Helen Korngold is the daughter-in-law of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, married to his first son Ernst in the 1940s.
The following interview with her was originally posted in June 2001.
Q: Mrs. Korngold, please tell me when did you first meet E.W. Korngold?
I first met E.W.K in July of 1944. I had met his son while studying at the University of Colorado that winter, and the Korngolds invited me to visit them at their home in North Hollywood, California.
Q: Could you describe his character?
Erich Korngold was a man of the greatest integrity and honesty, he was serious when the occasion demanded, but the seriousness was always tempered with great warmth and humor.
Q: What was his usual method when he composed music?
He required absolute quiet and concentration. I still remember his wife “hushing” us all with the admonition: “Shh. Papa is working”. He preferred to work at home except when it was necessary for him to be at the studio, and his wife was invariably in the same room with him…..his wife and no one else.
Q: What was his favorite classical work and film work that he composed?
I don’t remember a favorite classical work, but he always said Between Two Worlds was at the top of the list of film scores. And of course, he was extremely proud of his symphony, composed after the long hiatus from composing so-called “serious music”. But I should add the fact that when he composed his film scores, he did so with care and attention to each detail, as he devoted to his other music. His complete musical integrity would not allow him any other course.
Q: Who were his favorite composers?
Certainly Bach and Mozart and Wagner, and of course his friend and mentor Richard Strauss, as well as Johann Strauss the Younger, whose music he so much enjoyed adapting. Indeed, Strauss’s widow praised Korngold’s conducting of her husband’s works, saying his style reminded him of her husband’s conducting!
Q: Did he like to compose film music or was this just a way to earn a living?
He didn’t seek out the job; rather, the job sought him. But again, he approached it as he did everything else: with complete absorption and dedication. He always set the highest standards for himself. Of course, as for anyone else, it was necessary for him to make a living; particularly since he was responsible for a goodly number of households.
Q: What is your most touching memory when you think of him?
Personally, I remember all the kindness and generosity he extended to me. I’ve always said, I never had better friends than my parents-in-law. It was especially painful to witness the last year of his life when he was afflicted by a massive stroke. We were living next door to him at that time.
Q: Did he feel sad about the neglect of his classical music works after the war?
Of course he was saddened, and I am only sorry that he did not live to see the recent renaissance of his music. Still as my husband, Ernst, used to say, at least his father had almost every one of his works performed, and that is more than many other composers can say.
Q: What were his reactions or good reviews by the critics?
It would be foolish to say that he, or any other artist, does not like to have his works appreciated and praised. Certainly Korngold was only human in this respect, but I have to say, when you add it all up, over the years (remember how young he was when he started to compose) he had his fair share of acclaim.
Q: Do you know if he longed for his pre-war life in Vienna?
I’m sure that both he and his wife, Luzi, looked back fondly on the days before the war in Vienna. But I always admired them for their ability to adapt to life in this country, and how much they appreciated all the benefits they received from being citizens of the United States.
Q: What do you think modern composers and listeners owe to the music of Korngold?
I think they should always remember his great gift of melody and how the audience responds, inevitably to the music. I have seen it happen over and over – even in the days when his music was – according to the critics – virtually forgotten, that the audience was as enthusiastic as it had been at the peak of his career.