The Viennese connection: Art, psychology and the dead city

Professor of Music and Cultural History at Oxford Brookes Alexandra Wilson explores the Vienna of child prodigy composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Korngold's Die tote Stadt is part of our 2022 season (performances 21, 23, 25, 27 June): find out more and book online >

The ‘dead city’ depicted in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (1920) is the Belgian city of Bruges. The young composer had never been there, just as Puccini did not visit Paris before writing La bohème. Nevertheless, Korngold had formed an impression from second-hand accounts of foggy, atmospheric canals, dark Medieval streets, and sinister cloisters, all of which seemed to form the perfect backdrop for a work concerned with themes of psychological angst. In many respects, however, the work was intimately shaped by another city: Korngold’s own hometown of Vienna.

During the 1910s, the Austrian capital underwent what we might characterise as a seismic shock. At the beginning of the decade, the city was confident, wealthy, and enjoying an astonishing cultural golden age. By the end, it was a city impoverished and reduced to its knees, the psychologically broken capital of an empire that had split apart in highly violent circumstances. In Die tote Stadt we can detect influences from the city as it had been and the city as it would, by the First World War, become.

The Newly Completed Ringstraße With Parliament Building 1900 Photographed From The Burgtheater

The newly completed Ringstrasse with parliament building (1900), photographed from the Burgtheater

The very fact that Korngold was writing an opera at such a young age – he began work on it in 1916, aged 19 – was a result of the privileged Viennese upbringing that he had enjoyed. The city, at the turn of the twentieth century, had an incredibly rich musical culture. The thriving upper-middle classes had an insatiable appetite for music and drama. New opera houses and concert halls were built alongside museums, universities, and civic buildings as part of the regeneration of the city that had taken place in the late nineteenth century with the construction of the Ringstrasse.

As the son of one of the most prominent music critics in the city, Julius Korngold, the young Erich Korngold was able to immerse himself in the city’s vibrant musical life. With his parents, he attended and, indeed, performed at regular musical salons organised by the city’s wealthy cultural patrons, where he met artistic figures such as Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka. His father arranged for some of his music to be played to none other than Gustav Mahler, who hailed the boy as a genius. He had lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Puccini, visiting the city for the premieres of some of his operas, became a family friend. Musically, Die tote Stadt bears traces of the influence of all these composers and more. The child prodigy was soon being discussed in all the city’s most fashionable coffee houses.

The fact that Korngold came to write Die tote Stadt was also down to his father’s contacts. Julius had a chance encounter in the street with the playwright Siegfried Trebitsch. The latter was in the process of translating into German a play by the Belgian Symbolist writer, Georges Rodenbach, which was in turn based upon his novel Bruges-la-Morte. Father and son would work on the libretto for the opera together, though they concealed the fact, making up the pseudonym ‘Paul Schott’ for an imaginary librettist, so as to avoid any hostility or suggestions of nepotism from Julius’s fellow critics.

Korngold Family

Erich Korngold with his parents Julius and Josefine in 1911

Die tote Stadt deals with themes that had been much discussed and explored by artists and thinkers in pre-War Vienna. Whereas in Rodenbach’s novel, the protagonist kills the unfortunate young woman who so resembles his dead wife, Korngold’s more sympathetic central character experiences the action merely in a dream sequence and is finally able to lay his obsession with his dead wife to rest. There had, of course, been much talk of dreams in early twentieth-century Vienna since the publication at the turn of the century of Freud’s Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams). Viennese society was abuzz with conversation about what dreams meant, and what they could reveal about unconscious impulses and the ways in which we are conditioned by feeling and instinct.

During the 1900s, Freud invited physicians and other intellectuals who had expressed an interest in his work to attend a weekly discussion group at his apartment. The worlds of psychoanalysis and music overlapped via the figure of Max Graf, a critic colleague of Julius Korngold and professor of music at the Vienna Academy of Music, whose wife and son were undergoing treatment from Freud. Korngold senior is also likely to have encountered Freud’s ideas after the latter contributed to the Neue Freie Presse, the newspaper for which he worked as critic.

