Symphony in F-Sharp op. 40/Korngold

January 23, 2012

Of the many film composers who also wrote classical music Korngold certainly is close to the top of the list along with Vaughan Williams, Miklos Rozsa, and Dimitri Shostakovich. These composers seem to have been at home with either the silver screen or the concert hall. This was especially true of Korngold who saw fit to borrow his film material and use it in his classical material or the other way around. Having recently completed a review of Battle of Neverta (1969), I found that Bernard Herrmann did the very same thing using a section of his symphony and part of his clarinet quintet.

Sea Hawk Suite (1940) is an eight minute compilation that highlights the major themes including the main title, reunion (love theme), and finale. This suite is likely in the library of many pop orchestras and has been performed by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra and his now legendary series of RCA recordings truly highlighting the golden age of film music. The opening with the horns announcing something truly majestic is superbly performed by the brass section of the Oregon Symphony. This fanfare has to rank with some of the finest in the history of classical music! The fanfare theme leads to another sweeping version of the love theme before the fanfare returns which leads us to the middle section which is further treatment of the love theme. Brendan Carroll calls it erotic and I certainly can’t argue the finale is a return to the rousing main title ending the suite.


After Korngold suffered a major heart attack he recuperated in Canada and it was at this time he began work on his 54 minute Symphony in F-Sharp masterpiece. Completed in 1952 it was first performed in 1954 by the Austrian State Symphony. The performance was so poor Korngold, who was present in the audience, asked that the tapes be destroyed! It wasn’t until 1972 that Rudolph Kempe and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the work on RCA with son George Korngold producing. This recording is still available on the Varese Sarabande label (VSD5346) if you’re interested in an archival recording.

Symphony in F-Sharp, op. 40

1… Moderato ma energico (15:20) begins like it is going to be a dissonant piece with two dissonant notes until a solo clarinet offers a theme with harmony still being the two dissonant notes. The string section takes over the dark complex melody with horns calling out play a role in the orchestration. The sound is Mahler like with horns sounding like Bruckner. As the movement continues there is further conflict between strings and the horns complement this in the harmony. There is a brief pause from the darkness as a romantic love theme not unlike Sea Hawk emerges. It is peaceful and very tranquil seemingly out of place. The movement ends as it begins with low rumbling from the lower register with the clarinet again.

2… Scherzo: Allegro molto (10:33) a fluttering flute and agitated strings begin the work. A theme is introduced that could easily be conceived as Star Wars material from the majestic horns. Listening to this passage one can certainly appreciate the influence he had on John Williams. There is a pause and the movement takes a second direction. Softly played and thought provoking it ends with a return to the frantic scherzo and the horn theme before it concludes with a brief return to the quiet melody and then ending abruptly like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

3… Adagio: Lento (16:57) is very much in the category of a funeral march, a solemn movement. It is centered on a three note motif that is allowed to fully develop with a series of variations which came from his score The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. This is a movement which will bring Gustav Mahler to mind. Tragic comes to mind when you listen to this movement.

4… Finale:  Allegro (11:04) just when you settled into tragedy the finale begins with a bright and very lively melody from the fluttering flute. It has a traditional sound and if you think you’ve heard the theme before you’re correct as it came from Kings Row. As part of the last part of the movement Korngold returns to the mystery and intrigue of the first movement before he ends the work with a jubilant conclusion.


One could easily draw the conclusion that this was written in the late 19th century. After the somewhat atonal beginning this is a work that draws upon the Austrian birth of Korngold. There is a flavor of Mahler, Strauss, Bruckner, and references to his work for the silver screen. While there are now several recordings available of this fine work you’ll find none better than James DePriest and the Oregon Symphony. The digital recording is crystal clear with excellent ambience. As a bonus you also get Sea Hawk which may lead you to the complete recording of this work on Naxos.



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