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Suite from Much Ado about Nothing, op. 11

February 20, 2022 – Danbi Um, violin; Juho Pohjonen, piano

Erich Wolfgang Korngold showed an incredible gift for composition at an early age. Upon hearing him play his cantata Gold in 1907, Gustav Mahler proclaimed him a genius and recommended that he study with Alexander Zemlinsky at the Vienna Conservatory. At age eleven he composed a ballet, Der Schneemann, that so impressed Zemlinsky that the latter orchestrated and produced it at the Vienna Court Theater in 1910 to sensational acclaim. Richard Strauss was deeply impressed by Korngold’s Schauspiel Ouvertüre (1911) and Sinfonietta (1912), as was Puccini by his opera Violanta (1916). The pinnacle of Korngold’s early career came at the age of twenty-three when his opera Die tote Stadt achieved international recognition. By 1928 a poll by the Neue Wiener Tagblatt considered Korngold and Schoenberg the greatest living composers.

In 1934 director Max Reinhardt took Korngold to Hollywood where the second phase of his career began. There he composed some of the finest film scores ever written—nineteen in all, including such classics as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939); he became Hollywood’s highest paid composer at that time. Yet he was caught between two worlds and two eras. He was criticized in some quarters for selling out to Hollywood and for ignoring modern trends in music; in Hollywood he was criticized for writing scores that were too complex. Even while immersed in the film world he periodically composed works in other genres—the Violin Concerto (1937; 1945) has remained in the repertoire and has even enjoyed a surge in popularity beginning in the 1990s.

Korngold’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing was composed in 1919 for a production at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1920, thus it dates from the same period as his successful Die tote Stadt. Though scored originally for chamber orchestra, Korngold arranged Much Ado for violin and piano—he himself played the piano part—when the run of performances was extended but no orchestra was available. He also fashioned several suites from the incidental music—one for violin and piano, one for orchestra, and one for solo piano.

The violin and piano Suite consists of four movements. The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, a graceful ternary-form movement, depicts Hero, the bride-to-be, on her wedding morning, happily unaware that Claudio has been tricked into doubting her fidelity. Occasional “modern” harmonies enliven the prevailing Romantic language. The second movement—Dogberry and Verges. March of the Watch—constitutes a mock serious march to accompany Shakespeare’s Dogberry, the pompous constable who comically confuses words (“comparisons are odorous”), his crony Verges, and the other men of the watch, who protect the good citizens of Messina. Sudden rhythmic shifts that throw the march off kilter add to the humorous effect.

The third movement, a slow, flowing waltz with Romantic modulations and sudden key shifts, accompanies an earlier “Scene in the Garden,” in which the plot unfolds to make the play’s other couple, Beatrice and Benedick, fall in love. The two targets, in turn concealed in the bushes, overhear different conversations meant for theirs ears each describing the love of one for the other. The “Masquerade” of the fourth movement actually occurs first in the events of the play described here. The second act begins with a masked ball, which provides a wonderful opportunity for word play between the confirmed bachelor Benedick and the sharp-tongued Beatrice. Korngold’s Hornpipe is a lively dance in rondo form, with a cheerful refrain containing delightful rhythmic shifts and episodes that include folk-like drones, brief touches of minor, and even a quick descending passage in whole tones. The piece ends with an unexpected humorous tag.

By Jane Vial Jaffe

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