Ball At Vienna City Hall With Mayor Karl Lueger Wilhelm Gause 1904

Ball at Vienna city hall with mayor Karl Lueger (Wilhelm Gause 1904)

The workings of the inner psyche soon found their way into contemporary artistic expression. Viennese Expressionist paintings dealt frequently with the theme of psychologically tormented masculinity, which had particular resonance for Die tote Stadt’s Paul. Egon Schiele’s self-portraits depict the male body as elongated, distorted and tense, and in Oskar Kokoschka’s Die Windsbraut (The Bride of the Wind), expressive brushwork captures a sense of inner male angst. In addition to painting, Kokoschka was the author of a controversial play entitled Murderer, The Hope of Women, whose violent impulses towards women also find an echo in Korngold’s opera.

Many Viennese artists and intellectuals were captivated by a misogynist tract by the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger entitled Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), which had been published in 1903. Troubled by the threat of female emancipation, Weininger argued that men should liberate themselves from sexually predatory women, whom he saw as incapable of attaining moral, intellectual, or spiritual enlightenment. Love was the preserve of rational man – and experienced in its highest form in the absence of the beloved (an idea manifested in Korngold’s opera in Paul’s obsessive, idealised love for his dead wife, Marie). Woman, on the other hand, was entirely defined, according to Weininger, by a destructive sensuality (as represented in the opera by Marietta). Every angst-ridden teenager in 1910s Vienna was reading Weininger’s book – as well as leading cultural figures such as Wittgenstein and Schoenberg. Korngold certainly would have known of it, and might well have read it. But as musicologist Ben Winters argues, in waking from his dream, Korngold’s Paul liberates himself from the Weiningerian caricatures of womanhood that appear within it.

The dichotomy between the femme fatale and the femme fragile – the Madonna / whore complex – had long, pan-European historical roots but was a subject of particular interest to Viennese authors and playwrights of this period. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for example, best remembered today as Strauss’s librettist, worked during the 1900s and 1910s on a novel called Andreas, concerning a sexually anxious young man who can only see women in such polarised terms. The novel was not published until well after Die tote Stadt received its premiere in 1920 and Korngold could not have read it. But the fact that both men were dealing with such similar themes concurrently indicates their potency in the contemporary cultural ether.

Book Cover Design By Fernand Khnopff For Bruges La Morte By Georges Rodenbach

Book cover design by Fernand Khnopff for Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Women’s hair and its seductive power was a theme widely explored by the Franco-Belgian Symbolist movement of which Rodenbach was a member. (Think also of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which formed the basis for Debussy’s opera of the same name.) But long hair was also a preoccupation of Austrian artists and authors of this period, many taking inspiration from the legend of Lady Godiva subject or, indeed, the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel. Most obviously one thinks of Gustav Klimt, in whose richly embellished paintings long flowing hair embodies the sensuality of the femme fatale. In an artistic culture obsessed with sexuality, death and hair, it is not insignificant that in Die tote Stadt the central protagonist not only becomes obsessed with his dead wife’s plait but uses it as the weapon with which to strangle her unwitting rival.

By the time Korngold began work on Die tote Stadt in 1916, Austria was already at war; the young composer had been spared active service and remained in Vienna as a regimental director of music. Over the course of the conflict, and in the immediate aftermath – precisely the period when Korngold was writing his opera – Vienna would become a shadow of its former self, plagued by high inflation and unemployment, political unrest, and for many members of the population, near-starvation. The end of the war would see the collapse and exile of the Habsburg monarchy and the dramatic break-up of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. The shock of all this was profound, and surely exacerbated by the contrast with Vienna’s halcyon pre-War days. In this context, the idea of a ‘dead city’ suddenly seemed highly fitting.

The opera deals, too, with the idea of mourning – and, indeed, the perils of mourning to excess. Vienna was a city grieving not only for the citizens it had lost – in war, from the Spanish flu pandemic, and from destitution and starvation – but for its own sense of self, its pre-war identity, and its former power and confidence. The city, like Korngold’s Paul, had to find ways to move on from the past. The era of prosperity, of horse-drawn carriages, of women in white dresses with parasols, of artistic soirées had – like Paul’s happy, much-idealised marriage – decisively gone. Vienna must have found much that was resonant indeed in Die tote Stadt.

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Alexandra Wilson is Professor of Music and Cultural History at Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of four books: The Puccini Problem: Opera Nationalism and Modernity; Opera: A Beginner’s Guide; Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain; and Puccini’s La bohème.

Acd Korngold 2400 900

Die tote Stadt (21, 23, 25, 27 June 2022)

Korngold's remarkable Die tote Stadt is part of our 2022 season. Find out more and book online >