Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Symphony in F sharp major, Op. 40

    Description by Tim Mahon

    The only work in true symphonic form extant in Korngold's catalog, the F sharp Symphony is Korngold's greatest post-war work, though the origins of it date back as far as 1919. The key signature is a favorite Korngold one but highly unusual for a contemporary symphony -- only Messiaen's Turangalila and Mahler's draft of the Tenth Symphony spring to mind -- and he keeps it wavering between minor and major modes throughout the work.

    Scored for a large orchestra including piano, marimba, harp and celeste plus an expanded percussion section, the music is dramatic and tense, bitter and terse, incisive and insightful. To an extent it can be seen as Korngold's 'last gasp' attempt to counter, with a late Romantic symphonic work, the encroachment of atonality and serialism which he saw as "...the ultimate disaster for the art of music." The opening is as 'in your face' and abrupt as anything he ever wrote and the first movement is often referred to by critics as Korngold's own 'danse macabre.' Full of tension and brilliant orchestral color, the symphony was a critical success, Bruno Walter, for example, finding it to be "...of real musical substance, masterfully written, modern in language and yet generally accessible."

    Korngold had trouble getting it staged, however, and it would only be performed once before he died, in a Vienna Radio broadcast in October 1954. So little rehearsal time was available that the broadcast and recording turned into a disaster, despite the composer's fervent pleas that it be postponed. He also wanted the recordings erased, complaining the tape hiss was louder than the trumpets! Only since the composer's death in 1957 has the work begun to be appreciated for the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. As conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos said in 1959 "My whole life I have searched for the ideal modern work. I have found it in this symphony."

    Korngold's symphony, which he considered to be among his most important works, is replete with references to the work he carried out in Hollywood, especially the scores for Anthony Adverse, Captain Blood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, from which the anguished main theme of the doomed lovers is taken to add pathos to the symphony. The United States in general played an important part in Korngold's musical life, but more specifically he credited America with saving his life, and those of his family, in the run up to the outbreak of war. Consequently he dedicated this important work towards end of his life to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


    1. Moderato, ma energico
    2. Scherzo. Allegro molto - Trio. Molto meno (tranquillo)
    3. Adagio. Lento
    4. Finale. Allegro

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2011 Ondine ODE1182
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099909468320
    2010 PentaTone Classics 5186373
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 4778114
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921765
    2007 Chandos Classics 10431
    2005 Warner Classics
    1998 CPO 999150
    1997 EMI Music Distribution 56169
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon 453436
    1993 CPO 999146
    1993 Varèse Sarabande 5346
    1993 Chandos 9171
    McGill 750043
    EMI Classics 86101