Sunday, 4 December 2016


Erich Wolfgang Korngold
It was on this December day in 1920 that Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold debuted his 3-act opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) in eodem tempore at Hamburg’s Stadttheater[1] and the Theater in der Glockengasse[2] in Cologne, Germany - a rare occasion for any composer of note - made possible thanks in part to the smashing success of Erich’s previous two operas (Der Ring des Polykrate and Violanta), and the rumored subject matter of the work itself (the bereaved overcoming grief). 

Die Tote Stadt would premiere just after the fallout from WWI, and audiences and fans of the composer were only too eager to see exaggerated visions of themselves on stage in what they must have felt was a safe and dignified way to cope with their own losses and begin to deal their own anger and grief.

Erich penned the libretto for Die Tote Stadt alongside his father Julius under the pseudonym Paul Schott after the father Korngold was approached with both subject matter and a request to create an opera by the Austrian playwright and close friend Siegfried Trebitsch, who had recently translated for the stage Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach’s play (an adaptation of the latters own novel Bruges-la-Morte (The dead [city of] Bruges) into German and wished to see the famously sordid tale take on an operatic format.

Julius would present the idea to Erich, for which he received a most favorable reception, and the two would sit to pen the libretto for the opera, based largely on Rodenbach’s original story, which tells of a bereaved widower, so overcome by grief, he falls into a state of depressed stagnation – rarely leaving his house, afraid to part - even for a moment - with the relics his beloved left behind: her letters, her clothes – even a lock of hair...

 A young Erich, right, flanked by his mother and
 father, Julius Korngold (far left).
that is until he meets Marietta – a dead ringer (pun intended) for his young wife Marie, and takes her home with him in an effort to assuage the many requests of his good friend Frank, who urges the broken widower to move on. The young seductress only serves to further confuse the emotions of the widower Paul - a crime for which she will pay the ultimate price: in both novel and opera, fate is rendered most unkind to poor Marietta (Jane Scott in the novel), who winds up throttled to death (thankfully for the young coquette the Korngolds' version of her murder takes place in one of the widowers’ twisted visions).

Die Tote Stadt would prove to be an even greater success than Erich’s previous two revered operas, and would be performed at the most prestigious opera houses across the globe in an impressively short time span of just under two years following its unprecedented double premiere in Germany in 1920.

The opera – and it’s standout aria "Glück das mir verblieb" - sung by both Marietta (as a means to seduce Paul in the opera’s first act), and by the widower himself as he reminisces over his “Temple of Memories” in the concluding act – remain a global favorite, even surviving a forced hiatus in it’s homeland and in annexed Austria (Erich's place of birth) during and after the second world war when the opera – and it’s Jewish composer - were labeled “degenerate music” by the ruling Nazi Régime.

Die Tote Stadt would not be revived in Austria until 1967, when it premiered at the Vienna Volksoper.

Fortunately for fans of Korngold around the globe, it would prove to be a mainstay in the worldwide operatic repertoire. 

Enjoy below a stunning rendition of Glück das mir verblieb by the Flemish tenor Jozef Sterkens (sung in Dutch):

Did You Know?

Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte, first published in 1892, is notable for being the first book of fiction to be illustrated with photographs. The 35 half-tone reproduction prints were supplied by Paris image banks J. Lévy & Co. and Neurdein Frères. Curiously, the photographs would disappear from later editions until the late twentieth century, when they appeared, in full, in a 1998 edition.

It is widely lauded amongst literary circles for being the “archetypal” Symbolist novel.

Read Rodenbach's epic work at for free at Project Gutenberg:

[1]Conducted by Egon Pollak
[2]Conducted by Otto Klemperer


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