionally, he chose Mendelssohn's
stage music to give the cohesion his high profile foray into the world of
the talkies. Playing safe he called in his trusted musical collaborator,
Erich Korngold to arrange the 90 year-old theatre score.
Intriguingly, this CPO disc of music Korngold intended for the film is a
careful reconstruction and performance - suggestive even of a tribute - but
it does raise more questions than answers.
First, it made me ask again, why listen to film music? Divorced from the
picture it can only be because I want to know if the musical ideas can stand
by themselves - either in the soundtrack form or as concert arrangements
In this case the concert arrangement would be the original Mendelssohn and
not quite relevant, so what of the soundtrack? But this disc is not the
soundtrack. It is a compilation of pieces both used and CUT from the film
(such as a lovely Serenade and an enjoyable Fugato). Confusingly, even the
pieces claimed as being used in the film when run against their sequences
do not seem to fit. So what are the contents of this disc meant to represent?
The sort of archeology used for this compilation seems inappropriate. Art
is a combination of creativity, craft and commerce. An artist's work has
to be judged by what he agrees to deliver, not the excisions or the notes
from which it was created. Special pleading won't wash with posterity. The
bottom line in this case(excuse the pun) surely must be my other reason for
listening to film music - that it serves as a souvenir of the original.
For this CPO disc I can say 'yes' because it reminds me of the Mendelssohn
"Dream" and all the other pieces Korngold culled from him to make up the
score. I can say 'yes' again, because Gerd Albrecht and the Deutsches
Symphonie-Orchester Berlin do recapture moments both of the Korngold sheen
and the heroic bombast. But also a 'no', because it has neither the rough
energy nor the anachronistic, populist scoring (like the cabaret-style used
for the puppet band sequences) which characterise the film. What the disc
has is a symphonic approach to the music, oratorio- style singing and the
careful verse speaking reminiscent of a 1930s musical.
I looked forward to hearing this recording and I am grateful that it made
me think again about why I listen to film music. Although easy on the ear,
the somewhat staid performance doesn't strongly recall either the film or
its brilliant composer.