Although it is rarely performed today, The Snowman had a spectacular première and was an enormously popular piece among early 20th-century orchestral compositions. Originally written for piano, The Snowman was a programmatic composition based upon a commedia dell’arte scenario written by the composer’s father.
The opening scene is of a town square in which the large picture window of Pantalon’s home can be seen. Columbine, Pantalon’s niece, can be seen through the window. The musician Pierrot tries to serenade Columbine, but he is rebuffed by Pantalon. Pierrot then buys a life-sized Father Christmas as a gift for Columbine. He tries to have the gift delivered to Columbine, but children prevent this by throwing snowballs. The children then build a snowman outside of Columbine’s window.
Pierrot then puts on a snowman’s costume and takes the place of the snowman that the children built. Columbine stares longingly at the snowman, and an irritated Pantalon requests the snowman to come into the house. Pierrot does so and terrifies the servants. Pantalon, having quickly drunk an entire bottle of wine, now sees multiple snowmen. He eventually falls asleep, and Columbine and Pierrot then declare their love and run away. When Pantalon awakes he chases after the couple, but the real snowman has been put back into place in the yard. Enraged, Pantalon then tears the snowman into hundreds of pieces while the children dance around in a mocking fashion.
The score of The Snowman was published by Universal Edition with the proviso that it not be released for public performance and that it would be distributed only to a small number of musicians and composers. Julius Korngold prohibited public distribution of his son’s compositions because he was worried that his enemies would try to attack his son’s music as a way to get back at his critical stances. Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Giocomo Puccini among others praised the composition and declared Korngold to be the foremost musical Wunderkind of his generation.
Universal Edition, however, released The Snowman to the public, and the work came to the attention of the Baroness von Bienerth, the wife of the Prime Minister. She requested a performance of the work for a reception she was hosting at the ministerial palace. The first performance of The Snowman in a four-hand piano version with violin obbligato, then, took place under these auspices on 14 April 1910. Korngold and Richard Pahlen performed the piano parts with Fritz Brunner on violin along with dancers from the Imperial Ballet. The work was so well received that it was performed again on 26 April 1910 at a benefit concert for the Emperor Franz Josef Home for Widows and orphans. Here the work was heard by a sold-out audience of the elite of Viennese society. An invitation soon followed to perform an orchestral version of the work at a concert celebrating the name day of the Emperor Franz Josef.
Although Korngold was by this time an experienced and gifted composer, he had just begun the study of orchestration with Zemlinsky and was not experienced enough to undertake the scoring of the composition for full orchestra. Therefore, it was decided that Zemlinsky would orchestrate the work himself. The première of the orchestral version of The Snowman occurred on 4 October 1910 at the Vienna Opera House and was an unqualified artistic and critical success. Interestingly enough, the orchestra was conducted by Felix von Weingartner, Mahler's successor at the Vienna State Opera and a conductor who had felt the critical wrath of Julius Korngold. Nevertheless, Weingartner was an early champion of Erich Korngold's music. The principal ballet roles were performed at the premiere by Louise Wopalensky (Columbine) and Karl Godlewsky (Pierrot), the latter also serving as choreographer.
From a musical standpoint, The Snowman is well within the stylistic confines of late Romanticism, and is heavily indebted to Viennese dance music. As would be expected in a post-Wagnerian programmatic composition, the work is highly structured around leitmotivs. In the scenario to the ballet, Pierrot is depicted as playing a violin, and this, of course, is represented by the lengthy violin solos contained in the score.
The Snowman helped to establish Korngold as a major composer and led to numerous commissions and performing and conducting opportunities. The work was performed many times until the political turmoil of the 1930s. Korngold had begun working in Hollywood as early as 1934, but always returned to his home base in Vienna. Just a few weeks prior to the Nazi Anschluss of Austria, Korngold received an invitation for an extended amount of film work in Hollywood. Because of this, Korngold and his family escaped the tragic fate of the vast majority of Austria's Jewish population. During the Nazi period, performances of Korngold’s music (along with that of his teacher Zemlinsky) were banned as Entartete Musik (degenerate music). Korngold continued to achieve great success in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
After the Second World War, the composer returned periodically to Europe in hopes of re-establishing his presence as a “serious” composer; however, Korngold, who in the 1920s had had the occasional reputation as being among the musical avant-garde, now found himself to be regarded as a respected, but somewhat dated, presence on the musical scene.
Korngold's critical reputation has been resurrected in recent decades, especially since the revival of his best known opera, Die tote Stadt [The Dead City] in the early 1980s. A thriving Korngold Society now exists to perpetuate the memory of the composer and to promote the performance and dissemination of his music. Several recent recordings of The Snowman, in both its piano and orchestral versions, are in print assuring that this youthful, but remarkably mature, work by one of the 20th century's greatest composers will continue to hold a place in the symphonic and keyboard repertories.
William Grim, 2005
From the preface of the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score.
For the Repertoire Explorer Miniature Score please contact Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich.