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  • Stefan Riedlinger

The Adventures Of Robin Hood - Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Soundtrack Review

This week let’s talk about one of the great scores ever, a real classic and even though composed 1938, it is still one of the best soundtracks.

The composer

Along with Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is considered as one of the founders of film music. The 1938 Academy Award for his score to “The Adventures of Robin Hood” marked the first time an Oscar was awarded to the composer rather than the head of the studio music department as had occurred, for example, with Korngold's award-winning score to “Anthony Adverse” in 1936.

Korngold (1897-1957) was born in Moravia, Austria-Hungary at that time, now Czech Republic, and was because of his talent considered as a “wonder boy”. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler called Korngold a “musical Genius”. At 11, Korngold composed a ballet called “Der Schneemann” (The Snowman), wrote his first orchestral score at 14 and his first opera “Die tote Stadt” (The dead city) at the age of 23.

Even Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini praised him. The legendary theatre director Max Reinhard brought Korngold to the US, and 1938 Korngold was asked by Warner Brothers to compose the score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, staring Errol Flynn. Korngold was Jewish, so he was forced to leave Europe because of the Nazi terror.

The movie

“The Adventures of Robin Hood”, directed by legendary Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, is not only of Errol Flynn’s best movie, for me it is still the best Robin Hood adaption ever. Even after nearly 80 years, the movie is still fun and has such a great sense of humor. The cast is one of the best ever, with Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian, Basil Rathbone as the bad guy, and Claude Rains as Prince John.

With a budget of $2 Mio., this movie was the most expensive film Warner Bros. had ever made, and it was unusually extravagant for the studio which had made a name for itself in producing low-budget gangster movies. A funny story is that stunt men, padded with balsa wood on metal plates, were paid $150 per arrow for being shot by professional archer Howard Hill. Hill was cast later as the guy who got defeated by Robin at the archery tournament. To win, Robin splits the arrow of Philip of Arras, a captain of the guard under Gisbourne, who had struck the bulls eye. Buster Wiles – a stuntman and close friend of Errol Flynn – maintains that the arrow splitting stunt was carried out using an extra large arrow (for the target) and that the second arrow had a wide, flat arrowhead and was fired along a wire.

Here is a trailer:

The music

Max Reinhardt, the Austrian-born American director and theatrical producer, was very famous for his innovative stage productions and is regarded as one of the most prominent directors of German-language theatre in the early 20th century. Reinhardt, with whom Korngold had collaborated on the operettas “Die Fledermaus” asked the composer to come to Hollywood in 1934 and adapt Felix Mendelssohn's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” for his film version of the play.

In 1938, Korngold was conducting opera in Austria when he was asked by Warner Brothers to return to Hollywood and compose a score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), starring Errol Flynn. He agreed and returned by ship. When, shortly after he arrived in California, the “Anschluss” of Austria took place by the Nazis, the condition of Jews in Austria became very perilous, and Korngold stayed in America. Korngold later: "We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish."

Korngold treated each film as an “opera without singing” - each character has his or her own leitmotif such as Richard Wagner composed the music for his opera -, Korngold created an intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate score. If you listen to John Williams, you know how much he deserved Korngold’s music. Korngold intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. t is astonishing how fresh the music still sounds. Here is a suite, not in the best quality, but conducted by the composer himself:

Here a suite with better quality:

Here is the music for the fight scene at Gisbourne's castle:

And here another clip with the last fight scene. Rathbone was a world-class fighter, and the chirography is still amazingly good!

And here you see what great sense of musical comedy Korngold had. This is the scene when Robin meets Friar Tuck:

Korngold later would say the film score of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” saved his life. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, and he was later nominated for “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940).

Korngold's fame

Despite his achievements, Korngold for years attracted almost no positive critical attention, but considerable critical disdain. Then, in 1972, RCA Victor released an LP titled The Sea Hawk, featuring excerpts from Korngold's film scores performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Gerhardt and supervised by the composer's son, George. This was followed by recordings of Korngold's operas and concert works, which led to performances of his symphony and concertos, as well as other compositions.

In 1943, Korngold became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The year 1945 became an important turning point in his life. His father, who had never been entirely comfortable in Los Angeles, and who had never approved of Erich's decision to focus exclusively on film composition, died after a lengthy illness. Around the same time, the war in Europe drew to an end. Korngold himself had grown increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood and with the kinds of pictures he was being given, and he was eager to return to writing music for the concert hall and the stage.

Korngold stopped writing original film scores after 1946. His final score at Warner Bros. was for “Deception“ starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains. However, he was asked by Republic Pictures to adapt the music of Richard Wagner for “Magic Fire“ (1955), a film biography of the composer; the film was released in Trucolor and directed by William Dieterle from a script by Ewald André Dupont. Korngold wrote some original music for the film and had an unbilled cameo as the conductor Hans Richter.

While his late Romantic compositional style was considered well out of vogue at the time he died, his music has more recently undergone a reevaluation and a gradual reawakening of interest, and in my opinion, the score for “The Adventures Of Robin Hood” is film music at his best and truly amazing movie music!

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2016, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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