Franz Waxman

1906 1967

Franz Waxman

Composer

Biography

Franz Waxman was a 20th Century German-born film composer, who later settled in the United States. He was the winner of several Academy Awards and his instantly recognizable showpieceCarmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra, based on themes fromBizet’s opera is performed frequently throughout the world. In addition to composing for films and the concert stage, Waxman was a talented conductor and an avid supporter of contemporary music. Throughout his three-decade career in Hollywood, Waxman composed scores for 144 films.

Waxman was born in Konigshutte, Upper Silesia, Germany on 24 December 1906, the youngest of six children. His family was not at all musical, though he was able to start piano lessons at the age of seven. His father, who allowed his son to take lessons also pushed him to pursue a banking career, as he didn’t believe that music would pay the bills. After two and half years working at a bank as a teller, using his income for piano, harmony and composition lessons, he quit the bank and moved first to Dresden and then to Berlin to follow his passion and study music.

In order to pay for his studies, Waxman performed frequently as a pianist in nightclubs and also with the popular late-1920s jazz band the Weintraub Syncopaters. Waxman began arranging works for the band, leading to some work orchestrating early German musical films. Waxman received his first big movie assignment from one of the composers of the Weintraubs, Frederick Hollander. His task was to orchestrate and conduct Hollander’s score forThe Blue Angel, a classic film from Josef von Sternberg. The producer of the film, Erich Pommer, who also happened to be the head of the UFA Studios in Berlin, was impressed with Waxman’s work and subsequently offered him a composition assignment. He was to compose for Fritz Lang’sLilion (1933). Following the success of this composition, he received an assignment from Pommer to arrange the music for Jerome Kern’sMusic in the Air (Fox Films, 1934) in the United States.

Waxman soon became active in Hollywood, scoring his first original Hollywood film in 1935, James WhalesThe Bride of Frankenstein. His work was so well-received that he was offered a two-year contract with Universal as the head of the music department. As music director at Universal, he worked on more than 50 films, 12 of which he scored. His best-known Universal film scores includeMagnificent Obsession, Diamond Jim and The Invisible Ray.

At the end of his contract with Universal, at the age of 30, Waxman signed a seven-year contract as a composer with movie giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor (MGM). On average, Waxman scored seven films per year, including the famous Spencer Tracy filmsCaptain Courageous, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Woman of the Year.

In 1937, MGM allowed Waxman to work for David O. Selznick on his film The Young at Heart, for which he received nominations for Best Original Music and Best Score; these were to be just the first two of his twelve Academy Award Nominations. He worked again with Selznick in 1940 for the filmRebecca, receiving a third Academy Award nomination.

Waxman began working with Warner Brothers in 1943 after leaving MGM. During this period he scored the filmOld Acquaintance.

An advocate of contemporary music, Waxman founded the Los Angeles International Music Festival in 1947, a festival he would head for two decades. The festival provided the location for more than 80 world premieres and American premieres by major composers such asStravinsky, Walton, Vaughan-Williams, Shostakovich and Schoenberg.

By this point, Waxman was simultaneously running a festival, composing film and concert scores and guest conducting orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. From the filmHumoresque comes the piece Carmen Fantasie, which was performed byIsaac Stern on the soundtrack. This work has crossed over from a soundtrack to a popular work on the concert stage. It is not standard repertoire, and was even recorded by virtuoso violinistJascha Heifetz. Other concert works include theOverture for Trumpet and Orchestra based on themes from The Horn Blows at Midnight, Sinfonietta for String Orchestra and Timpani, the song cycleThe Song of Terezin and the oratorio Joshua.

Among Waxman’s many honours is his 1950 Academy Award for his score to Billy Wilder’sSunset Boulevard. He also won an Academy Award the following year for his score to George Stevens’A Place in the Sun. Waxman was the only composer for 50 years to win the Best Score award twice in a row. Other highly praised scores from the 1950s and 60s includePrince Valiant and Taras Bulba. During this period he also diversified his work and was no longer only associated with romantic films. His more epic and jazz-influenced scores includeCrime in the Streets, The Spirit of St. Louis, Sayonara, Peyton Placeand The Nun’s Story. The scores to these films were also released as soundtracks.

Other awards include the Cross of Merit from the Federal Republic of West Germany along with honorary memberships in societies such as the Mahler Society and the International Society of Arts and Letters. In addition, he received an honorary doctorate of letters and humanities from Columbia College.Franz Waxman died in Los Angeles on 24 February 1967 at the age of 60.

Waxman’s work has been praised posthumously in the form of a United States postage stamp (along withErich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin,Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman). Further, at the Waxman centenary a street was named after him in his hometown, the Franz Waxmanstrasse. Tributes to the composer were held by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Turner Classic Movies. He was also featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the first time a composer has been honoured at the museum. Waxman’s film music is also still being performed today, as evidenced by a performance from theChicago Symphony Orchestra playing the complete score to The Bride of Frankenstein live with the film.

Images courtesy of franzwaxman.com

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