When Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) debuted in December 1920, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was only 23. Mahler called him a genius at age 10 after hearing him play, while Puccini was a fan of the Brno-born prodigy too, saying “He has so much talent he could easily give half away—and still have enough left for himself.” Coupled with this natural talent was the fortune of being bred in Vienna, the city that Daily Telegraph writer Ivan Hewett has called “the nerve-centre of Western music.”
At the time of Korngold’s birth (1897), Vienna was unquestionably Central Europe’s epicenter of culture. Not only was Vienna home to the emerging trends of Freudian psychoanalysis and the Secession movement in the arts, but it was also the last bastion of an older form of European conservatism. As the primary capital of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna exuded the Habsburg traditions like no other city. From baroque Catholicism to the gentleman emperor Franz Joseph I, the Vienna that Korngold knew as a child must have seemed like a fantasy world full of radiant splendor and ceaselessly cultured manners.
Some of this mystique rubbed off on the budding Korngold, who spent a great deal of his professional career trying to recapture snatches of “Old Vienna.” As such, waltzes, which were considered unfashionable by the second decade of the 20th century, populate many of his arrangements, while Die tote Stadt’s theme of a melancholic longing for the dead past seems like an almost too easy allegory for Korngold and other Viennese dreamers in the post-World War I wreckage of the new Austria.
A large part of this nostalgia could also be considered a supreme form of navel-gazing. Like his contemporaries Franz Kafka and H.P. Lovecraft, Korngold grew up a sheltered child with little regard for the world around him. His life and his music seem to reflect this deep attachment to dreams, and it’s no wonder that his most famous play is about a man being consumed by his own imagination.
Based on a symbolist novel by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, Die tote Stadt deals with a lonely man named Paul who is still grappling with the death of his beloved wife Marie. In his home he has built a “Temple of Memories” dedicated to her ghost, and from a portrait to a lock of hair, Paul’s Bruges is truly a city of the dead. The opera’s action begins when Paul’s friend Frank urges him to move on with his life. After all, Marie, he tells Paul, would want him to not obsess over her, especially after her blissful parting from this mortal coil.
Frank’s sensible arguments put Paul into a frenzy, with the grieving man swearing that Marie is still indeed alive. In fact, Paul claims to have seen her on the streets of Bruges. Furthermore, he has invited her to his apartment.
Marie’s substitute is the beautiful dancer Marietta, who, after growing uneasy with Paul’s odd behavior, attempts to seduce the widower with her singing and dancing. Caught between his newfound urges for Marietta and his sense of loyalty to Marie, Paul collapses in a chair due to his moral and emotional exhaustion. Once in the chair, Paul begins to have visions, one of which is of Marie’s ghostly body stepping out from her portrait. Marie reminds Paul to not forget her, all the while she tells him to carry on with his life.
For the remainder of the opera, Paul’s hallucinatory state takes over Die tote Stadt, and these scenes run the gamut between slightly whimsical to downright frightening. In one, after he has embraced Marietta as his new love, the pair observe a religious procession taking place on the street below Paul’s window. Before long, Paul begins to see the procession in his own home with Marietta as the centerpiece.
As Paul’s dreams continue, the line between reality and fantasy crumble, thus causing both the viewer and Paul to question their own grasp on sanity. And when Marietta uses Marie’s lock of hair to taunt her agitated lover, Paul uses the object to strangle Marietta. In death, Marietta has now become Marie, and when Paul holds her dead body in his heads, he utters a solemn recognition that both his wife and lover are victims of the same fate.
As trite as it might sound, this is where Paul wakes up. Die tote Stadt reveals itself to be mostly a dream narrative. After becoming fully aware of the power of his own nightmares, Paul decides to leave Bruges for good. He abandons his “Temple of Memories” and leaves Marie to her own peaceful afterlife.
Musically speaking, Die tote Stadt is emblematic of what even then was a dying art—the Romantic composition. Critics in his own day compared Korngold to other Romantic holdouts such as Richard Strauss and Mahler, and these criticisms have survived over the years. As a result, Korngold’s stage music often gets treated as an unfavorable second to his film scores, which, to be fair, are some of classic Hollywood’s greatest. The American Film Institute even ranked his score for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as the 11th greatest film score of all time.
In an odd circle, Korngold’s stage music, which not only brought him his initial fame but also his first taste of critical disapproval, has found a second life in cinema after the composer’s death. In particular, Die tote Stadt’s gorgeous duet “Glück das mir verblieb” has been used in several films, most notably The Big Lebowski.
It’s not hard to see why Korngold and Die tote Stadt, which to modern viewers reads like a precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, has undergone a resurgence as of late. From revival performances in New York and Dallas to critical appraisals in The Wall Street Journal, Die tote Stadt is currently living in its second act as a piece of art that was famously banned by the Nazis. Their reasons? Besides Korngold’s Jewish background, Die tote Stadt also bears the influence of Sigmund Freud and his theories about the powerful subconscious. Paul is living in a Freudian hell throughout Die tote Stadt, and such angst-ridden characters were not seen as acceptable for National Socialism.
There could be yet another explanation for the antipathy of the Nazis. Considering that it debuted in 1920, Die tote Stadt’s examination of painful memories and the emotional problems associated with the loss of loved ones would have been seen in light of World War I. For Korngold and other Austrians, the First World War represented the final stake in the heart of Habsburg civilization. In its wake came competing national identities, communism, socialism, and, most potently, fascism. In many ways, Die tote Stadt is one of the last gasps of Old Vienna and Old Austria. As conservatives, we can appreciate the culture that raised Friedrich Hayek, Carl Menger, and Ludwig von Mises, and therefore we can appreciate the awesome majesty of Die tote Stadt.
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