Remembering Film Music Legend Franz Waxman

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  December 18, 2018

Earlier this year, the International Film Music Critics Association bestowed its Best Film Music Compilation Album award on Captains Courageous: The Franz Waxman Collection. Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Waxman’s passing, the set was a long overdue monument to the composer of some of the greatest music ever written for the silver screen, including the scores to Bride of Frankenstein, Captains Courageous, Woman of the Year, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun and Taras Bulba. Waxman's extensive work in film - over 150 scores over 30+ years - yielded back-to-back Oscars, in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard and in 1951 for A Place in the Sun.

Like many of the film music legends who emigrated to the United States from Europe before WWII (e.g. Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin), Waxman was well-studied in classical music traditions. He maintained a distinguished parallel career as a composer of concert works, and in 1947 founded the Los Angeles Music Festival, a celebrated series of concerts that showcased contemporary works alongside the standard classical repertory. The Festival was held annually for 20 years, and given Waxman’s essential role in its success, it was more than fitting that the final piece performed at the closing series in 1966 was his orchestral song cycle, The Song of Terezin, based on poetry written by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during WWII.

December 24 would be Franz Waxman’s 112th birthday. To celebrate this titan of film music, we are proud to reprint excerpts from our 2006 interview with his son John Waxman, guardian of his father's catalogue through his company, Themes & Variations and Fidelio Music Publishing Company. You can also listen to selections from Waxman’s vast catalog below.

********

Judging from the incredible variety of movies in your father's filmography, he was a natural film composer. Was there a particular genre he was best at?

My father was good at every genre. Bride of Frankenstein is different from The Philadelphia Story, as is Rebecca from Peyton Place. The best example is the year 1957 - he did Sayonara, Peyton Place, Spirit of St. Louis and Love in the Afternoon. A tremendous variety of music in films.

Your Dad went into film scoring at a young age.

He studied music in Berlin; to support himself, he got a job playing at Frederick Hollander's Tingle Tangle Club - a nightclub that specialized in contemporary satire on politics and social life. Hollander was a director and prolific songwriter - he got a job for scoring The Blue Angel but didn't know how to orchestrate - he hired my dad to orchestrate the score for the movie. That got him into UFA, the equivalent to MGM of pre-war German films. Over the next three years, he scored a half dozen German musicals. He owed his big break to Hollander.

Then your father went to America, like so many others who had no choice. Did the fact that there were so many European talents in Hollywood feed on itself in a way?

It did. I've been working on a PBS documentary, Exiles in Hollywood, which is about that - their influence on Hollywood films. There were so many writers, directors and composers who came over, among them Steiner, Korngold, Kaper, and Gold. My father met a director, James Whale, who said he was looking all over the world for him because he saw Lilliom, which dad had scored, and he asked if my dad would be interested in scoring a movie for him, The Bride of Frankenstein.

That's the mother of science fiction scores.

Danny Elfman once told me what my father, and Max Steiner, with King Kong, were doing at that time was writing music that was original because no one had composed in the science fiction genre before. The composers had their own creative freedom to see what worked best.

Franz Waxman, Gene Kelly
Franz Waxman accepts the Oscar for his score to Sunset Boulevard from Gene Kelly in 1951

He worked on so many films. Did he have favorites among his scores?

He was really proud of the score for Bride of Frankenstein because it was his first Hollywood movie. Rebecca was a favorite for sure - he said it was an amazing picture. And Taras Bulba, a film about Russian history. Incidentally, my father was the first American conductor to be invited to conduct orchestras in the Soviet Union. Taras Bulba was his twelfth and last Academy Award Nomination in 1962. He was actually supposed to do the score to Mutiny on the Bounty, and Bronislau Kaper was supposed to do Taras Bulba. Their schedules were conflicting, so they traded assignments.

Was there competition between these composers, or were they supportive of one another because there were so many films being made?

They were competitive on one level, but during the days of the studio system they would have lunch together every day - for example, all the people who worked with my father at Fox studios: (Alfred) Newman, (Bernard) Herrmann, (David) Raksin, (Hugo) Friedhofer, (Alex) North, (Edward) Powell and (Cyril) Mockridge.

When you start out with The Bride of Frankenstein, you're going to keep getting jobs.

Universal set my father up when was 29 years old as a music supervisor. A year and a half later he went to MGM to work solely as a composer. He was loaned to David O. Selznick for Rebecca in 1939. In 1943, he moved to Warner Bros. He became a freelancer in 1949.

What do you think his place is in film music?

My dad was one of six composers who were honored with postage stamps in 1999. Those six composers (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin) were the musicians who created the soundtrack of our lives, and the movies they scored still have relevance and hold importance today. The vast catalog of these six composers is truly American music, even though some of them came from Europe. It didn't matter because they were writing music about world issues in America.

While working as the pianist in the Weintraub Syncopators, a Berlin-based jazz group, my father was exposed to the music of Bix Beiderbecke back in the 1930s. So it isn't strange that the score to A Place in the Sun, which was dad's second Oscar in 1951, is one of the first jazz film scores.

In a chapter of Cameron Crowe's book, The Interviews with Billy Wilder, Crowe asked directors about lesser known Wilder films, and Steven Spielberg said his favorite was Spirit of Saint Louis, and he whistled my dad's theme during the interview. The music has carried over to the next generation of directors and composers.

It's interesting that someone like your father would have time to write concert works on the side, like his oratorios, Joshua and Song of Terezin.

He consciously separated himself from Hollywood because he felt he needed space to write concert music. He also had a house in New York, which is where he wrote a lot of concert music too. He had this whole other life in classical music. He founded, underwrote and, for 20 years, directed the Los Angeles Music Festival. It was an acclaimed annual series of concerts that presented over 70 world, American and West Coast premieres of works by Mahler, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Britten and Harris.

********

Learn more about Franz Waxman at franzwaxman.com

Click here to find out more about Captains Courageous: The Franz Waxman Collection, a 4-CD 5-hour DVD of 11 original soundtrack recordings from 1936-1960.

The Franz Waxman Collection collects 40 piano/vocal arrangements of selections from Waxman’s film scores. It’s available now from Hal Leonard.

Roven Records recently released Who Wants Love, a CD of Waxman’s cabaret songs sung by Robert Osborne, with Richard Gordon at the piano.

Waxman’s scores to Peyton Place and Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man are now available to hear for the first time since the early 1960s, on a remastered CD set from La-La Land.

Listen to “Sound of Cinema: Franz Waxman,” a two-part series produced by BBC Radio 3.