Opera Guide: Korngold’s Die tote Stadt

Have you heard of Die tote Stadt? No? Well you should have. It’s about time it became Die lebende Stadt once again.


After such a lengthy article on Der Rosenkavalier, it’s about time I did something very short. This score is amaaazing, lush, lyrical, and sumptuous. Written in the period that people refer to as either the Belle Époque or the fin de siècle (depending on one’s viewpoint), the composer was twenty-three when he churned this out. Son of an eminent music critic, Julius Korngold, he was a child prodigy, proclaimed a ‘musical genius’ by Gustav Mahler. The libretto was by Paul Schott, a pseudonym for his father. The two short one-act operas (Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta) that he had already written were so popular that there was a fierce competition among German theatres for the right to premiere this work. Consequently, an unusual double premiere was arranged, in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. Korngold would later go on to be one of the founders of film music in Hollywood, but that’s not till some years after. Try his early songs (Abschiedslieder, Op. 14 – Gefasster Abschied), Violin Concerto, incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing (Garden Scene), or the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Quickly becoming an international success, Die tote Stadt fell into obscurity due to being banned by the Nazi regime. It’s gradually coming back, but it doesn’t help that the two main roles are incredibly hard to cast (I mean, the role of Paul’s like a mini-Tristan).

I find this period fascinating, both as an art historian and a musician. Turn-of-the-century Vienna. It’s an example of a time when everything came together, philosophy, music, the visual arts, drama, literature, etc. All jumbled up. (Another example might be early Florentine Renaissance.) It’s the city of Brahms, Bruckner, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Strauss, and above all, Mahler. I’m completely obsessed with Mahler. The works of Symbolist Gustav Klimt, glowing in dreamlike, golden shimmer, or Expressionist Egon Schiele’s portraits, the nude body grotesquely distorted, conjure the atmosphere of the city at the time.


I’m not really going to say much about the plot this time. Bruges is the dead city of the title and it’s about a man obsessed by a woman he loved and lost. You can read it on the Wikipedia page if you like. Coming two years after the end of World War I, I think the audience found something to identify within the narrative. The psychological facet with hallucinations surely has the influence of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.

You only need to listen to one bit of this opera to become hooked. It’s ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ (Marietta’s Lied) from Act I. Please listen to it, it’s not that long! You’ll be left wondering in no time where this music’s been all your life.

Did you like it?! Try Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, or Karan Armstrong and James King.

When you do become hooked with this kind of soundscape, Franz Schreker is another composer you might want to explore. His operas Der Schatzgräber and Die Gezeichneten ought to be coming back into fashion sometime soon. Just you wait and see.


Rene Kollo, Carol Neblett, Etc.; Bavarian Radio Chorus, Munich Radio Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf. RCA CD #87767(2)


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