Franz Waxman (1906-1967) was a German-American composer remembered mostly for his film scores. Having moved to Hollywood at age 28, Waxman’s oeuvre encompasses approximately 150 films, including Rebecca, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bride of Frankenstein and Sunset Boulevard, and he eventually received 2 Academy Awards for his film work. However, Waxman’s work as a classical conductor, composer and impresario remains underappreciated, and the 50th anniversary of his death provides a wonderful opportunity to explore his life and work.

Franz Waxman © John W. Waxman. All rights reserved
Franz Waxman
© John W. Waxman. All rights reserved

Waxman was born in 1906 in Königshütte, Germany (now Chorzów in Poland) to Jewish parents. Despite not being born into a musical family, he studied composition and conducting in Dresden and Berlin, starting at the age of 16. To fund his musical education, he played piano in nightclubs and bars with the Weintraub Syncopators, for which he also arranged scores. Through this work, he met Friedrich Hollaender (later Frederick Hollander), a German film composer who had written a score for von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. Hollaender hired Waxman to work at his Tingle-Tangle club and eventually asked him to orchestrate and conduct the score for The Blue Angel. However, the rise of anti-semitism in Germany resulted in Waxman’s relocation to Paris – where he was asked to compose music for Fritz Lang’s Liliom – and eventually Hollywood.

Soon after his arrival in America, Waxman was hired to score James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. This led to him being given the position of Head of Music at Universal Studios, though soon after he signed a seven-year contract with MGM at just 30 years old. During his time at MGM, he composed the scores for nearly 50 films, including Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This score cemented Waxman’s reputation in the psychological thriller genre and was later nominated for an Academy Award. Waxman left MGM in 1943 and briefly moved to Warner Bros., but he eventually became a freelance film composer. During this time, his scores for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun won Oscars in two consecutive years.

During the 50s and 60s, Waxman decreased his film score output and shifted his focus toward contemporary classical music. Some of his most notable works in this genre include the oratorio Joshua and the song cycle The Song of Terezin, as well as the now-ubiquitous Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra. Yet Waxman's involvement with classical music had begun much earlier in his career. In 1947, he founded the Los Angeles International Music Festival, which focused on music by contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Honegger, as well as concert repertoire by fellow Hollywood composers Korngold and Rózsa. Most notably, the festival premiered Stravinsky’s twelve-tone ballet Agon in 1957, with Robert Craft as conductor. Waxman died in 1967 in Los Angeles, at the age of 60.

Waxman’s Film Scores

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, is the first of four films that Waxman scored for Hitchcock. Waxman’s lush orchestration falls firmly within the neo-Romantic style epitomized in the film genre by Korngold and in the classical world by late Richard Strauss, and contributes to the Gothic atmosphere of the film. Particularly striking is the use of lower strings and horns throughout, lending majesty to the score, along with the constant presence of shifting string tremolos for suspense. The final scene is perhaps the most memorable, depicting the manor house on fire, with Waxman’s score making use of Wälkure-influenced woodwind runs and trills.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Norma Desmond, an aging film star with dreams of returning to the screen. As such, Waxman’s score spans various time periods and styles, a diversity perhaps most evident in the contrast between Norma Desmond’s lush tango theme and the brash, jazzy music associated with her much younger assistant Joe Gillis. Throughout the score, Waxman brilliantly incorporates references to Richard Strauss’ Salome, reflecting Norma Desmond’s desire to return to the screen as Salome.

Though less well known than the other two films covered here, Waxman’s score for Taras Bulba (1962) is widely considered to be one of his most creative. None other than Bernard Herrmann considered it to be one of the best film scores ever written. The plot centres around the conflict between the Cossacks and their Polish leaders, taking place on the Ukrainian steppes. Naturally, Waxman’s score has a distinctly Russian flavour, and is heavily reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, albeit with heavily expanded orchestration. The “Ride to Dubno”, which depicts the Cossacks galloping to battle, is an exhilarating, virtuosic orchestral showpiece in the manner of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” or Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, both of which were roughly contemporaneous with Taras Bulba.

Waxman’s Classical Scores

Despite the epic nature of most of his film scores, Waxman’s most substantial score may in fact be his oratorio Joshua. Composed in 1959 in memory of his wife Alice, his use of the biblical story of Joshua and the Israelites following the death of Moses is an apt one. The oratorio is scored for mezzo-soprano (Rahab), baritone (Moses and Joshua), and tenor (two spies), and featured no less than Shirley Verrett and Donald Gramm in its West Coast premiere at Waxman’s Los Angeles International Musical Festival. In constrast to his lush film scores, the orchestration is leaner and more transparent, including a meandering oboe solo that begins the work. Though the influence of Stravinsky is clear, especially in Waxman’s incorporation of a narrator, the score owes the most to Bach – especially the fugue that concludes the first part, and the highly declamatory mezzo-soprano arias.

Easily Waxman’s most frequently performed work on the concert stage, however, is his Carmen Fantasie. The work actually derives from the score to the 1946 film Humoresque, which stars Joan Crawford as a society hostess who falls for a much younger concert violinist. Performed by Isaac Stern on the soundtrack, Waxman later expanded the work into a full-length virtuoso showpiece for Jascha Heifetz. In contrast to Pablo de Sarasate’s highly structured adaptation of Bizet’s score, Waxman’s score cycles kaleidoscopically through almost all of Carmen’s major arias and scenes. In another contrast to Sarasate, who preserves all of Bizet’s original orchestration, Waxman frequently and creatively reorchestrates the score to allow the soloist greater freedom in embellishment.